Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
I suspect like most good Episcopalians, apocalyptic literature and signs of the end of the world make me a little anxious. To be honest, the other morning when I began exploring the texts for today’s sermon, I just wanted to crawl back into bed. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I have always been fearful of what “The Rapture” would be like and if I would be one of the unlucky ones to be left behind on the earth as it met its doom.[i] Rather, I prefer a good uplifting message. As a good Anglo-Catholic, I love the passages in Revelation chapter five about the glorious worship in heaven by the elders and angels that number myriads and myriads singing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! Amen!’[ii] But all the stuff about wars, beasts, whores, plagues, famine, death, dragons, and creatures that I imagine resemble the Nazgul from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, you can keep that. For me it is what nightmares are made of. So what are we to make of our lections this morning?
In our gospel lesson from Mark, in a section from the thirteenth chapter known as “the little apocalypse,” we observe a disciple of Jesus marveling at the magnificence of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Considering the architectural feats that surround us in our modern age, this disciples’ astonishment might be lost on us. But it is important to note that the second Temple, completed by Herod the Great, was constructed on a scale comparable with the great Pyramids of Egypt. Part of Herod’s legacy was the massive building projects he undertook during his reign: the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, the Herodium, and the second Temple.[iii] How the large stones that made up the supporting walls of the Temple were placed atop each other without the help of machinery we would use today, is an architectural wonder! “Look teacher,”the disciple says, “what large stones and what large buildings!” When Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” his disciples are stupefied. How could that be possible? Certainly, nothing could bring down this monstrosity. Perhaps we can relate to this when we remember that fateful September day in 2001, when we witnessed the twin towers of the World Trade Center topple to the ground. Who could have predicted that, and who would have ever believed that prediction?
There is a kind of gentleness that is intuitive to us, or is called forth naturally from us, in certain situations. You may recall the first time you held a baby: the way your body responded to one tinier and less durable than yours with a gentle, protecting strength. Or the first time you threaded a kneedle, or placed something under a microscope, or gave someone a kiss. I remember my first childhood pet, a chameleon with skin that changed colors and eyes that swiveled in all directions. Though I gave him the rather ungentle name Thunder, I knew instinctively how gentle I needed to be as his tiny toes and delicate tail gripped my outstretched fingers. Although my heart raced, my breath became slower, my attention focused, and my senses became attuned,for the first time, to the fragile life of another.
Throughout Lent and Easter tide this year, I’ve been praying with literature devoted to the Five Wounds of Christ. The meditative remembrance of Christ’s Passion was a profoundly meaningful practice in the spiritual lives of Medieval Christians, especially in England, and by the fourteenth century the visions and writings of saints steeped in such meditation concentrated with special intensity on the Five Wounds inflicted upon Christ’s Body: the nail holes in his right and left wrists, both of his feet, and the spear-wound in his side. These holy men and women saw the wounds of Jesus not as repugnant scars but as precious insignia testifying to the depths of God’s Love,as floodgates of Christ’s healing lifeblood, and as portals into the mysteries of Heaven. The seeds of such imagery are found in the Resurrection appearances in the gospels of Luke and John. When Jesus appears in the upper room, the disciple’s natural response is shock and fear, confusion and disbelief. Amid this rush of complex emotions, these distinctive marks clarify their vision and melt their hearts as they recognize the impossible: this is their Teacher, Friend, and Lord, crucified-and-risen.
The crowds only grow, desperate to hear Jesus and to experience his help and healing. The crowds only grow. And what does Jesus do? It’s quite revealing. He withdraws. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last that he withdraws. Jesus would minister mightily, and then he would withdraw to deserted places – note the plural: deserted places – and he would pray. The cry is not the call. The cry for help is not one-in-the-same with our call to respond. It certainly was not for Jesus. There was always more to do. Jesus here is showing his truly-human side, without infinite resources, and he practices a kind of “life rhythm” clearly knowing when he must withdraw to pray.