Mark 13:1-8 'You will hear of wars and rumours of wars...'
I’ve just finished reading a novel by William Golding (Lord of the Flies) called The Spire.
It is the story of a Cathedral Dean in the mediaeval times who has a vision, apparently from God, to build a magnificent 400 foot spire on top of the Cathedral.
The fictional cathedral is thought to be modeled on Salisbury, which boasts the tallest Cathedral spire in England.
In the novel, Dean Jocelyn is transfixed by this calling – he thinks the spire will bring glory to God; it will be a visual sign for miles around that the kingdom of God is ultimate and reigns over all.
Unfortunately for Jocelyn, and for everyone else, it gradually becomes clear that the present Cathedral is resting on foundations which will not support the weight of the planned spire.
The Master Builder, Roger, tries to tell Jocelyn this but Jocelyn interprets it as resistance to the heavenly vision.
Faith alone will be enough to secure the spire, the completion of which will represent a triumph of faith over adversity.
As the novel unfolds, we get the longest and most detailed description of a church building project that is probably recorded anywhere in fiction.
It’s all about joists and pulleys and octagons and ropes and scaffolding and geometry in decidedly pre-technology days.
It quite outclasses even the paperwork we have had to complete for our faculty application to install phase B heating in our church (which, by the way, happily begins tomorrow morning!)
The rest of the novel unfolds with melodramatic intensity as Jocelyn becomes unhealthily consumed with his passion for the spire and the Master Builder turns to drink to alleviate the stress of building a huge structure that the foundations cannot support.
By the end of the novel, Jocelyn is a ruined man, disgraced amongst fellow clergy, mentally unstable and living in constant fear of the imminent collapse of the spire.
It is a gloomy but salutary tale about what happens when we put all our faith in earthly projects to shore up our faith in the divine.
Jesus had a run in with the Jews of his day over the Temple in Jerusalem.
This incredible building had been built on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, by Nehemiah and the returning exiles, about 350 years before the time of Jesus and was extensively
renovated by King Herod in about 11 BC.
With some stones weighing up to 400 tonnes each, it was capable of accommodating up to a million people.
In Jesus’ day it symbolized everything that was important to the Jews about their religious heritage, their identity as God’s people who were now oppressed, and their determination to keep their religion pure.
We know that Jesus went in and out of the Temple like any other observant Jew.
One day as he comes out, one of his disciples points out the fabric of the building with great pride.
‘Look, Teacher; what large stones and what large buildings!’
Now I don’t know about you but I do often wonder to what extent the things Jesus said made his disciples cringe.
It would have been best for everyone perhaps, if at this point, Jesus had replied: ‘Yes, aren't they wonderful; we’re so blessed to have this Temple for our worship. We’re so grateful to Herod for all his renovations. Praise God for our architectural heritage.’
Unfortunately, he immediately replied with apocalyptic words, dire words about the Temple's destruction which, I imagine, would have been taken rather badly:
‘Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.’
You can imagine the awkward silence afterwards.
Not one mention of the beauty and significance of the building.
Not one mention of how important it was for the Jews to preserve it as a sign of their being set apart by God.
Not one acknowledgement that faith in God was in any way bound up with a religious building.
We imagine them all walking off in silence looking awkwardly at each other as they came down the steps, thinking to themselves, ‘What on earth was all that about?’
We know his words went down badly with the authorities because they come back up at his trial:
‘This fellow said ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’
Of course it’s a catastrophic misreading of Jesus’ words: they can only think literally and see their building and their religion threatened.
As for his disciples, whether upset, angry, or just plain puzzled, they needed to continue this conversation urgently and so they come to him later that evening.
They go to the Mount of Olives, a place where you can be still and ponder the significance of events and conversations that have happened down in the busy city.
On this hillside within sight of the Temple they sit and ask Jesus about his enigmatic words: ‘Tell us when this will be and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?’
As Jews they would not have been strangers to the apocalyptic – the idea that God will bring history to a final, even sudden conclusion.
They had the book of Daniel – our Lectionary is working through it at the moment.
Daniel is a remarkable book about the things that will happen at the end of time, things that will usher in the everlasting kingdom of God.
It tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God.
The apocalyptic approach to history – the idea that things will come to an abrupt and terrifying end - is one that is perhaps easier for mankind to grasp than it used to be, as we survey our ecological ruination of the earth.
Of course Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question doesn't mention the temple at this point at all but jumps to the end times, which will be characterized by false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes and famine.
You don’t have to be a believer in the bible to see that a lot of this is happening already.
These are the beginning of birth pangs.
Jesus’ earlier prediction about the Temple came true of course with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army.
The Roman Generals apparently sat surveying the incredible building and hesitating slightly before destroying it, brick by brick, in AD 70.
The temple which was destroyed and built again after three days was, of course, the temple of Jesus’ own body.
And here we have the heart of what all this means for us today.
Countless builders, architects and Christian visionaries have given us a legacy of church buildings which dot the skyline throughout Europe, and all in their own way have testified to the greatness and the majesty of God’s own kingdom – a kingdom which cannot be destroyed.
This is an encouraging message which persecuted Christians need to hear again and again, not to mention any of us who have ever felt marginalized or irrelevant in society for continuing to hold onto an alternative way of living – kingdom living.
We are not to be like Dean Jocelyn in The Spire, who mistook the bricks and mortar for the everlasting kingdom.
When we are stripped of bricks and mortar, we remember that our faith is in a risen saviour who gave his own body to death on a cross and who lives by his spirit in men, women and children who follow him today.
Buildings can house our memories and give us sacred space in which to pray, but they cannot be the living stones – that is up to us.
As we come near to the season of Advent we remember, as did Daniel in Exile, that all the kingdoms of this world will eventually come to nothing – only the everlasting Kingdom of God’s Messiah will be eternal.
As members of Christ’s own body, let us put our hope in that kingdom and strive to bring in that part of it which God calls us to be locally involved in, together here where we live.
And let us also, particularly at this time, pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for justice to be upheld in that region.