Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 133) This prayer is probably familiar to most of us. It is one of the collects for Compline that we say before retiring for the night. As an aside, we say Compline on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 7:00 via Zoom. If you would care to join us, you can find the Zoom link posted on Grace Notes.
We human beings constantly seek permanence, as is reflected in the Compline collect. Instead of seeking it in the arms of God, the Nations of the World build objects and structures that give an illusion of permanence.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple. A disciple exclaimed, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The disciple marveled at the great size and beauty of the beautiful edifices. “Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
Jesus probably referred to the greatest building project of his day and time Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. This immense renovation began around 20 BCE and expanded the temple mount complex far greater than the first Temple King Solomon had built. Herod had the temple proper completed in less than two years. Still, the outer structures and courtyards took about 80 years to complete only to be completely destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman legions.
It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the destruction of such a massive building – the holiest place of the Jewish faith. The disciples are astonished. They, after all, have just said how impressed they are at the sight of the place. So they ask, not unnaturally, when these things are going to take place. Jesus does not give them details about when and exactly what will happen when the end comes. He tells them there will be upheavals of many kinds, but he clearly says these are the beginnings of the birth pangs – not the signs of the end of all things. (1) Jesus was not making a prophecy about the culmination of time. Still, the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple happened nearly 40 years later, probably close to the time the Evangelist wrote the gospel of Mark. The Temple was the absolute center of their belief, spirituality, and national identity to the Jewish people. The Temple symbolized the covenant with God that set them apart. Without the Temple, Judaism as they knew it would cease to exist.
Jews had for centuries used the image of birth pangs as they reflected on how, as they believed, their God planned to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. From the great prophets onwards, they spoke of the world going through the labor pains that would herald the new day’s birth. Many writers from Jesus’ time whose works have come down to us spoke of the Jewish hope in this fashion. Since, as we have already seen, Jesus believed that his kingdom-mission, his message, was the divinely appointed means of bringing this new world to birth, the reign of God where all will live in God’s eternal changelessness. We shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes spoke of it in this way as well. Jesus’ disciples would have known more about birth pangs than most modern men. (2)
A quick disclaimer: I have no concept of what a woman goes through birthing a child, but I know secondhand that it can be excruciating and physically draining. I believe this makes women much stronger than men. (Just sayin’)
Jesus says, “Be careful what and to whom you listen. Plenty of people will come asserting they know the truth of these things. It’s easy to be led astray in such times. And besides, this is only the beginning of the birth pangs! Awful as these things are, these are only the rumblings before the horrible stuff. So be careful what and to whom you listen.”
There were abundant false prophets and messiahs then as well as today. God help us, but there have been wars and rumors of wars since Jesus and the early Church. Indeed, this is not the changelessness for which we pray. Nor will an earthquake in one place necessarily mean that another is about to strike the holy city or us. One of the skills that Jesus’ followers must learn is patience. False teachers, frightening rumors, and natural disasters will all tempt us to panic. we must resist the temptation. ‘These are only the beginnings of the birth pangs.’ But they are at least the beginnings. Humanity will plunge the world into convulsions, Jesus says; and his followers, called like him to live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world cross paths with each other, will find themselves caught up in those convulsions.
It was traumatic enough for us when we saw the World Trade Center towers, the gleaming monument to our economic system, come crashing down at the hands of evil people. We saw a tsunami flood Indonesia. Some of us have experienced the power of an earthquake that brought down a section of the Bay Bridge and the great spires of St. Peter and Paul, our National Cathedral. People who have suffered through the power of a tornado or great hurricane know that such events happen. Whole towns are not supposed to disappear as a firestorm sweeps across to our land. We have lived through and are still living in a time of a worldwide pandemic taking so many lives that should still be with us. We see buildings and significant places of worship across Europe and Asia that appear to have been there forever. We see them as permanent as mountains. All these things are supposed to be forever. But then disasters happen that change all this. It is folly to believe that things are so permanent or changeless in our lives, when in fact, they are only temporary. It’s hard to imagine what life would be like without those things and those people that give us a sense of security and permanency. The things we own, our wealth, accomplishments, all the things we think are essential are very temporary. In a moment, they can be taken away, and the rug pulled out from under us. We discover that the things we thought were vital and changeless are not things we can rely on.
When we directly experience these tragedies or witness them through the media, we lose some of our innocence. We find it more and more difficult to trust those settings that we thought immutable. We may even cry out to God, “why do you allow these things to happen?” If we came to this place tomorrow and found that something had thrown it down, as traumatic as that might be, we would still be the Church, the Body of Christ. He admonishes us to provoke one another or stir up in each other the desire to do good and constantly live in Christ’s covenant of love. The Law is written on our hearts to do good to all people and our environment that God so lovingly gave us to live in God’s eternal changelessness. Amen
(1) Transcending..., Proper 28 (B) - 2012 – The Episcopal Church. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/transcending-proper-28-b-2012/
(2) Wright, N. T.. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 178). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.