Have you ever seen something that was so amazing, that you couldn’t help but just stare in awe of it? Something so beautiful, so inspiring, so… awesome that you feel like you just need to pick your jaw up off the floor? Now, I don’t mean every Sunday when you see me walk into the sanctuary, but something that really gets your blood flowing. No really, I still don’t mean me like every Sunday.
It’ll be a different thing for different people. For some, it would be art. They can look at a painting or a sculpture and just be amazed by it. Still for others it could be modern feats of engineering, like an unbelievably tall building or a beautiful house with a helipad and an indoor boat dock. And even still, for people like me, it could be a car, clean, sleek, curves in all the right places, and topped off with the perfect exhaust note that makes your mouth water.
It is the grand that captures us, the majestic that smites us, the extravagant that blows our minds and leaves us in awe.
I’ve had an experience of being so very awestruck about 15 years ago when I was in Peru for a school trip and we went to visit Machu Picchu. I don’t know how many of you have been to Machu Picchu, but it is amazing. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and back then I was still using 35mm film like a caveman, so you know I was committed to capturing those moments because I’d have to pay like 10 cents per picture, whether it turned out or not. Just for example, here are some of the pictures that I took…
Amazing, right? Just being there I was overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of such humble yet astounding structures. To think that they were made by hand using crude tools over half a century ago just blows my mind. This is the sense of awe that I’m talking about. When you see something so grand, so amazing, so beautiful, your breath just gets taken away.
“Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” It seems like the disciples were in awe as well, and they should be. The temple in those days would have been quite the sight, laden with gold and ivory and all the other fancy materials, looking over the city, dominating the skyline. What a marvel it would have been to behold. And that was the point, really. That is the point of many temples and churches built throughout history, to instill a sense of awe from its beauty and majesty. It is where God resides after all, so it would make sense to go all out, spare no expense, be as grandiose and lavish as possible that when people gaze on your structure they cannot help but stand in awe and be reminded of how great our God actually is. This was to bring us into the space of worship, of adoration, and of appreciation for all that God has done.
But the problem is that every single one of these structures made by human hands will one day fall.
Jesus said the temple will fall and it did. Machu Picchu was lost for centuries before being discovered and I got in trouble for climbing the walls because apparently that might break the walls so you know it’ll also one day fall. Every grand and modern engineering marvel that we see around the world will fall due to age, violence, or just being obsolete and thus needing to be replaced. The point is, nothing really is made to last. Not buildings, not houses, not even our bodies. Everything, it seems, is temporary.
In the passages leading up to today’s gospel lesson, Jesus explains how the temple isn’t the end-all-be-all of structures, regardless what people of the time thought. As beautiful and awe-inspiring as it is, it isn’t worth all your devotion and affection, all your money and livelihood, it is not worth all of your faith. And that was the problem at the time. People saw the temple as more than just bricks and mortar, they saw it as God. They saw the religious rites at the time more than just tradition and custom, but they saw it as the actual and only way to secure God’s good graces. They saw the Law more than just the right thing to do at the time, but as the guidelines to salvation and eternal life. And to all of this, Jesus is saying no. This temple that they put so much on wasn’t worthy of all that, for it will fall one day and then where would that leave you?
See, as I said, the temple did fall, roughly around 70AD in the Roman-Judea war, and likely around when this gospel was written. And contrary to what we might have thought, the gospels weren’t like newspapers when they had to be written pretty much while things were happening so everyone could read about it the next day. Rather, they were written years after the fact, very much in hindsight of everything that has happened, and in hopes of capturing the spirit of the events and teachings of Jesus. So the author of Mark wrote this part of the gospel perhaps after the temple fell, reminding them that the temple wasn’t God, but just the structure built by human hands to help them feel the presence of God.
So it makes sense that Jesus was talking about these wars and rumours of wars. It is possible that at the time of writing, they were just in a war and the Romans claimed victory over God because they were able to destroy the temple, the pinnacle of the city and the heart of the people. The author of Mark was writing encouragement in the face of the destruction of what many thought was God’s actual house, preaching hope in the face of the defeat of their very way of life, proclaiming gospel… good news in the face of all the destruction and brokenness around them.
Many people see this as apocalyptic writing… prophecies of some kind of what will happen that will signify for us the end of times. Many people would, like the disciples, wonder what signs would happen that we could interpret so we know when all this will come to pass. However, I strongly believe that this was written for the current time. The current time in the wake of the destruction of the temple, the current time of the fall of whatever empire that you had your faith in, the current time of political turmoil and religious upheaval, the current time that everyone who has ever lived has lived in where people put too much faith in the structures and systems of the world and seeing them as God, instead of seeing God as God.
And with all structures and systems and governments and people, they will undeniably fall and thus create disillusionment in those who put all their eggs in that so temporary of a basket. The inevitable destruction of everything made by human hands has given people trust issues as they seem to lose everything they put their faith into. The eventual death of everyone that we rely on has made us fear death as no one, no matter how powerful or rich, can seem to escape its grasp. When our value and worth and our very identities are put in these things that don’t last, then our identities are unfortunately destined to end.
I think that’s why people try to preserve their things so much. Losing their possessions mean losing their identity. Losing what they put their faith in means they have nothing left to believe in. Losing the object of their affection means they aren’t anything anymore.
So they risk their lives to save their houses from burning. They forego the needs of others to preserve their own needs. They compromise their morals and muddy the waters of what is right and wrong in order to support wayward politicians. The rules suddenly change in order to cater to that ego-inflating, selfishly-driven, misplaced identity.
In these past few chapters of the gospel according to Mark… actually, in all of the gospel according to Mark, we read of how Jesus reveals another way of life, a different way to see the world, a new type of identity. One that isn’t grounded in the temporary nature of people, one that doesn’t depend on a structure or something so easily burnt down, one that doesn’t rely on our promotion or propaganda, one that isn’t so easily lost, but it is one that is eternal and unchanging, one that is dependent on grace and mercy, one that is open and welcoming to all people.
See God is not bound to temples, or buildings, or even people. Just because the temple was destroyed, God remains in the hearts and community of the people. When homes are destroyed and burned down, God remains our refuge and strength. Although people all around us die all the time, regardless of how much we love them, how much we depend on them, or how many comic book characters they’ve created, God remains alive and active in and around them and us, granting us joy and peace and revealing to us an identity as God’s adopted and beloved children, and welcoming us into God’s eternal kingdom.
This identity is not dependent on our promotion and propaganda, but is evident in the light shining like the brightness of the skies through our lives, fuelled by the grand and majestic love of God, and apparent through our community and service to God and each other. The things of the world pass away, but our God remains our awe-inspiring sanctuary, writing God’s great and powerful law upon our hearts, and leading us into undying faith and hope and securing us as God’s people forever.
See there is nothing wrong with being gobsmacked by the beauty of the world. There is nothing wrong with having our jaws drop when in the presence of greatness. There is nothing wrong with being awestruck by things or people that are just larger than life. But just know that all of that just points to our God who is greater, larger, and more awe-inspiring than any of these, and our God lasts forever, welcoming us into God’s eternal arms of love and identity.
As we approach the end of the church year and look back on all the things that we’ve learned, may we rely not on the systems and structures of the world but look to God for all guidance and wisdom, that we might forever see our unchanging identity as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God. Amen.