Jesus and his followers were leaving the Temple, when one of his disciples makes a seemingly innocuous comment. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1)
And they would’ve been right. Back in the day, the Temple was impressive. And it darn well should have been. After all, it was the house of God. So you’d expect that Jesus might say something like, “why, yes it is. The fine craftsmanship and sheer grandeur of the place is worthy of the glory of God’s presence.”
But he doesn’t. Instead he says that all these buildings will come down. There’ll also be wars and famine and earthquakes and this is just “the beginning of the birth pangs.” A lengthy apocalyptic passage follows reminding the disciples to keep watch, be ready and not be deceived by others claiming to be Jesus.
So, just a regular day, then.
Feels like it, sometimes, doesn’t it? That’s when it’s best to remember that what we so often fearfully refer to as “The End Times” are, in fact, “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The new heaven comes from the end of the old sinful ways. And that, we should engage with hope.
But let’s go back to the disciple and their admiration for the buildings for a minute. I think the context of this comment can give us something to think about.
They’re leaving the Temple after a lengthy stretch of Jesus’s authority and teaching being questioned by the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders. These Temple authorities tested him and asked him questions hoping to embarrass him. At the end of all that, Jesus challenges us to be discerning about leaders who like to dress the part and be respected, but don’t “walk the talk.” He then observes a poor widow who gives all that she has to the Temple and commends her generosity and, I think, her belief in what she’s giving her money to. She trusts that she’ll be taken care of, as she should be, by the Temple - the extension of God’s love and grace. And now, here we are at the magnificence of the building.
So often we seem to live in a “bigger is better” world. Size matters, in structure and quantity. But what about quality and commitment? What about joy? Is the important thing the structure itself or what it stands for? That’s a question churches are continually asking, as are many other organizations where the people are the most important ingredient. Or they should be. The size and beauty of the Temple honour God, but what about the actions of the Temple, what about its care of the poor widow? Isn’t God honoured by love, grace and compassion being lived out?
What’s more is the question of which is the more durable, the building or what it stands for. The Temple will be undone by time, if not force, but God, loving and life-giving, grows and changes and lives. Always. We can see that in history, we can see that in the world around us and even in our own bodies. Structures, whether physical buildings, institutions, religions, hierarchies or societies can be broken down and pass away. But love, joy, hope, peace, grace, compassion - these are the things that carry on because they are endless, boundless and timeless. Like God, they can’t be worn out.