One of the apps on my phone is a weather app. When I plan to ride my bicycle it tells me the things I like to know about the weather. It gives me today’s temperature, the wind direction and speed, and the UV sun factor. It also tells me the pollen count, which is useful because I am allergic to pollen. Maybe the most amazing thing about the weather app is something now we just take for granted. It can tell me the weather for the next 10 days. Just think of that: we can predict the weather ahead for a whole 10 days! That is so cool!
But that is about as good as it gets for accurate daily weather predictions. Anything more is just general trends. Predictions about other kinds of events are just as difficult or even more so.
There are so many things we would like to know about the future - we think it would make our lives easier. Will I find a marriage partner? How will our children turn out? What will become of us? We try to predict the future for all sorts of things, but we are not very good at it. Think what power knowledge of the future would give us! Then we could take advantage to get ahead or protect ourselves if necessary.
At the time that the gospel of Mark was written, people were anxious to know how everything would turn out, because they were living in a time of upheaval in their national life. Mark wrote in the late 60’s AD, about 30 years after Jesus rose from the dead. It was a time of great conflict. There had been wars, and there were wars yet to happen. People who had a small plot of land had it taken from them for failure to pay taxes that were as much as 50%, and they had come into the cities to look for work. There was no welfare to help them. The Jewish people had the hope that God would raise up another great king like David who would throw off the hated Roman oppressors. Times were very hard, and they wondered where it would all end.
Mark writes about the last visit of Jesus to the capital city of Jerusalem. This is the visit when Jesus cleansed the temple of the money-changers. So our reading takes place on Tuesday or Wednesday in what we now call Holy Week, at the end of which Jesus was arrested and put to death.
On this day Jesus had been teaching his disciples and the crowd. Now as he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples looked up and said how impressive it was as a building.
The temple was absolutely amazing. It took two years to build and a further 80 years of additions. Some of the huge stones used in its construction were as much as 13m long and 5m high, and weighed 450 tons. The exterior of the temple was covered in white marble and gold.
It must have been an impressive sight. And one of the disciples was duly impressed. Maybe he was looking for something hopeful about the times they lived in, something solid he could trust. If you have travelled, do you remember the time and place that you saw something that really impressed you, with the ‘wow’ factor? And maybe you thought you were in the presence of something strong and long-lasting. Because we like big things. They give us a feeling of stability and security. Look what we are capable of.
Jesus saw the weakness in that kind of talk. Jesus was very good at cutting through what is false, temporary, and ultimately undependable. He did that on this occasion. He said to his disciples, the whole magnificent temple would one day be torn down, stone by stone.
The magnificent temple had become an idol. An idol is something that we hold up as very special. It is usually something that has been made by human hands. We may not worship it, but we give it lots of attention, and it gives us feelings of strength, power and stability. So it is an idol.
What Jesus said about the temple being destroyed would have shaken the disciples. But the word ‘disciple’ means learner. Jesus had something very important to teach them. We need from time to time to examine our life, and ask, what have we raised so high in our life, and made so important, that it means more to us than trusting in God? It might be an uncomfortable question to ask ourselves, but from time to time it’s necessary to keep fresh our relationship with God.
The disciples’ curiosity was awakened by Jesus. And maybe their fear and wonder. When would this terrible thing of the temple being torn down happen? Again it is those details about the future that we so much desire, because we find this world such a hazardous place. We think we will find security in answers.
Again Jesus sees that the disciples are looking for a certainty that is not ours to own as God’s children. When, when, when, we want to know. Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells them about the birth-pains. You may recall from last week that we heard about the birth pains that John the writer of the book of Revelation saw in the whole process of creation. Jesus explains what he sees ahead: wars, famine, earthquakes, disasters. These are birth pains that must come before the end of all things.
Many Christians try to read the list of bad things as if they are being fulfilled in the world today. They take such words of prophecy literally, saying this or that disaster happening now is a fulfilment of this or that prophecy. So they say, the end is near.
But this is a total misunderstanding of what prophecy is really about. Prophecy is not given to us so we can figure out what is coming. Prophecy is mainly about preparing us for it. Prophecy is mainly a warning. It is a grace of the Holy Spirit, because it creates an opening in us. It creates the possibility that things do not have to turn out that way, if we would only turn again and do things God’s way.
Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow brings enough trouble of its own.’ God remains the one sure factor in our future. Life is hazardous enough. To believe in fate is to say there is no God, and no possibility of change. What is called for in us is an attitude of trust. Jesus calls it watchfulness: we must watch, and allow room in our hearts for God to act.
What does it mean to ‘watch’ in these present times in your life and mine? I think I know what it means for me. It means keeping up my prayer and bible reading. It means keeping a Christian book on the go, as well as everything else I am listening to or watching. We are living in an age when it is easy to be overwhelmed by information, but only a little of it is really helpful.
How might you be watchful, or how might you improve on the watchfulness you already do? The benefits of being watchful do not depend on what is going on around us, so we can be set free from what is holding us down. Godly watchfulness is not burying our head in the sand. It is listening for signs of the coming kingdom of God, and making our contribution to them, in acts of compassion and love; and giving thanks and praise to God in all things.