11/18/18 – Stones Falling Down with Justice and Peace


November 18, 2018
26th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Architecture is an art form that I appreciate, but I have never delved deeply into the social significance of architecture throughout history. But, this portion of Mark’s gospel piqued my interest. It all started with an article about the Duke University Chapel and some repairs done a few years back. It seems some stones were falling, which, as many building repairs do, led to more repairs. The chapel is a grand Gothic building. I could see this imposing structure from my dormitory window during my college years there.  The endowment for the university was made in 1894. The endowment of $300,000 was given by Washington Duke on the contingency that the college admit women on “equal footing with men.” But the question I asked was: Why was a university in North Carolina, designed in the early 20thcentury, built in the Gothic style popular in Europe in the late Middle Ages?

It seems that the Gothic style was a popular architectural style in the U.S. for churches and universities during the 19thand first half of the 20thcentury. As one might expect, sharing the architectural style of Oxford and Cambridge was attractive to U.S. colleges. Gothic architecture was popular at the height of the late Middle Ages when the Christian faith was at the center of both the social and political realms. Thus, it was appealing for new church buildings in America. This young nation just didn’t have the long history of Europe. Recreating the style of great universities and cathedrals of Europe gave their American counterparts a sense of history and permanence to the nation that was less than 200 years old.

From the writings of the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, we have a description of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus and some of his disciples passed by in Mark’s account of Jesus’ final days. It was exceedingly grand. No wonder the disciples were so impressed. Yet, in response to their exclamations of wonder, Jesus announced: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” That sure turned the conversation in a different direction.

We know from our reading from Mark 12 last week, that Jesus had just criticized the scribes, one office of the temple’s elite staff, for paying more attention to the status and perks of position than to their flock. Jesus accused them of exploiting one of the most economically vulnerable groups, widows, for donations. So, like the great building projects of Ancient Egypt built by Hebrew slaves, the opulent temple, the Trump Tower of Jewish worship, owed its existence to the gifts of people who could scarcely afford to provide for themselves. Jesus gave an example with his observation of a widow who gave her last two pennies to the temple treasury.

In the same way today, U.S. corporations owe their historic-level profits to the workers who struggle to pay for the necessities. We have CEO’s making 400 times the salary of the average worker. In some cases, factories are moved overseas where goods are literally made by the “widows and orphans” of poor countries. In a recent economic report, corporate profits have increased dramatically since the tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, while worker’s wages have remained stagnant. While these corporations claim to have created around 73,000 new jobs, nearly twice that number of jobs have been lost.

Those stones, that grand building, represented strength and permanence to the disciples. Jesus shattered their illusions that anything created by human hands has permanence. It is interesting to consider the literal translation of the verse: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Even though most translators use the words “large” or even “magnificent” to describe the stones. Mark tells us the disciples use the biblical Greek word, “potato” (13.1), which is a question word meaning: “What kind of?”  or “Where are they from?”  Thus, the disciples ask Jesus a more significant question: What kind of temple is this?  “Where did it come from?” The answer is” it is one made of human hands.

Our pew bibles, the NRSV translation, translates this second half of verse two like most other Bible translations. [However, the text literally reads: “No stone here will be permitted upon a stone, which will never be destroyed.” Perhaps Jesus was also saying, in addition to every stone being destroyed, that “these stones cannot be laid on the eternal rock, who is] Jesus himself. Back in the last chapter, Jesus calls himself “the rejected stone which has become the cornerstone.” In other words, Jesus is the “true and eternal temple.”

So, Jesus challenges each of us with the question: “What is the foundation of your life? and what idols – even our own homes, work or worship spaces – have we built for ourselves?

Mark wrote his gospel either during or just after the war between Jews and Rome in Judaea between 66-70 C.E. Those huge stones were shattered into rubble. Mark’s community had to grapple with keeping their identity as Jewish –Christians without the Jewish center of worship.

Jesus then leaves the temple and takes his disciples to the top of the Mount of Olives. Israel is flat, like the Mid-west, so what we are talking about with these “Mount” sites are good-sized hills which stand out against the flat desert terrain. Throughout Mark, when Jesus goes to do some serious communication with God or teaching his disciples, he goes to a mountaintop. So, at this point days shortly before his crucifixion, he takes his disciples to the mountaintop for some last words of wisdom. The Mount of Olives sits across from the temple giving the full scope of vision of the temple.

The first question the disciples ask is “when?” When will the temple be destroyed? We focus on time and what happens to us along our own lifespan. Should they not have asked how or why? Jesus dismisses their question and goes on to his longest speech in Mark, which is known as Mark’s Little Apocalypse.”

Mark appears to be less concerned with the end the world than the challenges his community of Jesus followers was experienced: disappointment at Jesus’ delayed return, the immense social and religious upheaval caused by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, persecution by governmental and religious forces, and conflicts between rival Christian leaders. In short, life was something of a mess for many of Mark’s community, and he employs the symbols and metaphors of apocalyptic traditions to place the struggles and questions of his people in a cosmic context to provide perspective and comfort.

Jesus’ use of the Greek word, “telos” is translated in our NRSV pew bibles as “end”, but “telos,” can also be translated as “ends, finished, fulfillment, goal, outcome, sum, or utmost.” (Thayer and Smith. “Greek Lexicon entry for Telos”. “The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon“,1999) .In fact, the NRSV translators use “fulfill” when translating the word, “telos” in verse 4, which leads me to believe “fulfillment” is the best translation of “telos.” Jesus’ opening speech in the first chapter of Mark announces the revelation of God’s kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). Jesus performed miracles and considered them to be signs of the presence of the “kingdom” and the beginning of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

Usually, when we talk about the “end times” we are thinking about the literal end of the world. What if we took Jesus’ words to mean the fulfillment of God’s intentions for us? Using what we know from Scripture, what do we know about God’s intentions for the fulfillment of his promises as opposed to what humanity has expected? What might the fulfillment of God’s promises look like in our world today?

Jesus warns there will be “wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines, but that these disasters are not the signs of the end times. That is certainly a relief since our news headlines are filled with reports of those– Mass shootings at schools, churches, and entertainment venues, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, wars throughout the world threatening global destabilization, climate change threatening everything. Yet, Jesus says: “Do not be alarmed.”

It seems Jesus was not trying to scare his disciples about the end but trying to get their attention to focus on their present mission. He did not want them to be paralyzed with fear and anxiety – he wanted them to get to work. He says: the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:10 NRSV) He gives them some working instructions:

  1. Don’t be led astray by people claiming to know God’s plans – including the end times. Specifically, watch out for those who make claims about being Jesus. Don’t be distracted or misled by others who would claim to be him. Or to be greater than or to hold more power than him

2. Don’t panic but do pay attention.

3. Bad things will continue to happen in the world. But the One who is coming is good and loves you.

4. Jesus will come again, but at his time, not yours. The end of this world is the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. This world will not end in catastrophic violence, but with peace and reconciliation with God and between all peoples.

It will be, as one biblical commentator puts it:

“The end of this violent world, birthing a peaceful one. The end of an impoverished world, birthing a just one. The end of a hateful world, birthing a world pulsing with love. Peace birthed from the depths of violence is a holy child indeed, because violence begets violence. Come, God our great midwife in the midst of our world’s birth pangs and labored groans for renewal.”

 I read a story told in a sermon by the noted preacher Will Willimon. He described how a group of seminary students went to Honduras Honduras is a terribly impoverished country as we know all too well, largely due to prior actions by the U.S. government. The students were sitting around a campfire with some of the Hondurans they were helping and working alongside. One student suggested the go around the circle and say their favorite bible verse. You can imagine the seminary students picked verses like John 3:16-7 or Psalm 23, the Greatest Commandment and such. But one woman, when it was her turn cited our passage for today from Mark 13. For those of us relatively affluent people living in a first world country, the end of what we know is frightening. But, for those in the world who live in abject poverty and oppression, the falling of stones from all the institutions which have contributed to their plight is good news. The idea that their present misery is but birth pangs of a kinder, more just world being born is cause for celebration.

There are institutions and traditions that need to be brought down because they press people into slavery – injustice inflicted on the most vulnerable in society by the legal system, the political system, the economic and financial system, and sometimes even the Church. We should not perpetuate or ignore these institutional masters when they use their power to treat the less powerful unjustly. When we align ourselves with these institutional systems, when they fall, we will fall.  We tend to panic in times of confusion, challenge, and distress and become attached to the symbols and ways of power tempting us away from Christ’s ways of love and peace.

Yes, all will be thrown down,” except Jesus. Beneath the ruins of human existence, the cornerstone will stand and live forever. The Word of God will stand and live forever. Jesus tells us the world as we know it today will end with peace and reconciliation – the kingdom of God fulfilled. There will be birth pangs, but through Christ we can help birth a new world.

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   |   309.673.8501