OK, if you want some irony in your Bible, here it is. Jesus forecasts a sign of trouble to come, trouble that will actually be “birthpangs” of the Kingdom of God. And he does so in the context of a warning against trusting people who use signs to point to the coming of the Kingdom of God!
Now, obviously Jesus wants his followers to be aware of the possibility of trouble that will surround God’s work in the world. The people who read Mark may have thought that God’s work would be finished in their lifetimes, and Christ would return. Since we live some 1,900-plus years later, we know that wasn’t the case, but the warnings still stand. There are two of them in this passage.
The first warning is against the idea of thinking that size or magnificence somehow equals durability and strength. In our day, we are used to large buildings, and we know that although there’s a lot of work that goes into constructing them, they are regular features of life in many areas. People live in them, in apartments that may be hundreds of feet off the ground, and think no more of it than they would of stepping up on a curb.
But think about what it takes to build such a building if you don’t have modern cranes and hoists and I-beams and girders and riveters and welders. Think about what it might take to build even a four or five story building if everything you want to use on that fifth story has to be hauled up those stairs, or at best winched up with some kind of draft animal pulling on a block and tackle. You can cut huge stones to bear the weight of your towering structure, but there’s no diesels to haul it to the site and no hydraulics to help lever it into place.
If you see a great stone building in this day and time, you might very well look at it in the same light as a hill or mountain. It’s immovable! It’s mighty! It’s an everlasting symbol of some king or ruler’s achievement!
No, Jesus says. It’s as impermanent as any other thing that people build. What people build, people can wreck. And, he might ask us in a context we’d understand, if you’ve rested your faith on such things, then what will you do when the wrecking ball hits?
Such a possibility worries the disciples. Later, they ask Jesus how they’ll be able to know that calamities like the one he describes are about to take place.
“Yea verily,” Jesus says. “When a silly movie makes Lloyd Dobler the hope of the human race and allows a hack director to market wrecking CGI pictures of the world (again), then you shall know the end is nigh…” OK, no he didn’t actually reference the John Cusack movie 2012. But he probably would have if he’d been preaching today.
Jesus actually gives his disciples another warning. Beware of people who tell you that they’re me, he says, or that they know what things will happen next and you should follow them. Bad things might happen and panic you into following someone who says they’ve got the answers. But don’t be fooled. God is still the one in charge.
There’s a cliché among Christians that while we may not know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. Like most clichés, it roots in truth, and it sums up some of what Jesus wants his disciples to know. Just like the future is not in human imitations of permanence, like big buildings, it’s also not in the hands of those who try to interpret signs in the heavens.
A minister friend of mine is the proud possessor of a pamphlet called “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’88.” And another by the same author called “89 Reasons the Rapture Will Happen in ’89.” No few Christian writers warned us that the Y2K bug that would wreck the world’s computing systems was a sign that Armageddon and the final battle were on the horizon. You can buy books or visit websites that will tick off all the signs that predict Christ’s coming and specific world events that match them.
It’s not hard to find interpretations or information that confirms that the world has already ended or is about to end or will for absolute certain end soon if we don’t change certain behaviors – Christians aren’t the only ones who predict it or produce detailed and documented evidence that proves their predictions.
Behind the curtain, though the prophets of doom and of human magnificence, both biblical and secular, selectively interpret facts in their own direction or worse, manipulate data and statements so that what they say makes sense.
And we all know what we’re supposed to do about the man behind the curtain. Pay him no mind, because after all, that ain’t where the power is. It’s in the Good News, and the One who brings it.