It comes up on you slowly. You’ve been waiting watching, knowing its coming but still when it starts it’s a surprise. It builds and builds until you can’t fight it anymore. You find yourself overcome with unfamiliar sights and sounds and feelings. For a while it seems like your entire existence is focused on just trying to make sense of what is happening to you. Nothing seems to be familiar, even your own body. This is only the beginning. Only after hours of birth pangs and labor do you get to hold your child. This is the metaphor that Jesus uses today.
Jesus and the disciples are still walking around the Temple and the disciples marvel at the size of the blocks of stone used to build it and the building itself. In its day it was an imposing site. They were right to be impressed.
Jesus however wasn’t that impressed. He said to them, “Do you see these great buildings, Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”
Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from Jesus.
Later, when they were sitting across from the Temple in the Valley of Olives they asked him when all this would happen.
Then Jesus says something that would certainly frighten me if I heard it. He says, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars do not be alarmed, this must take place but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom and against kingdom there will be earthquakes in various places there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Only the beginning. More to come. But by calling these events birth pangs, Jesus is implying that the end will be something worth waiting for and maybe even suffering for.
But before that, he tells the disciples to be aware, keep alert. Don’t let themselves be led astray by others who may have a very different agenda. Yes, there will be things coming that may frighten them and cause them to wonder what is happening, but they needed to trust in Jesus and his teachings. They needed to have faith that God was in control.
But how could such huge stone buildings be destroyed? What was Jesus talking about? This is a place of white marble and gold. This was where God met the people through the priests. How could it be torn down?
This wasn’t the first time someone prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed. Jeremiah made the same claim – and was thrown into a cistern for his efforts.
Making statements like this was bound to get people in trouble. This was perhaps the time when the tide started turning against Jesus a little bit. But Jesus knew that the Temple, although beautiful, was a building which housed a corrupted leadership. He knew things would have to change. He knew that God would be doing a new thing, – where people wouldn’t need to go to the Temple to find God because God was always present with them.
Eventually of course the prophecy came true. In 70 CE the Romans destroyed not just the Temple but all of Jerusalem. They built huge fires at the base of the marble Temple which got so hot it caused the calcium carbonate in the marble to disassociate and become CO2 and lime which made the walls collapse under their own weight. They tore down any stone left over. This happened all over the city. Caesar wanted no trace of the city left.
Then when he and the disciples are sitting on the Mount of Olives – across from Jerusalem – they ask when these things will happen and will there be a sign? Jesus tells them to keep faith with him, don’t listen to others. They will hear of terrible things happening, but to trust that things are in God’s hands and that it is the beginning of the coming of the kingdom – just like being in labor before that baby comes.
We are still seeing the kinds of things going on that Jesus spoke of back then. Natural disasters, nations against one another, nations dealing with internal strife and unrest and oppression. It’s still happening. What are we to do?
The same as the disciples. Watch, wait and above all keep faith. Keep faith with the one who died for us, whose death made us heirs with him in the kingdom of God, which is still coming.
Just as they waited and watched and then went out and built up the kingdom, knowing that things were going to happen, so must we. This is no time to sit in a corner worrying about what will happen and when. We are called to go out to help BRING that kingdom, not by force or coercion or deception, but by bringing God’s love to every person and situation we encounter. By being God’s love to all we meet.
And in order to keep faith and keep doing what we are called to do, we come together to hear God’s word, to pray together and for one another, to receive Christ’s body and blood, to be strengthened for the work we are called to do. This is how we keep moving forward during these times when everything seems so upside down and incomprehensible. By hanging on to what we know.
We, as individuals, may not see the kingdom of God come to full fruition. Only God knows what is planned. But we follow in faith trusting in the one who came and lived among us and gave his life that we might live. And that, for us, is enough.