Mark loves the twelve; you can just tell. He makes them look goofy at the drop of a hat; you ever notice that? Like we treat those closest to us, family, loved ones. Here they are wandering around the big city like rubes from the hill country, staring up, mouths agape. “Dang,” they say, “look at those buildings.” “Oh, cool,” they gasp, “amazing.” It was quite a sight, that temple. It was huge, larger than anything most had ever seen. And it looked like it would withstand an attack from a Sherman tank, if they had a clue what a Sherman tank was. They just seemed in awe of what they were seeing and what the building represented.
You can imagine their disappointment when Jesus didn’t share their enthusiasm for stone and mortar, for architecture and design, for state and religious symbolism. He just seemed to brush it all away with a word. “Do you see these buildings?” Well, of course, that is what they were looking at; that was what caught their attention in the first place. They were stunned, amazed, swept away. “These buildings?” Jesus seems to sneer, or at least dismiss. “They’ll be gone before you know it. Dust. Crumbles. Rubble.”
And he continued to stride out of the temple ground heading to the Mount of Olives. The puzzled disciples stumbled along after him, wondering what that was all about. After exchanging glances and head bobs and other silent communication, the brother sets approached Jesus as he sat on a stone in the garden. “Um,” they started, probably Peter, since he tended to speak first and think later, “Hey, Jesus, is there something we need to know? I mean, a date we need to put on our Google calendars or something?”
As is usual with Jesus, he doesn’t really answer the question they asked. Instead, he answers the question they should have asked. They asked him, “when.” That’s our common question. “When? When will this happen? When will I need to be in the right place, in right relationship, right with God? When?” That’s just not a question that Jesus takes up. Probably because the true answer is, “Now!” Why wait? Why put it off until the last minute and miss out on all the joy there is in living rightly now? Why wait until you have to instead of doing now when you get to?
And what is it that they should be doing? Paying attention. That’s the usual answer to the usual question. Pay attention—to what is going on around you and what is coming down the road—not in fear, but in faith.
What are we supposed to do with these apocalyptic texts? Are we supposed to stoke the fear, or issue warnings and threats? That’s how many see these words. But Jesus seems to be asking for something different from that. We know that he never has much time for fear as a tool or as a handicap. He is always chastising the fearful, even while he is gentle with the doubters. So, I don’t think he would have much time for those who play on fear as a method for getting people into the faith.
Instead, while at times he seems to be saying “live in the moment,” here, he argues that we need to take the long view. Look beyond the current situation, for good or for ill. This isn’t all that there is. This, whatever this might be for you right now, doesn’t define who you are and who you will be. There is more to come, a world you can barely imagine and can only glimpse from afar right now.
So, Jesus tells the four and through them the twelve and through them all of us, watch out whom you follow. Watch out whom you hitch your hopes to. There are some who might seem to have all the answers, those who offer you a better tomorrow than the today you find yourself in. There are many who will gladly take on all followers. There are those who will accept the mantle of leadership who are only in it for themselves. Beware, be aware. Watch who you follow.
Then, when stuff happens—and that’s the best way to translate most of verse 8, stuff happens—but that’s only the beginning. It might seem like the end. It might seem like the collapse of civilization as we know it. It might seem like the overthrow of all that is right and good. “But,” says Jesus, “we’re just getting started.”
Disciples take the long view; they don’t get caught in the moment. Yes, we can and need to appreciate every moment of grace and every act of love and service as they come. But we can’t lose the greater vision, the kin-dom that is coming. We are following the longer arc of the universe that bends toward justice, even though it doesn’t seem to be doing so any time soon.
Jesus doesn’t present this to his disciples to scare them, but to help them keep things in proper perspective. And we are called to do the same thing too. We don’t get wrapped up in the stones that we have built or that others have torn down. The life that matters is a life that takes the long view and holds on to hope that indeed God has the whole world in God’s hands.