I’ve been reading through the passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark this morning as I reflect on the Friday that we call good. The good news of God with us, of the Christ who entered into the suffering of our world and bore the weight of sin in all of its manifestation, all so that we might be called to walk in the way of Christ as we take up our vocation in being image bearers to the whole of Creation which God declares good.
This is a good news story.
That might not be immediately clear when we enter the beginning of the end of the story in Mark 13 with all its language of destruction and turmoil, and yet, as the lesson of the fig tree emerges once again for the third time in Mark’s narrative, the declaration that “my words will not pass away” (13:31) captures the promise that in the suffering of the Christ we find the suffering of this world, and the season of fruit bearing and fruitfulness then becomes the hopeful promise that the Cross speaks over the fig tree that was not yet “in season” (11:13). Therefore, if the lesson of the fig tree is to be fully understood, it is to be understood in the call that accompanies its second mesntion, the call to “have faith in God” (12:22) and what God is doing. To have faith that God is indeed making what is wrong in this suffering world right.
And yet don’t miss this important part of the imagery of the fig tree. My words will not pass away, “but” heaven and earth will pass away”. There is an invitation that accompanies the good news of the Cross, and it is one of allowing the Cross to deconstruct our own lives in the way of the cursed fig tree of Chapter 11 so as to reshape us in the character of Christ. It is the invitation to follow in the way of Christ, to be the means by which this good news of the new creation can then be declared to the suffering in this world through our participation in Christ.
And here is the most important part of this picture in Mark 13-16- the thing being deconstructed is the Church itself. Allow that to sink in. It is no mistake that 13:1 begins with the foretelling of the destruction of the temple and ends with the prediction of it being raised again anew. The temptation of Christians reading this passage has often been to relegate these passages of “the signs of the times” (13:3-13) to the present and future suffering of the Church itself, using it as an excuse to strengthen the fortress of our Church walls against the evils of the world out there that will inevitably come against it. But as the teacher of the law brings Jesus out to admire all these “wonderful buildings” (13:1), Jesus’ striking words declare that “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Again, let that sink in as you read the words “the abomination of desolation” that informs 13:14-23.
The setting of the Mount of Olives that begins Mark 13 is symbolic, bringing the full breadth of the scriptural narrative to a pivotal and climatic point of crisis and potential. The imagery of Daniel, the words of the Pslams that Jesus has been applying to His own ministry, the words of the prophets, the story that begins in Genesis and runs through Abraham to Moses to David, the culminating offices of Priest and King that find their ultimate climatic shodown in the meeting of the high priest of 14:53-63 and Jesus. It all finds its culmination in Christ as the fullness of God’s revelation to a good creation. And it is here on this mountaintop that heaven and earth are about to meet and truly shake the church up. It is on the day when this meeting of heaven and earth is delcared as the Kingdom of God now arrived that the fruit of that fig tree will be in season and Christ and the cup which we partake in with Christ will be filled (14:25). And yet, we have faith in this even as the already not yet nature of this reality continues to play itself out in our midst. This is why Christ is also a call to participation in a Kingdom come and a Kingdom coming.
And why is the church being deconstructed and reconstructed? According to Mark it is so that as Jesus goes before us we can then follow (16:7). It is so that we can begin to bear witness to the goodness of this creation in the created world, a world that is now being remade and renewed in the way of Christ. This is what the Church is being raised for, not to board up our walls and wait until Jesus comes again to take us to heaven, but to recognize that on the Cross the Kingdom has arrived in our midst. Heaven has come down to earth and has shaken down the walls so that we can once again see the world God so loves and participate in it as image bearers of Christ. And in case we missed it, this whole narritive of keeping watch for the coming destruction has happened once (the first temple), will happen again (the second temple) and will continue to happen as the Cross does its deconstructing and reconstructing work in our midst. The problem of the Church is that it keeps falling asleep (13:35) and neglecting what it is that Christ is actually doing. Jesus is the temple that is being raised, and thus as we heed the words of this necessary shake down we wake up to see Jesus on the way, going before us and calling us to follow. The context for the Cross is the story of the Passover (the promise of liberation), but it is also the story of the exile, the story of Israel being shaken out of its own complacency and thus formed in the promise of its eventual return.
There’s a small note that we find in this whole section of the Gospel of Mark that I found to be quite profound as I’ve reread it this morning. The story of a (young or old) widow giving all that she had to the temple (12:41-44) that is followed immediately by the foretelling of the temple being destroyed in 13:1. In 14:3-9, the story of another young woman who this time is giving to and annointing Jesus begins the passion narrative that starts immediately after, the story of Jesus being torn down and raised up as the new temple. This curious phrase in 14:9 which says “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world” it will be “done” and “told in memory of her” strikes to the heart of what defines the very mission of Christ and the Church. In the second reference to the fig tree in chapter 11, these words ring through the waiting for this promised and hoped for season- “believe” that Christ is at work making what is wrong right, and “whenever you stand praying” to this end, forgive. We are being torn down so that we can be raised up in participation with Christ’s work in the world, and at heart of this word forgiveness is reconciliation between God and a Church that has fallen asleep, and between a divided Church and world in which we have forgotten our vocation. In this way we build the Kingdom of God in the way of Christ.