Surviving a Worst Case Scenario
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they 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 against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
“Surviving a Worst Case Scenario”
The disciples stood in a little clutch just outside the temple, unable to pull themselves away from its beauty. Jesus strode on, but they stood rooted to the spot, their heads thrown back in order to take it all in. “Stunning,” one of them said. “Magnificent,” another whispered reverently. The late morning light illumined the white walls so that the temple shone like the alabaster skin of a woman they longed to touch. The loveliness of the temple took their breath away. “The only good thing I can think of to say about Herod,” said James, “Is that he sure knows how to rebuild a temple.” They all nodded in agreement. The hated Herod, ruler that drove them to their knees, used architecture as an art form. The luminous temple stood as a testimony to Herod’s architectural brilliance. Even the disciples would grudgingly give that point to Herod.
Andrew moved closer, and lovingly laid his hand on one of the stones of the temple wall. “What wonderful stones,” he said, admiring the masonry. The tone of Jesus’ laugh startled him. Andrew had not seen Jesus come back toward them, and he now stood at Andrew’s elbow. Jesus placed his hand next to Andrew’s, but withdrew it quickly as if the wall had burned him. “There will come a time when not one stone is left on top of another. This temple, this building made of human hands, will tumble down like a house of cards.” Often the disciples understood Jesus’ melancholy about the state of affairs in their world. They resonated with his pessimism about the plight of their people under Roman domination. If you pressed the disciples, one or two might even admit that they were a little in love with the sadness of Jesus. His grief touched a chord deep in their hearts.
But at other times, they did not understand Jesus. Couldn’t Jesus allow them just a moment’s peace, just let them savor the exquisite loveliness of the temple without yet another reminder about the fragility of their lives? The truth is, these disciples have an “edifice complex.” They are deeply attached to their religious building, and mortar and stone have become freighted with their religious hopes and longings. Their sense of the sacred is so deeply tied with their experience of the temple, that they cannot separate the two things. It is as if the temple becomes the resting place for all of their human anxieties about the future. Couldn’t Jesus at least let them have some comfort through their attachment to the temple? No, it seems that Jesus wishes to strip away even their beloved defenses.
Later, they would sit on the Mount of Olives, with a view of the whole temple complex spread out before them. Still wanting to be seduced by the beauty of the temple, they would struggle with Jesus’ dire prediction of destruction. Andrew, still thinking of Jesus’ words as they stood touching the temple, would muster courage from the presence of James and John and Peter and ask Jesus: “Tell us when the temple will be destroyed, and what will be the sign?” The old anxiety is clawing at their door, they hear the scratch of death, and they feel the mounting fear of being out of control. They want to know. And Jesus meets fear with fear, and spins out the worst-case scenario for them. War, earthquakes, famines, Jesus begins with broad-brush strokes of calamity. Then Jesus gets more personal: you will be beaten, dragged before authorities, betrayed by your own family members. Their eyes grow larger with each prediction, and their minds start spinning off into future worst-case scenarios. How will they survive all of this? Jesus taps into the heart of their anxiety, he knows that fear is the address where they live. How will they survive what lies ahead?
A conversation that took place between Jesus and the disciples two thousand years ago suddenly becomes very real and personal to us. We couldn’t imagine the destruction of the Twin Towers, and we can’t imagine the destruction of this beloved building, or of our homes, or any other structure that we value. By suggesting these possibilities, Jesus is spinning out an archetypal conversation with universal implications, because it deals with the common human experience of anxiety. We look into the mirror of this passage, and we see our own anxious minds at work.
Anxiety is a response to a threat, real or imagined. There are physiological symptoms of anxiety: the heart pounds, the adrenaline flows, and the mind races off into the future constructing worst-case scenarios. We try to calm ourselves by trying to anticipate every bad thing that could happen, hoping that we might be able to magically thwart these events by planning ahead to avoid or prevent them. What are the signs? How will we know when our world is about to fall apart, so that we might take pains to avoid such trauma?
Being an expert worrier, a book at Barnes and Noble caught my eye a few years ago. Its title was The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook. On the cover, it promised to tell you how to: escape from quicksand, wrestle an alligator, break down a door, land a plane. “Well,” my internal anxious chatterbox reasoned, “your friend Susan had an alligator in her pond. You just never know.” When I went back to purchase the book a week later, I asked the people at the information desk where I might find it. “Oh,” the man said, “I can take you right to it.” A knew a fellow worrier when I saw one. “It’s in the humor section,” he added.
Humor section? Now what’s so funny about a worst-case scenario survival handbook? I mean, knowing how to escape from a sinking car would be a good thing to know. And with all our ice and snowstorms, knowing how to contend with a downed power line could save your life. And there were shark sightings on the Cape this past summer- someone was even attacked by a shark- and I’ve been swimming there, so knowing just where to hit a shark with your fist could come in handy. (You should strike with your fist at the eyes and the gills, not on the end of the nose.) Granted, some of the scenarios in the book are a little extreme. I doubt if I’ll ever have to worry about how to survive if my parachute fails to open or how to maneuver on top of a moving train to get inside. But you just never know. I bought the book, and opened it up to the preface where they stated the basic principle behind the book. There it was in black and white, my very own philosophy: “You just never know.”
Nowhere in the worst-case scenario survival handbook did I see anything about how to survive The End Times, which is, in my opinion, pretty much the worst-case scenario on a grand scale. Having been raised on Christian terrorism in the South, where the end of all things was described in Technicolor, horrifying detail, I find that I’m with the disciples. I want to know what the signs are, so that I might prepare myself for the worst to come. Jesus, why don’t you write us a worst-case scenario survival handbook for the end, so that we can survive when our world falls apart, whether it happens all at once or bit by personal bit.
Jesus sits on the Mount of Olives, the shimmering temple before him, and sees his own anxiety mirrored in the eyes of his worried disciples. Jesus is so close to his own death that he is beginning to smell it. The end of all things is also about the end of his life. No more will he look upon the beauty of the temple. No more will he be able to offer a soothing word to these twelve men he has grown to love so much. No more will he experience the frustrations of life in Jerusalem or the tender, breathless joy of simply being alive on a beautiful day. His life, too, will end. Jesus taps into the collective anxiety of all human beings who face the end of their days. In the end, he says, there will be no signs but signs of the presence of God. He tries to tell them that even the temple will not save them, but only the presence of God.
Jesus dwells with us in our deepest anxiety as he too wonders if he can face his own death or if he can trust God enough. He sits with his disciples in the gloom of their palpable fear. He sits with us in the gloom of our own worst-case scenarios. Will we be able to be strong under pressure? Will we have courage when it comes time for us to die? Will we be able to stand up for a just and loving cause when the world strikes out at us? Will we be able to be brave enough to follow God to the end of our days? Will we survive when our hearts are breaking and when we have nothing good to look forward to?
Jesus sat there, beset by all of the same fears that we face, daring to believe in the best-case scenario: that God is deeper, stronger, and more certain than all of the worst-case scenarios we might dream up. Jesus sighed from the weight of so much fear and anxiety. And as the tender beauty of the temple shimmered and faded into the dusk, the whisper of God sounded in his heart: Fear not, be not afraid, for I am with you, even unto the end of the earth. AMEN.