“The center cannot hold.” No doubt you have heard this line before. If it doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps it will when I recite it in its context: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” These words come from a poem by William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming.” Composed in the aftermath of the First World War, it registers the shock of a generation in the face of a great civilization lying in ruins.
In our gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day, Jesus and the disciples are exiting the temple grounds. And one of them remarks to him how impressive the stones and buildings of the temple complex are. The disciple’s remark is understandable. Herod’s temple was indeed spectacular. The massive platform for the complex extended out over the surrounding valleys. The Royal Portico at the southern end witnesses to the grandeur of the design: it was more than 800 feet long, it had 162 Corinthian columns, of which the tallest was 100 feet high. According to first century Jewish historian Josephus, “the expenditure devoted to this work was incalculable, its magnificence never surpassed.”
In view of the greatness of Herod’s temple, then, the way Jesus responds to his disciple is certainly astonishing. That there should come a day when no stone of this massive structure is left upon another seemed unimaginable. We know, however, that Jesus’ words were proved true. The Jewish rebellion and the Great War with Rome led to the literal destruction of the temple in 70 AD. A great civilization lying in ruins.
But the full impact of Jesus’ words on the disciples is only felt when we realize that they are Jewish. To the Jewish people the temple was the center of life. It was the place where their God established his name, where their God made his presence manifest. It was the place where they brought their sacrifices. It was the site on which they converged during the annual pilgrimage festivals. The temple conferred upon every single Jewish man, woman and child their sense of identity as God’s people. Who they are as this people was inconceivable apart from the temple. To even suggest that there would come a day when the temple would no longer be standing would be very unsettling, to say the least.
But not only does Jesus suggest it; he declares it as an accomplished fact. The center cannot hold. That, in effect, is what Jesus is announcing to his disciples.
They do not immediately react to this announcement. No doubt it reduced them to silence, at least momentarily. Perhaps on the walk between the temple grounds and the Mount of Olives they reflected on what it is that served as their center. If soon it was no longer going to be the temple, then what?
Invariably, we too come to a time in our lives when we have to reflect on what serves as our center. Is it firm and stable and reliable enough to hold as our center?
We don’t tend to ask this fundamental question until we experience a major loss. About the love of her life, I once heard a woman exclaim: “He is the center of my world.” Now we know what she means. We understand that this statement expresses the depth of her love for her partner, and we don’t find fault with her for expressing herself in this way. On the contrary, we find it to be a beautiful thing. Indeed, it is the case that spouse and children serve as the center for many people. But your spouse can leave you or pass away before you do. And your children can disappoint you, reject your values, and decide to sever all contact with you. To make these observations is not to devalue the place these persons have in our lives. But it is to ask about their adequacy as the center of our lives. When we suffer the loss of a spouse or children, we are forced to ask about our center.
For others the center of life is money. We had a lesson earlier about this in Mark’s Gospel. In that lesson, as you will recall, a rich young man approached Jesus to ask him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. The obstacle, however, that prevented him from following Jesus was his money, his material wealth. That evidently served as his center. But wealth is so uncertain. Business can go bad. Bubbles can burst. Bull markets can turn into bear markets. Large portfolios lose their value. In the last analysis, material wealth has its advantages, but it is inadequate as the center of our lives.
For still others the center of life is their profession. Many find their identity in their profession. But what happens when illness or injury or age prevents you from continuing in your profession? What happens when advances in technology renders your skill set obsolete and you are made redundant? It is then that you painfully discover that profession cannot serve as your center.
By the time they reach the Mount of Olives, Peter and James and John and Andrew are composed enough to turn to Jesus to ask him further about his announcement. They want to know the sign that points to the time when these things will take place. They want to be prepared.
We can learn a valuable lesson from these four disciples here. When our center is threatened, we feel anxious and insecure. But turning to God is not our first impulse. We see if we can somehow repair our situation on our own. Or else we stew in our own juices. Neither of these responses is productive. Turning to God will calm and reassure us, preparing us to respond effectively to whatever it is we are facing.
Jesus reassures the disciples. He realizes that when the temple is no longer standing, they will be shaken. How could they not be if what we’ve said about the temple and the Jewish people is true? Whenever we suffer a major disruption in our lives, we are vulnerable. We have all experienced it. People are right when they tell us we should never make a major life change during these times. Studies have shown that we are most susceptible to recruitment tactics by cults when we are vulnerable. If high-pressure sales reps prey on us during these times, they convince us to make major purchases that we would never ever consider otherwise. Maybe you’ve been there. I admit that I have.
Jesus understands our vulnerabilities when we are shaken, when we discover that that on which we relied as our center no longer holds. That understanding is reflected in the counsel that he gives to the disciples. He warns them to be careful not to be misled by false teachers, by those who pretend to have his authority. In today’s language we say about these people that they have a messiah complex.
When our center no longer holds, we have a hard time making sense of our lives, of who we are. It is then that we are most susceptible to the teaching of all the gurus and cult leaders out there who promise to make us whole again, as we’ve just mentioned. You find them everywhere on the Internet these days. The deeper our pain and confusion, the more appealing they seem, the more trustworthy they sound. But we don’t tend to make the wisest judgments in this state. We are not so easily able to distinguish truth from error. Again, Jesus knows all this and warns us in advance.
What follows is the naming of events that indicate that a time will come “when mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world,” to borrow a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem we mentioned at the beginning. But Jesus tells the disciples to keep their heads. People are prone to panic when they see such events and think and act as if the world is coming to an end. But Jesus counsels patience. When these things are happening, when the world seems to be collapsing around them, they are to see them as but the “beginnings of birth pains.” One cannot know how long this labor will be, only that the delivery will be very hard.
Who will disagree that Jesus’ words resonate today? Divided government, collapsing institutions, environmental disasters, a global pandemic, cultural revolutions. No one will deny that Jesus seems to be describing our own times. Indeed, for us the center cannot hold.
Therefore, the words of Jesus issue a challenge to us today. When we see the signs of the times around us, will we panic and lose our heads? Will we let ourselves be a polarized in a divided nation that forces us to take sides? Will we be susceptible to the disinformation that false teachers and ignorant people spread? Will we be seduced by conspiracy theories? Will we follow the demagogues and listen to the podcasts of the fearmongers? Will we let them poison our minds and bring us into confusion? If we do, then I fear that we really have not understood today’s gospel lesson, and we are really no different than the world around us.
There is an alternative for God’s people. We can continue faithfully to listen to God’s word and do what it says. We can be constant in prayer, depending on God to guide our steps and provide for all our needs. We can be faithful in our worship of the true and living God, who meets us Sundays in Word and sacrament. We can be steadfast in obedience to his command to love God and love one another as ourselves. For good reason, our epistle lesson calls us to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another. For if we continue in these things, we will never be shaken.
We referred earlier to the recruitment tactics of cults. According to one study I read, people are most susceptible to these tactics when they lack strong family relationships or support networks. How many are there today who struggle with loneliness, anxiety disorders, with difficulties in forming social connections, who come from home environments that were neglectful or even abusive? But this same study demonstrates the importance of a strong and stable friend or mentor for making people immune to these tactics. The presence of a strong and stable self contributes to the making of strong and resilient selves.
To the disciples Jesus is that strong and stable self. So long as he is in their lives, so long as they cling to him, they will be hard to deceive. These false Christs, these religious gurus, about whom Jesus warned the disciples, will have a harder time misleading them the closer they are to Jesus. The same can be said about the fearful things that happen in our world. The closer the disciples are to Jesus, the less likely these things will cause them to panic.
Jesus does not promise his disciples an easy time in this world. Far from it. “In this world you will have tribulation,” as he tells them in the upper room in John’s Gospel. How can it be otherwise? As his disciples, they will have to undergo severe trials, as we read in the rest of the thirteenth chapter in the Gospel of Mark.
But what Jesus does promise them is to be with them always, even to the end of time. “Never will I leave you nor forsake you” Therefore we can confidently say: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
To us, as the followers of Christ today, as members of his body the church, this same promise applies. And Christ reassures of his presence in a special way in Holy Communion, which we will be celebrating in a few moments.
The presence of Christ—that is the true center of our lives. And of this center we will never be able to say it cannot hold. For this center is eternal and will always hold. Amen.