23rd Sunday after Pentecost Sermon
The Temple in Jerusalem was extraordinary. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In fact, it was the largest sacred site in the Roman Empire. Of course, the temple’s gone now. All that’s left is the foundation that holds up the plaza in which the temple once stood. But even that’s extraordinary. It’s the size of 29 football fields. And some of the foundation stones are HUGE. The largest one is about 40 feet long, 14 feet thick and 10 feet high. It’s estimated to weigh 570 tons. To this day, nobody knows how the ancients managed to maneuver such massive stones.
And then there was the beauty of the thing: the temple itself was covered in marble and gold. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have been a faithful Jew who lived up north in Galilee, making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and coming ‘round the bend to see that shining, massive temple crowning Mt. Zion. It must have filled them with awe – and pride. For that was their temple, a monument to the glory of their God, in fact, God’s own dwelling place! Who was like Yahweh? No one. There was no God like theirs. And nothing made that more manifest than the glory of their temple.
I imagine it was similar to my experience visiting St. Peter’s in Rome. Before going, I was actually anxious about seeing it. How would I react to all that flagrant wealth, knowing it was funded through exploitation of empires and manipulation of frightened people, trying to save their souls to heaven? And yet, though all that be true – I tell you – I was stunned by it. Never in my life could I have said a church building was a foretaste of heaven. But that’s how I experienced it. During the mass, the music started, and I started crying. There was this tangible sense of the immensity of God’s glory and my built-in human need to adore that God.
And, you know, there’s something to be said for all this. After all, according to Biblical tradition, the Jewish temple was built according to God’s instructions. We physical humans are affected by the physical spaces we inhabit – be it the grandeur of a temple, or the simple placement of a few paper birds on the cross. Our spirits are informed by these things.
But then along comes Jesus, the Son of God, the rightful heir of this temple. This monument of glory was his to claim and inhabit in a way none other could. And yet, when he hears people talking about how impressive the temple was, what does he have to say about it?
The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down (Luke 21:6).
And then, when they ask him what he’s talking about, he gets even gloomier:
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and plagues; dreadful portents in the heavens.
They will arrest you and persecute you…
You will be betrayed by your families. You will be hated… all because of my name.
The temple was a thing of beauty, but it was a fading beauty. In the eyes of Jesus, its masonry would prove as fragile and fleeting as a spring flower. The stones would tumble and disaster spill forth.
All of which begs the question, what were these disasters he predicted? On an historic level, they can point in two directions:
First, the literal destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It was torn down by the Romans during the Jewish revolt that happened about forty years after Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
Second, these disasters could also describe the persecution of the Christians that happened sporadically during the first few centuries of the church.
Our history is a gruesome one – be it political uprising that are squashed or religious persecutions. The history books are filled with the horror of what people can do to one another, sanctioned by the twin virtues of patriotism and religion.
And, of course, these sufferings haven’t ended. They go on and on and on. We can’t stop killing each other. This year it’s Ukraine. Next year will be something else.
And as for earthquakes, famines, and plagues… well, what’s to be said? Disaster follows disaster. After two years with no rain, Somalia right now is gripped by severe famine. In the time it takes me to preach this sermon, fifteen Somali children will be hospitalized for malnutrition. Meanwhile, the monsoons in Pakistan this summer were ten times heavier than usual, with thousands dead and millions displaced. Their economy is shattered, and all the woes and instability that comes with it.
Our human story is filled with all manner of suffering. And whether or not we ever know war or religious persecution or famine, to be human in this world means we will fall victim, in one way or another, to some form of great pain.
After all, the temple in Jerusalem was not the only temple of which the scriptures speak. We also are called God’s temple. We, the church, the people of God, and (I suspect) every one of us, in and out of the church, each of our bodies, is also God’s temple, that sacred place which God calls “home.” These temples we adorn and protect and worry over, God adorns, too, with God’s own abiding presene.
But though our temples are standing today, in all their intrinsic glory, the day will come when these temples will fall:
when the biopsy is a positive
when the midnight call comes with news of the drunk driver
when Alzheimer’s strikes
when the divorce papers are signed
or whatever the collapse of our temple will be.
And it is into such a world and such a life that God became one with us through Christ. God does not choose to hide in the glamorous confines of the temple, or even in the safe refuge of heaven. God is in us and with us, bonded to us, through the breadth and depth of our entire lives, even in the deepest chasms. God has cancer with us; God is malnourished in Somalia and drowned in Pakistan. God with us, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, Christ our bridegroom, our Emmanuel.
And through all these hells, our gospel is this: the crucified Christ was, and is, and ever shall be, the same Christ who conquers death and harrows hell and is risen from the grave.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight (Isaiah 65:17f).
So wrote the prophet Isaiah five hundred years before the life of Christ. Jesus’ prophecy of the fallen temple may well depict the whole of human suffering, but so too, does Isaiah’s prophecy depict the whole of God’s intent to redeem.
Isaiah wrote in the days leading to the first destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians. Like Jesus, he foresaw the hideousness of war and famine and exile. And, also like Jesus, beyond destruction, he saw the redemption of God, for all people.
No more shall there be weeping.
No more shall an infant die young.
No more shall you stand helpless in the face of your child’s addictions.
No more shall you pray and think God isn’t listening.
Isaiah and Jesus knew this life is filled with woe and hardship. And they knew there was life beyond the pain, when the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, when the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
But when? When, o God, shall this day be? And what does it mean to hope in a Jesus who is risen?
Surely it means our hope for a future world, beyond our graves. But the call – and the gift – of faith is also to live into such a world today.
For if God is one with us in our suffering and our death, then we are also one with him in his death and his resurrection. Which is for today.
To live by faith is not a pledge of fealty to some list of right doctrine. To live by faith is to live towards the hope that we are already wed with God in Christ, the God of resurrection, such that, all that is true of Christ becomes true of us. So we now live as Christ lives. We choose compassion over self-centeredness, generosity over hoarding, forgiveness over bitterness, togetherness over isolation.
We choose the life of resurrection, already, today.
That is why we go to church. Not because church attendance is in any way meritorious. But because it is the liturgy of the church, the sacraments of the church, the community of the church living as the church, that encourages us and foster in us the preposterous notion that we might live as God lives.
And just as our sufferings will take different forms in different lives, so too, will our resurrection faith manifest itself differently in the life of the community. For some it will be acts of quiet servanthood or a life centered largely on prayer. For others, it will mean political activism for the sake of justice. For others it could mean deliberating investing resources into companies whose missions reflect the heart of God (even if the returns aren’t fabulous).
But beneath it all, the heart of our faith is rooted in one reality: famine and warfare and destruction do not have the final answer. The final word is God. And our God is the God of life and love and redemption, forever and ever. And in this God shall we live. Amen.