Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 28C] - November 17, 2013 (Luke 21:5-19)

An important conversation occurred in the Martin household yesterday morning. It involved a certain holiday that is coming up (which will remain unnamed for the purposes of this sermon, but it rhymes with Miss-muss), and the need to make room for any possible new items that might arrive because of said holiday. My wife, expert at breaking hard news and broaching difficult subjects with our two young girls, took the lead. More specifically, it had to do with dismantling and removing one particularly large, bulky toy that hasn’t been played with in quite some time. It is the toy kitchen they received several Miss-musses ago that is occupying a large part of one wall in the playroom. Fearful of some possible sentimental attachment they might have to it, Melinda tread lightly, choosing wisely to accentuate the virtues of giving away things you don’t need any more and the benefits of making room for something better. That’s the real hope, of course: that something better might come, that the old could give way for the new. She and I braced ourselves for negative reactions, but they took it in stride and moved right along to the next thing they wanted to do.

Now comes my part: dismantling the thing and finding a new home for it. Several ideas were tossed around, and I suppose, given the fast-approaching arrival of that-holiday-that-will-go-unnamed, I’ll have to get on it pretty soon. Maybe one day they’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. For now, however, I want to walk in there with the two of them tagging along behind me, and gesture at it widely with my arm in the same dramatic manner Jesus probably uses this morning as he points to the Jerusalem temple: “You see this kitchen play set, girls, with its adorable miniature kitchen utensils and where you made countless make-believe casseroles? The days will come when not one painted piece of chipboard will be fastened to another! All will be torn down.”

You’re probably thinking it’s a good thing Melinda takes care of these conversations.

stones at the Temple mount in modern-day Jerusalem
Jesus, however, being a Middle Eastern man of his time, was prone to a little exaggeration and dramatic effect. He, too, wanted to have an important conversation about something and he wanted to make sure they got the point. It goes without saying that he was not pointing to some small wooden replica of something. He was talking about the temple that stood at the heart of Jerusalem, the very symbol of the faith of the Jewish people. The stones he would have been referring to were gargantuan. The addition that King Herod added in 19 B.C. contained bricks—if you could call them that—that were 44 feet by 11 feet and weighed 628 tons. It would have been unfathomable to topple them! Furthermore, for the ancient Israelites, the Temple was the place where God was thought to dwell on earth, the place where heaven touched earth. It had been there, in some form, for about a thousand years. It was unfathomable for God’s people to be God’s people without it! Yet, there Jesus stands, with his disciples tagging along behind him, boldly announcing to them and to all the other people who are in awe of the mighty building that it will be torn down.

The Temple is not the only thing whose foundations will be shattered. In a short sermon that probably strikes most modern ears as a little bit fanciful, like something out of a doomsday movie, Jesus goes on to explain that the dismantling of the Temple will be accompanied by all kinds of turmoil and strife. Earthquakes, famines, maybe even typhoons in the Pacific Ocean…indeed, the fabric of human society will torn as wars and riots sweep the land.

an artist's depiction of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70
The scene that Jesus describes is utterly terrifying, and yet he tells them not to fear.  At the same time, it doesn’t sound like they, as disciples, will be able to withdraw from the world and escape the terror, either, which is something that God’s people often try to do. Another thing that doesn’t sound possible is any sort of rapture, a fashionable but false theory some have developed where true believers are supposedly taken right up into heaven at some point in the future to be spared trials and tribulation below.

In fact, in the times Jesus is describing here, it sounds like the followers of Jesus need to be prepared to be singled out for who they are. They will be dragged before tribunals and brought before people of authority and be expected to give some sort of testimony. Come to think of it, the words of Imagine Dragons’ recent radio hit are strangely fitting to this scenario that Jesus describes:  I’m breaking in, I’m shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus. This is it: the apocalypse…whoa!”

What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t realize at the time is the very thing that we tried to tell our daughters about their kitchen: all of this—the Temple, the city, the human fabric of society as we know it—all of this will be torn down and something better will take its place. When the Temple would fall, about 30 years after this prediction, new life for God’s redeemed people would spring up in the form of a human community spread across the earth. They would be a new temple, of sorts, gathering in homes and villages. Raised up in the shadow of the cross, they would be a people enlivened by the power of God’s Spirit and empowered to testify to Jesus’ love.

"The Crucifixion" Max Ernst (1913)
Standing in the shadow of the glorious Jerusalem Temple that day, it would have been so hard to comprehend and appreciate that, but something better would come. On the other hand, in the midst of trial and testing, persecution and hardship, those promises sound better and more blessed by the minute. It’s what gives people hope to keep on moving, to keep on testifying, to keep on worshiping and praising God: all of this will be torn down and something better—something new, something truly permanent—will come take its place.

The same promise is echoed every time we gather as this temple of holy believers and take the bread and wine of the new covenant. There is forgiveness as we eat, and it is complete, but the meal we share is still but a foretaste of a better, more satisfying feast to come. It is the promise, most of all, that we glimpse as we look at the cross of Good Friday. We see him there, dragged before all the worldly authorities, mocked and persecuted by none other than you and me and our sinfulness, his very life dismantled like one bloody stone at a time. The clouds threaten and the skies grow dark. But something new and wonderful will come in its place, even though none of us expects it, none of us deserves it. In God’s good time, Easter morning will come.
There’s been a lot of devastation in the world this week. I’m thinking particularly of the apocalypse-level destruction in the Philippines as the people there sort through the aftermath of the most violent storm “in recorded history.” There’s been lots of devastation and loss, lots of questioning and anguish, but also a scenes of hope, images of old things giving way to new. One pastor made the rounds his morning blessing dead bodies wherever he could find them and gathering survivors for worship services amidst the rubble. Where they worshipped looked eerily like the scene Jesus promises in today’s reading: a gaping hole in the ceiling of the church let the rain fall through. The windows were blown out and winds snapped at the silver cross on top of the steeple, which was hanging upside down. “Despite what happened,” the pastor said, “we still believe in God. The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact…as believers, our faith has not been destroyed.”

And in other area of the battered city, a 21-year-old mother nurses a baby that was born just after the storm hit. As her family was swept out of their house by a wave of storm surge, she went into labor. The baby’s grandmother has still not been recovered, and neither the baby nor the mother is apparently quite out of the woods yet, but the baby has a name: Bea, named after the grandmother, a nod to the past, and Joy. Bea Joy. Joy amidst the rubble.

No one knows exactly when the world as we know it will come to an end, but it will. Not one piece of painted chipboard will remained fastened to another. Even astrophysicists tell us that despite its splendor, the universe is unsteady and unstable (like a giant Jerusalem Temple?) and will eventually collapse or expand or whatever it is universes do. Maybe one day we’ll come home and it just won’t be there anymore. Whatever God’s plan and timing is—whether that’s tomorrow or millennia from now—Jesus, the one who’s already been through hell, promises that we will be cared for. For today, our teachers for how to keep on despite the present turmoil are Filipino. The survivors of Typhoon Haiyan are an inspiration in never wearying to do what is right, even as calamity surrounds and threatens to overwhelm us. They are our inspiration to testify to God’s faithfulness and wait fervently for this new creation and to seek joy’s unlikely birth as we walk amidst our rubble.

Let us look to the cross, dangling there, with its savior barely hanging on, but still resounding with its hope. Let us think of the empty tomb, and remember to make way for something better. And let us give praise and thanksgiving and commit ourselves to performing the works of justice and peace of God’s coming kingdom…we, the new temple wherein God’s Spirit of life may dwell.

As we do this, maybe we can even begin singing along with Imagine Dragons but changing the words up just a little bit:

“We’re waking up, we feel it in our bones, enough to make our systems grow…
Welcome to the new age, to the new age…
welcome to God’s new age, to God’s new age…whooahhh…
God’s love is active, God’s love is active!”


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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