The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2015
It is the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Our Lord and his disciples are spending their days in the Temple and in the city of Jerusalem. This was all leading up to the Feast of the Passover, so there would have been heightened religious fervor in the city. Pilgrims would have been in the city. The disciples were probably caught up in the moment, in the zeal of it all. Looking at the temple, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And, by all accounts, the Temple was magnificent. Some of those stones were huge – up to 75 feet long. That’s longer than this whole church. You can still see some of these large stones, they are what make up the Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to this day. One eyewitness (Josephus, War, 5.5.6) said that the outward face of the temple was covered all over with plates of gold, and that at the rising of the sun, the fiery splendor of the Temple was so great that you had to avert your eyes. Remember, some of the disciples were fishermen and carpenters from Galilee. These stones and buildings would have been overwhelmingly magnificent.
While the disciples are caught up in the moment, Jesus takes it all in stride. He says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus then takes four of the disciples aside and they look down at the Temple from across the valley. And the disciples want to know, “when will this be? What will be the sign that these things are about about to be accomplished?” That is, they want to know when that Temple and the city of Jerusalem are going to be destroyed.
Jesus is cryptic in his answer, but we know that Jerusalem was destroyed less than forty years after this scene. Starting in the year 66 A.D., there is a great upheaval in Jerusalem and Judea. Many Jews proclaim themselves as the Messiah. They say, “I am he!” and lead the people in revolt against the Romans. They lead the people astray.
There are wars and rumors of wars. The city of Jerusalem is besieged by a Roman legion and inside the city there is a terrible famine. In the year 70 A.D., Jerusalem is overrun by the Romans. The city is destroyed. The large stones that held up the Temple are thrown down. The buildings and the beautiful artistry that adorned the city are ruined. If you go to Rome today you can see the Arch of Titus. The Arch of Titus has an engraving on it of Titus marching through the streets of Rome with plunder from the Temple. That plunder included the menorah, that symbol of Judaism that we know today. The buildings in Jerusalem are thrown down. The stones are thrown down. Wars. Rumors of wars. Famines. Jesus said all this would happen just as it did.
I know what you’re thinking. “Very interesting history lesson. Clearly Jimmy did his homework this week.” But let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Think about the temples you have built up in your life. Think about those carefully constructed ideas and world-views that you’ve crafted in your hearts. I know you all have them, because I have them too. We take large stones of pride, and greed, and lust and we build temples for ourselves. And like the disciples, we think that they could never be destroyed. We use our money to build up temples of wealth. We move into gated subdivisions so that we can be safe from outsiders. We don’t drive into “that part of town.” We put our trust in politicians. We construct these little temples for ourselves and we think that we’re safe. But be careful, because they will come tumbling down. Stone will not be left upon stone. You will be diagnosed with cancer. You’ll get a divorce. You’ll go bankrupt. Somebody will die. The politician you trusted will sell out. The things that you have built up over your entire life will all come tumbling down. No matter how grandiose your temple is – it will come down. Someone or something will come in, desecrate what you hold most sacred, and steal your menorah.
This happened to our country. You remember September 11th. Quite literally, the great buildings, the ones that symbolized our trust in American wealth and American military power, were devastated. Stone was not left upon stone. It felt as if a foreign army had come in, desecrated our holy place, and stole our menorah. So in 2001 as in 70. History repeats itself. Do not think that it won’t happen again. No matter how many times we put “Never Again” on bumper stickers and t-shirts, it will happen again. The buildings, the structures – the physical ones and the emotional ones – will come crashing down. I think that is what surprised us about Paris. The illusion of safety that we create for ourselves is just that – an illusion. And the stones come tumbling down.
So the question is then turned on us as Christians. How will we respond? How will we respond to heartache, and sorrow, and grief? How will we respond to the mother who loses her child to cancer? How will we respond to tens of thousands of people losing their jobs in Houston? How will we respond to terrorism and outright brutality? What will we do when we are standing in the rubble of our ruined lives and of our ruined world? The question is – do we have a future?
And of course we have a future, because we have the Lord Jesus. The destruction of the Temple was a critical moment for the early church and Christians. Up until that time, followers of Jesus were still very closely tied to the Temple and to the Jewish way of life. But in that moment of destruction and desolation, the followers of Jesus had a choice to make. They had to decide how God wanted them to worship. Would they stick with the old ways? Or would they find a way forward? Would they find a new way to connect with God? They had to ask, “God, what now?”
Remember what he said to those four disciples two thousand years ago, “these are but the beginning of the birth pangs.” In the rubble of Jerusalem, when all the stones were thrown down, when all the gold had been taken away – that’s when the early Christians had their crisis, and that’s when they came to know God in new ways. In that crucible of 70 A.D. was the birth of Christianity as we know it. That’s when they stopped worshipping on the mountain and they began to worship Jesus in spirit and in truth. They reoriented toward God.
If we had been a Christian community in 70 A.D., we would have been devastated. We would looked around us and seen anguish on every side. The Temple would have been destroyed. The relationships with the Jews who didn’t follow Jesus would’ve been fractured. Wars. Rumors of wars. Famines. Plagues. Earthquakes. It would have looked messy. And I’m sure they looked at each other and asked, “do we have a future?”
Of course they had a future, because they had the Lord Jesus. Those were but the beginning of the birth pangs. They reoriented toward God.
When the buildings come tumbling down, when your life is falling apart; when they have marched into your heart and stripped away all the gold that you had so carefully built – that is your time to reorient to God. To follow Jesus again.
And once those old temples have been thrown down and all the gold has been taken away, you must not try to rebuild them. You cannot take the rubble of the life that was and try to recreate the past. That is a fool’s errand, because when you try to rebuild the past you are setting yourself up again for your temple to be destroyed. It’s going to happen again. And again. And again. So rather than always trying to rebuild what can never be rebuilt, try something new. Build your foundation on God.
Do not put your faith in money, which can be stolen by thieves or can vanish in the stock market. Do not put faith in your gated community, which is only an illusion of safety. Do not put your faith in politicians, who will always sell out to the highest bidder.
Build your foundation on God. Think of that pain as the beginning of the birth pangs, as the birth of something new. And what is being born anew, is faith in the Lord Jesus. A faith that cannot be stolen by thieves. A faith that is invisible yet powerful. A faith that will not sell out to the highest bidder. The ruins and the rubble of our lives, they are but the beginning of the birth pangs. And what is reborn in us, is faith in the Lord Jesus.