Sunday, November 15, 2015

Not One Stone will be Left

Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”  These are not comforting words for us, especially while St. Paul’s is in the midst of a tuck-pointing project to grind out and replace failing mortar in the joints of our exterior bricks.  I’d like to think this work will keep the building solid, well, forever.  Today’s reading is not comforting.

Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem in 957 BC to replace the movable Tabernacle constructed under the direction of Moses.  Over the next 100 years the Temple was sacked at least twice and left in disrepair.  King Jehoash made a push to have it repaired in 835 BC, but it was stripped again by an Assyrian invasion around 712 BC.  The Babylonians assaulted Jerusalem several times after that, completely destroying the Temple and sacking the city in 586 BC; giving rise to a period in Jewish history referred to as the Exile. 

That time came to an end when a Persian army led by Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon in 538 BC.  The new ruler allowed Jews to return to their homeland and authorized the construction of a new temple.  Twenty-three years later this work was complete, although the second Temple lacked grandeur of the first.  This structure was almost destroyed in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, who was angry that Jews refused to acknowledge him as a deity.

The Seleucids came to rule in Jerusalem in 198 BC.  They wanted to erect images of Greek gods in the Temple.  After a Jewish rebellion ensured and was brutally put down, efforts to change the Temple were halted.  Several years later Antiochus IV outlawed circumcision and worship on the Sabbath.  When he placed a stature of Zeus in the Temple Jewish anger rose to a boiling point.  In 167 BC a Jewish priest by the name of Mattathias was ordered to perform a pagan sacrifice, but rather than capitulate, he killed the Greek official.  This led to a mass uprising and Mattathias’ son Judas Maccabeus led the fight to free Jews from Seleucid rule.  The Temple was rededicated in 165 BC and many of the events around this period continue to be celebrated as a major part of the Feast of Hanukkah.

After Rome invaded Jerusalem in 63 BC, Pompey entered the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple, thereby desecrating it.  Crassus looted the Temple treasury in 54 BC.  None of this sat well with Jews, but Roman rule was too strong to confront.  Herod the Great launched a major building project in 20 BC.  Construction on the Temple as Jesus knew it was largely finished just before birth.  The new structure covered an area roughly the size of fifteen football fields.  Its exterior was covered in white marble and had many gold embellishments.  Located on top of a high hill, you can imagine the reaction of pilgrims as they caught sight of it for the first time.   

If you want to understand the place the Temple held in Jewish society, try to imagine a single building that functions as our National Cathedral, Capital, White House, and Pentagon.  Add in the Untied States Treasury building and you begin to understand what this one site meant for Jews.  And while it held an incredibly significant psychological place, many Jews in Jesus’ day had mixed feelings about the Temple.  Yes, it was the epicenter of their national life, but also was rife with corruption and its core had shifted from devotion to God to collaboration with Rome.  Our gospel readings over the past few weeks have thundered with Jesus’ criticism of how it operated.  The text says many people listened “with great delight” as he sparred with and bettered Temple officials.  

Today’s reading has Jesus leaving the Temple.  One of his disciples has what one commentator calls a “Gomer Pyle” moment – the country bumpkin in the big city saying, “Well Gol-ly, this sure is a big building and them-‘thar’ as some big stones.”  The disciple is not exactly incorrect.  Some of the stones erected in the wall were as big as a city bus.  But Jesus is not at all impressed and is livid with how the Temple preys on the pious.  Jesus did not emerge in a cultural vacuum.  The span of his life was pocketed with several minor uprisings and revolts.  He was just one of many Temple critics and by the time he emerged Roman officials had come to realize better to eliminate the lone voice before it garners a larger following. 

The protest movements did not end after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Three decades after his death, an all-out war between Rome and Jews erupted in 66 AD, with the Jews enjoying early victories.  They set up a provisional government and it is telling that once they gained control, rebels broke into the Temple archives and burned all the records; effectively freeing all those made destitute by foreclosure on their land and assets as a means to finance the building project.  Jewish fanaticism was at an all-time high, as was the expectation God would send a messiah to lead them in a final battle against Rome.  It reached a fevered pitch when Nero, the Roman emperor, died in 68 AD and Vespasian, who was leading the army against the Jews, had to return to Rome because the capital was in disarray.  Many in Jerusalem proclaimed this evidence God was intervening on their behalf.  

Eventually Vespasian ceased control in Rome and sent to Jerusalem an army of 60,000 soldiers.  A siege was enacted that lasted several years.  In 70 AD the city fell and a bloodbath ensured.  The Temple was burned to the ground and, in the words of Jesus, not one stone was left on top of another. 

Scholars note Mark’s gospel was written right around this very time.  Either the city was under siege, or the Romans were in the process of destroying the Temple, or it was lying in ruins as the ashes smoldered.  Given this context, Mark’s record of Jesus’ words stands not so much as a prediction as a theological interpretation of current events.  Did you catch what I just said?  What we heard read this morning is not so much a prediction of future events as it is an explanation of what is happening.  Many people today misunderstand the bible’s apocalyptic writings.  It is used in turbulent times to interpret, not to forecast.

Given this, Mark portrays Jesus as saying several important things to his readers:

· These are crazy times and there are a lot of crazy people out there saying a lot of crazy things.

· Following crazy leaders has grave consequences.

· What appears to be destruction has the seeds of a new beginning – what Jesus calls ‘birth pangs’.

The destruction of the Temple and subsequent banishment of Jews from the Holy Land eventually gave rise to the Christianization of the Roman Empire and Western World as we know it.  It also led to a reinvention of Judaism, which now finds it locus not in a specific location, but in an ongoing practice of remembering.

As we gather this morning we realize anew we live in a turbulent world.  We see it in the horrific events that unfolded in Paris.  We see it in the cruel things that shape the lives our children and grandchildren.  And we see it in the personal challenges we never imagined we would have to face. 

I hear in Jesus’ words several things we need to hear:

· First, turbulent times call for vigilance.  Recognizing we are not safe is the first step we must take in order to be safe.

· Second, turbulent times call for great discernment.  When something goes wrong we want an explanation.  Who is to blame?  What did I do wrong?  What is God trying to say to me?  What will make this all go away?  As Jesus said, false prophets will rise up – be they spiritual leaders, political figures, or even close acquaintances – and they will give us easy answers to complicated questions.

· Finally, Jesus proclaims turbulent times, through the grace and power of God, lead to new beginnings.  The pain we experience is not the pain of death, but rather the pain of birth.  Something new is going to emerge – in your life, in the life of those close to you, in our world.  This is our faith, the faith we have received from Jesus.

We are a people of hope.  Hope is not a spiritual trait you draw on when times are good.  It comes to the forefront only when times are tough.  I remember in seminary talking with friends about the end times.  It was a heady conversation that encompassed all the various theories about tribulation, the end of the world, and final judgment.  I remember one person saying something like, “God’s Church is not going anywhere because the bible says Jesus will return for us like a groom comes to his bride as she is adorned for her wedding.”  “Brides,” he noted, “Don’t come to their wedding day dragging and tattered, but decked out in their finest.”  “That is us,” he said.  “We are not going to destroy the planet in a nuclear war [the big social issue at the time].  Somehow, someway, humanity is going to come together and present itself to Christ as a bride ready for marriage.”  Now, that is a statement of great hope and it has stayed with me.  It is as a vision that, through the grace of God, will be our future.  It is a future toward which we must labor daily. 

Jesus has told us what we need to do in turbulent times.  We are to be vigilant, discerning, and hopeful.  May the One who gives us this word give us grace to hear it, grace to accept it, and wisdom to live it.