25th Sunday after Pentecost
World Shattering," a sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
The Temple in Jerusalem – the 2nd Temple that stood during Jesus’ lifetime – was incomparable! It was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World! Built under Herod the Great, it was a huge upgrade from its rebuilding after the people returned from the Exile five centuries earlier. Herod had much greater resources, and after conquering Palestine, he built it to impress the Jews and help to gain their loyalty, which seemed to work, especially with the Scribes and the ruling Sanhedrin.
“As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Indeed, they were impressive! The huge retaining walls that supported the temple were composed of great white quarried stones, as long as 40 feet, some of which still stand as part of the Western Wall today. The platform upon which it stood was over 900 x 1,500 ft. — twice as large as the Roman Forum with its temples, and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis which features the Parthenon.
The front of the temple in Jerusalem, facing east, was itself a perfect square, 150 x 150 feet each way, and much of it was decorated with silver and gold. Josephus, the prolific Jewish historian of the time, reports that Herod used so much gold to cover the outside walls of the temple that, in the bright sunlight, it nearly – blinded anyone who looked at it. The combination of the temple mount, with its huge retaining stones, and the large stones of the temple itself raised the temple complex to a height that could be seen from miles away by the pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem to worship there at festival times.
To this un-named disciple in our gospel, Jesus responded, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Quite a prediction! But one that basically came true in the year 70 A.D., probably at the very time Mark was writing his gospel.
The Temple was impressive because it was so beautiful, a skyline jutting up above the city, and seemingly impregnable. But also because the Jews believed that within the Temple, behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies, is where God’s presence, the Shekinah, nested, and took up residence on earth. That’s where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, ever since King Solomon put it there, the same ark that led Moses and the chosen people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
The Temple then, was the greatest symbol of who they were, and what they stood for, and so must have come as a great shock to them, to hear Jesus predict its downfall. Though, not totally! Apocalyptic predictions of the Temple’s demise were not unheard of, and false Messiah’s were even more common, like those Jesus warned his four closest disciples to beware of – “they – the false Christ’s – will lead many astray,” he said. Yet, the disciples in this reading, look, but don’t see. They are blinded by the magnificence of the Temple, and for the time being, led astray. But who wouldn’t trust in this treasure, this sturdy looking shrine, and draw some comfort, looking at it, that of all things, it would endure?
So when the Romans finally overpowered the last of the brave Jewish rebels, and the Temple was burned down in the year 70AD, it was a huge crisis for both Jews and Christians. Both good and bad came from it. It was the beginning of a growing antipathy between Jews and Christians, despite the attempts of some of the best minds, Rabbi Gamaliel, Paul and others, to work out a peaceful relationship. And the anti-Semitism it grew into, is a problem we are still trying to own up to and repair today.
But there were those, like the Pharisees, who were well positioned in the 1st century, to find a new way and a new locus for Judaism – the founders of Torah worship in the synagogues of the diaspora. Christians thrived, both underground when they had to, and attracting new comers by their example of loving good works, and their grace-filled theology. A theology that came from Jesus’ life, captured in the gospels.
The disciples had difficulty “understanding,” before the event of his ‘death and resurrection.’ But in this gift, the followers of Jesus recovered a kind of third way that Jesus had left for them. Even here in chapter 13 of Mark – called the Little Apocalypse, after Revelation, the much bigger apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos – even here, Jesus steers the Disciples away from taking up arms. There will be wars and rumors of wars, but do not overreact; this must take place, the end is still to come; The Temple will fall, and there might be other natural signs, said Jesus: earthquakes in various places and famines. But this, he says, is but the beginning of the birth pangs, of what God will bring to life.
Jesus does not want his disciples to be patriots that stay and defend this Temple, whose treasury devours widows’ houses, and whose leaders are hypocrites. Jesus steers them away from Jerusalem and the Temple. When war comes, “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains,” he proclaims. And of course, most telling is Jesus instruction to go to Galilee, after his death and resurrection, there you will see me – and my Shekinah will be with you.
It was a time of great tribulation and change. An apocalyptic time – a term that means unveiling, or pulling back the curtain – and signs were seen everywhere. Beautiful buildings were being toppled, and especially the fall of the Temple was a severe crisis for Israel and the followers of Jesus.
What are the things that bring crisis into our lives? What great people and monuments do we trust in, that when they fall, either by corruption or natural causes, bring our world crumbling down?
Losing a parent can be hard, it can change how we feel about our lives and the world. Losing a child is many times more difficult, and can be an earth-shattering event. Senseless gun violence in our city, especially the cold blooded murder of a young innocent boy, can make us cynical like the world has fallen apart. Loss of a job, or repeatedly being turned down for jobs you’re qualified for, is terribly stressful, and can cause you to lose hope. Or, terrorist acts like in Paris on Friday, can make us feel shocked – leaving us wondering what the world is coming to.
But the life of Jesus, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus, can offer us hope and new life, even in the midst of tribulation and apocalyptic change all around us in our world. Jesus points us away from endless and constant retaliation and vengefulness, both personally and between peoples and nations. The ways of domestic violence and war was not the answer for Jesus, and he gave us the alternative model of offering his life, that as followers, we might become servants and slaves of all, to win a new and non-violent third way. Whether with our family and friends, with our neighborhoods or the nations, Jesus teaches love and active non-violence, he teaches his disciples a pro-active hospitality and lifting up of the poor and marginalized, he promises recovery of sight to the blind. Many will come in his name and say, ‘I am he!’ and try to lead us astray. But blessed are those who follow the teacher and master, our Messiah.
When Jesus breathed his last, offering his life for the world, it is said in Mark’s gospel, that the Temple curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. This veil, that covered the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, was pulled back to reveal that Jesus is our Shekinah, the presence of God, in and with us. His life, and the gift of grace that he offers in his death, is the new Temple for us, the Holy of Holies. And the cross – that Roman construction of humiliation and death – is transformed into the most beautiful symbol, for the followers of Jesus, like the Temple’s gold, shining eastward to all the world.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, has pulled back the curtain on the sin of our world, and revealed God’s way of peace and servanthood. The Son of Man and Son of God, is the Shekinah shining in the people who carry this new gift in their hearts and their lives, wherever they go. Look, the presence of God is never far, and never failing – it is by our side and walks with you. Blessings on your journey!