November 18,2012 – The Fall of the Temple
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We catch the holy apostles in a tourist moment today, as they leave the Temple with Jesus. This building, which was Herod’s restoration of the original Temple that King Solomon had built about nine centuries earlier, was an incredibly impressive building, certainly one of the most magnificent buildings in the world at that time. A historian of the time, named Josephus, wrote, “Now the outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise men’s minds or their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this Temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for, as to those parts of it which were not gilt, they were exceeding white…of its stones, some of them were sixty-six feet in length, seven and a half in height, and nine feet wide.” Coming from Galilee to Jerusalem was like coming from Brasher Falls to Rome to see the Vatican; you can imagine the awe of these men, mostly common laborers, as they looked upon the splendor of this Temple. Not only was it an amazing work of men’s hands, but it symbolized for them all the glory of their religious tradition and their national heritage combined. It was the embodiment of all that they had been taught to honor and worship since they were children.
And so, in a mixture of holy awe and pride and simple astonishment, the apostles pointed out the greatness of this building to their teacher. “Look! what wonderful stones! What wonderful buildings!” I’m sure they expected Jesus to be as impressed as they were, but he surprised them by saying, “Look around you at all this greatness: it’s not going to last. The time is coming when there won’t be one stone left upon another; it will be utterly destroyed.” The apostles weren’t the only ones who heard Jesus say this. It stuck in the minds of the people who heard it; it troubled them, a lot, and when Jesus was brought to trial before the high priest, people accused Jesus of plotting to destroy the Temple. But the twelve men who knew Jesus took him at his word, and privately they asked him about it. “When is this going to happen?” It was a terrifying thought; it seemed like the end of the world as they knew it. I think they felt something like we would feel if we were told that the White House was going to be completely and utterly demolished, maybe a little like we felt when we saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. It was a terrifying prediction, and they asked him urgently, and fearfully, “When is this going to happen?”
Sometimes when we read this passage it sounds like Jesus is talking about what we call the “end times.” He talks about wars and rumors of wars, about earthquakes and famines, and it sounds like all the dark and scary images we have associated with the Book of Revelations, and those alarming books or movies about the Apocalypse. But in reality, Jesus wasn’t talking about anything far in the future at all. All those things were beginning to happen, and Jesus’s words would be fulfilled, in a very few years, when most of the disciples who walked with Jesus would still have been alive, In the year 70 the Jews rebelled against the Emperor Caligula, because he had desecrated the temple, and Roman legions attacked the city of Jerusalem. Somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 Jews were slaughtered, and the glorious Temple of Herod was completely destroyed, literally not one stone left upon another, exactly as Jesus had predicted forty years earlier.
And knowing all that, even though it is a terrible thing to think of so many deaths and so much destruction, still, it might make us feel a little more comfortable to tuck it all away as a historic fact, something in the past, something we don’t need to worry about anymore. It is a bit of a relief. After all, there are enough scary things in the world already; we shouldn’t have to get scared reading the Bible, which is supposed to be a safe and comforting book for us. But the Word of God is living and active, as the writer to the Hebrews wrote, and every Word has something to say to us, something life-giving, something that we need to take to heart. For us, living in the United States in the 21st century, far away from the Temple of Jerusalem and fortunately far removed from the evil and insanity of Caligula, we still need to listen to Jesus’ warning, because we are still tempted in so many ways to give our awe and our admiration and our trust to the works of man’s hands and minds.
As Christians, we profess our longing for the coming of Jesus and his kingdom, but I think it is very, very hard for us to have a real longing, a real passion, for anything beyond the beauty and the goodness that we have created ourselves, for the good things of our lives, our relationships and our ideals, all the things we admire and depend on. This passage probably has many things to teach us, but one thing that we need to take away from it is this: that the very best and most beautiful and most firmly-established things of this world are shakable, are temporary, are even now passing away, and that the best things of this world are only shadows of the Real and the Unshakable and the truly Good and Beautiful that is coming. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urged his readers to set their minds on whatever is honorable and just and pure and lovely and worthy of praise. We do that because these are the fingerprints of the Creator in this creation, the marks of God’s perfection even in the midst of the imperfections of this world. But we are always in danger of holding too tightly to the good we can hold onto, and of forgetting that real goodness is yet to come. We are always in danger of settling for less than God has planned for us. And sometimes it takes the destruction of our Temples – those good things we have come to put our trust in – to turn our eyes back to the only One we can really put our trust in.
If you look back over your own history, the road of your life is littered with the crumbled remains of so many Temples of your own creation. We have all faced the human failings of those people we put our trust in, who in their humanity couldn’t live up to all that we wanted of them, our parents, our friends, our teachers, our pastors, our husbands or wives. We have faced the failings of our government, of its fallibility or frailty or its tendency to corruption. We have faced the failings of our church, made up after all of plain old human beings in all their pride and stubbornness and gracelessness and foolishness. And we have certainly all faced our own failings, disappointing ourselves over and over again by failing to achieve what we ought to have achieved, by failing to live up to the standards we know we ought to have lived up to. So many of those plans and ideals and goals that we had such high hopes for, that shone so brightly in the morning sun like the glorious façade of Herod’s Temple, just crumbled like a house of cards in the end, not one stone left on another.
Every time we have to face the destruction of something in our world that seemed so good and beautiful and hopeful, it is painful. And the Bible has a way of referring to the pains of this life that has a lot to teach us. Jesus said to his disciples, in verse 8 of this passage, when they asked when these terrible things were going to happen, “These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” The shaking of our physical world, the violence of our political world, the weakness and corruption of our personal world, these things are the pains that we suffer as God brings forth the redemption of his creation. He transforms our failures and weaknesses and corruption and even death, using them for his own good and healing purposes, to bring to birth something utterly new, something absolutely good and perfect and beautiful and unshakable. Jesus displayed it on the cross; Jesus’ death and resurrection is the ultimate work of redemption and new birth. But that same power is at work in our lives every day.
In the death of every human hope, God is bringing to birth the eternal hope of his kingdom. And we don’t yet know how to hope for it very well, because the Temples of this world are all that we know so far, just like a pregnant woman doesn’t yet know what her newborn child will look like. She knows only the experiences of her own body, with its pains and its pleasures. But her hope is for this new life she can feel inside her, the birth she knows is coming, though she doesn’t know when it will come, though she knows she will have to endure pain in the process. It is a mystery, this waiting for the new life that God has promised us, and this passage we read today is God’s gracious reminder to us that all that seems most strong, most beautiful, most good in the kingdom of this world, is nothing compared to the kingdom that he is bringing to birth even now in his people. Because the love and the grace and the beauty and the compassion that we have even now begun to know in our lives with Christ, that quickening movement of his Spirit that we can feel inside ourselves, and in one another, these are the first unshakable stones of the kingdom that he is building with and within us, and the birth of the kingdom that will last for ever and ever.