Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Trinity, YrB 2018
‘Passing Away, or Eternal?’
Children are great truth tellers – well until they learn other ways. (One traditional reading of the story of the Garden of Eden is that through the deceptive snake, the infant humans learn to lie, and hide from the Truth)
The other day I was on the receiving end of such truth telling. I visited a couple as they were at lunch. Their three year old son who has only seen me once or twice asked who I was, and was told by his father, ‘that’s Megan’s daddy’. I smiled at the child and said ‘I’m very old’. Quick as a flash he looked me in the eye and said ‘you’re going to die!’ (I gather that they’d just been talking about death and the story had been told them that this was something that happened to old people and I had just put myself forward as a representative of ‘old people’ 🙂 )
It is Good to hear the Truth and certainly you can’t get more truthful than ‘You are going to die’ You may escape taxes, but there is one escape none of us will make! But we try to, not least in trying to leave some lasting trace of our existence upon this earth. Like Job we complain about our lot and look for a steel pencil and rock to inscribe our words on . . . yet as any visitor to an English churchyard will attest, the years rapidly do their job of making a mockery of our attempts at permanence, erasing our name from human sight.
In a world that is passing away, we seek to hold back the years. Not least by erecting great buildings – and of all the buildings in the time of Jesus, none dominated the view more than the Temple of Herod the Great. Vast and Covered in Gold, so that one could not look at it in the full glare of the sun. Surely this would stand until the end of time!!
In that light the words of Jesus ‘‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ can be understood as shocking. Reminding us of the temporariness of even the greatest buildings. Imagine if you will how the architects stood back and admired the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York as they were completed in 1973 [The Wikipedia entry for the WTC is followed by (1973-2001) – we even memorialise our building s nowadays]. . . Imagine the first St Paul’s Cathedral in London if you have ever seen a picture of it . . . Conjure up a picture of what remains of the parthenon in Athens . . . Stand for a million years?? Tower and temple fall to dust. Dust you are and to dust you will return as the words of our Ash Wednesday liturgy remind us.
The things that are seen are passing away, yet it is an affront to the sense of our own significance to face this. ‘’Behold! These great buildings?” See them, relies Jesus? . . . not one stone will be left on another . . . In the light of this, we hear the words of Jesus afresh – ’Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust, where wind and rain, and sun and frost wither away, where thieves break through and steal where armies and men of violence and fire and flood destroy . . .’ Don’t invest in dust . . . [Even Amazon – Jeff Bezzos declared this week that Amazon would eventually folk – he gave it 30 years or so . . .] Against the inevitable we try in vain to secure our existence
Yet we fail to perceive the true depth of how shocking the words are for Jesus’ disciples. They may well have replied, ‘Yes obviously we know that, but The Temple! Surely not The Temple??’
The Temple filled not only the sight but also the entire imagination of the Jewish people regarding their entire existence. It was The Marker of their Identity as the people of God, the people chosen for the dwelling place of God. From the beginning, had not God dwelt in their midst . . . if the Temple goes, what does that say?? Their entire social and religious world was built around it. Had not Jesus just shown them the widow who put her entire being into the Temple treasury? All that she had to live on? The Temple was their Life!!! Jesus just seemed to have suggested this.
If the Temple goes, we are as good as dead . . . Our sense of Security is in these stones . . . Who we are is tied up in this . . .
Yet we still do not fully comprehend the deeper sense of trauma – for The Temple was not merely about the Jewish people – the great vision of the prophets saw all peoples streaming to the Temple, for the Temple was about everyone, and everything, everywhere!
For those who knew the old stories, the Temple wasn’t Just a Jewish religious building giving meaning to a Jewish religious world. The Temple stood for the entirety of the Creation – the seven days of Creation mapped out the Temple – The Temple held everything together . . . if the Temple goes, everything collapses . . .
The destruction of the Temple would presage the collapse of everything as they saw it . . . wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines . . . the End of everything . . . Jesus’ words about the birth pangs resonate throughout the whole cosmos.
The destruction of the Temple . . . All things hold together in the Temple . . . the brutal fact was that the Temple was passing away, not merely worn away by the sands of time, it was to be destroyed . . .
We approach the end of the church’s year – we live in the last times , and our readings point towards this end. We think of Advent as the start of the New Year, yet Advent orients us towards the End of all things. We start as we mean to go on, oriented towards the End of all things.
Advent is in a sense The Church’s season. It is the season for watching and waiting, it is the season that if you like gives us our posture for the entire year ahead, waiting for the Coming of the son of Man and the revealing of the fulfilment of all things . . . in Him who is the End of all things
It is the season in which we mediate on the Last Things, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Young Welsey’s words were a very timely reminder – I am going to die. We meditate on the our impermanence, all that is passing away – and so look to that which is eternal. Not a building built by human hands – and the destruction of a Temple built by human hands, of the human attempt to supplant the story of God, is central to all of this . . . but this is not merely about the destruction of the Temple and the Cosmos built around it . . . it is about a new Temple, a new heaven and a new Earth
The destruction of the Temple. ‘Jesus [said], ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.’
At the centre of everything – at the centre of Creation was to be The Man, the human who lived loving God above and tending to all that was below. That was what was in place in the Creation Temple, but the human rather than accepting the name given to him, chose to try and build a name for himself apart from God – disconnecting the Cosmos from her Creator. Trying to turn the things that are passing away into the things that are eternal, trying to build heaven on earth, rather than being heaven’s presence on earth . . .
But at the End this is revealed as the fraud that it is.
In the Resurrection of Jesus The True Temple is established, the Temple of his body, where everything is held together, where heaven and Earth are united. It is the breaking in of eternal Life for all who believe. We are called to be his people with our eyes set on the eternal, storing up treasure in heaven, living into the eternal life of the Risen Christ, who was from the beginning the very centre of the True Creation that is not passing away.
We have a Temple, not one built by human hands – but that of his body. He is our Temple, The Human who holds heaven and Earth together in himself. Jesus’s words are very shocking, but they are as it were the blowing away of all that is passing away, and the revealing of the eternal life which ‘was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’
And so in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, Do not be alarmed, do not be led astray – for he who has promised is faithful.’
Let us look not at what can be seen but let us desire to Behold that which cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, in all through all and above all – our place of Access to God, the Centre of God’s plans and purposes. Let us not get caught out seeking to secure that which is passing away and being consumed by it as surely as it will be consumed. Let us not be distracted by wars and rumours of wars, by earthquake fire and famine. Let us fix our hearts on God, the Eternal one – let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. As we see these things come to pass . . .
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.