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death and destruction
November 14, 2021
I still can’t believe that it’s gone. My grandparents’ house has been torn down. It was a necessary thing to do, for many reasons. But I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s not there anymore. The place where we had all of those Sunday dinners and games of canasta and Old Maid, the epic hide-and-seek adventures with my sisters and cousins, the sleepovers and the good snacks.
Of course, my grandparents are no longer here either. I like to imagine what they’re up to in eternal life, my grandfather telling stories with his signature philosophy – “Don’t mess up a good story with the facts” – and my grandmother admonishing him gently to maybe pay a little bit of attention to the facts.
It’s difficult to accept that buildings don’t last forever, especially the ones that are important to us. Even when they appear strong and immovable, they will eventually come down. It’s even more difficult to accept that people don’t last forever, at least not in this life. We grieve for so many who have left us.
The impermanence of everything is what makes the perpetual upkeep of a building and its property so daunting. Just ask John and Tim and Rich and Elaine and Dana and Jen and others who have been working so hard to take care of the property here while floor tiles insist on buckling and stairs keep crumbling. There’s an endless list of things that need attention, and we’re so grateful for the people who give so generously of their time to attend to those things.
Will this building be here 500 years from now? Who knows? If it is, it might look quite different. Maybe the flying cars won’t need parking lot stripes?
In today’s gospel one of Jesus’ disciples gestures to the temple with admiration: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!” The Temple was a point of pride, the center of worship life for the Jewish people, the place where they knew they could encounter God in various ways.
The first century historian Josephus was among those to document the wonder of the temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.[i] Herod the Great had made sure the retaining walls were made of stones that were forty feet long. The temple’s footprint was twice as big as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. Herod had also covered the outside walls with gold so they would shine brightly for all to see.
So the disciple’s awe as he gazes on the temple makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, at least to his listeners, is how Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” These words were so shocking to those who heard them that they would later be used against Jesus when he is arrested and put on trial. How dare he say such ridiculous things! And if talking about the temple disappearing weren’t bad enough, Jesus goes on to describe false prophets, wars and divisions, earthquakes and famines.
Now is a good time to review what we have to remember about all biblical texts. Each biblical passage or story has a relationship to at least three different time periods.
The first is the world in the text. In this case that’s the world of Jesus spending time with his disciples as he knows his death is drawing ever closer. He speaks to them about dramatic events that will happen at some undesignated time in the future. And as we often hear in the gospel of Mark, the disciples don’t fully understand what he means. Peter, James, John, and Andrew approach him later in private to ask some follow-up questions, like “When will all this crazy stuff happen?”
That’s the world in the text. But there’s also the world behind the text. The gospel of Mark wasn’t written down until decades after the time of Jesus, probably sometime in the midst of the war between the Jews and Rome, a war that took place from the year 66 to the year 74. The Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70. So you can imagine that those traumatic events unfolding as the gospel is being recorded might have made their way into the text. By the time Mark is being written down, it’s not hypothetical that the Temple will be reduced to rubble. It’s quite real.
Finally, there’s the world in front of the text. That’s our world. We read these stories through the lens of our own time, our own experiences. I don’t have to work that hard to imagine dramatic events now that could correspond to what Jesus is describing. There’s plenty of chaos in our world. A global pandemic, political divisions wreaking havoc everywhere, the worsening manifestations of climate change – storms, wildfires, floods, tornadoes. We’ve had most of those here in New Jersey just in the last six months.
I’m not suggesting we should be apocalypse alarmists, looking for signs everywhere that the world is about to end. But I do think it’s worth asking what we might be called to do as people of faith in the midst of chaos.
Remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” He’s saying that there’s probably more pain coming, but it’s part of a birth process. Something new is being born. We don’t yet know what it will look like, but we can trust that God is with us in the labor. It’s one of the reasons I love that line in our Prayer of the Day: “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” The chaos might swirl around us, but we can be rooted in God’s faithful presence. We can be steadfast because God has shown us steadfast love from generation to generation.
We hear some additional wisdom in our second reading from Hebrews, which reminds us that Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for our sake and for the sake of the world. Jesus has opened to us “a new and living way.” And so what does the author of Hebrews say we ought to do in response? To hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
What might that look like, that provoking each other to good deeds? How will we find ways to care for the earth so that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a viable place to live? How will we care for each other, encouraging each other when it feels like we just can’t keep going? How will we care for the poor and the struggling, those who experience a disproportionate amount of harm when the world is in chaos?
No matter how mighty the building, it will eventually crumble. No matter how powerful the person, they will eventually die. Nothing lasts forever. We could hear that news and turn inward, indulging our most selfish impulses until our own time comes. Or we could turn toward each other. We could turn toward the needs of the world.
Today Jesus reminds us that death and destruction are not the final chapter in the story of the people of God. As my dear friend Audrey West wrote yesterday, “Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”[ii]
We’re just a few steps into a new beginning in our time. We have no idea what lies ahead, but we know that we are held up by the strength of God and called to bear God’s life-giving hope to a world in need.
As we take those steps, however tentatively, we sing and we pray. We’re about to sing the old hymn “Built on a Rock,” a hymn that imagines how the church in its truest sense will stand even when buildings crumble and fall. Among my favorite lines in that hymn are these: “Yet God who dwells in heav’n above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies his temple.”
Making our bodies God’s temple. What we carry out into the world, what we embody with our hands and hearts and voices…that is the truest version of church. May God grant us the faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] Thank you to Audrey for her Facebook post on November 13, 2021: “On tomorrow’s apocalyptic lectionary text: No matter how powerful the person or how mighty the building, it cannot last forever. However, God’s own Messiah assures his followers that death and the destruction of the Temple do not represent the final chapter in the story of the people of God. Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”
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