Sermon for November 18, 2018
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is all that is left of the mighty Temple that Herod built. It isn’t even part of the temple, really, it’s just the retaining wall around the base, but it is still one of the few visible reminders that this was once the site of one of the greatest buildings in the ancient world: the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And some of those stones are the very stones that Jesus himself would have seen, and maybe touched.
Today in front of the Western Wall there is a little room where you can go in to get a glimpse of what the temple would have looked like in Jesus’s day. You walk in, sit in a swivel chair, and put on some fancy goggles, and through the wonders of virtual reality you can look around the temple as if it were still standing. They have tried to recreate the temple as they think it would have looked, using archeology, and biblical, historical and rabbinical accounts. And through computer graphics you get to see it. It’s a very touristy sort of thing to do, but the last time I was there I had a little spare time and I was curious, so I thought, what the heck?
Well it was interesting, and I have to say that if what they portrayed is even close to accurate, and I imagine that it is, then that temple was a sight to see. Beautiful white stone, with pillars and golden details around the top; when the sun hit it, it must have looked like it was on fire. People living today would be awestruck by that building, not to mention people living in the ancient world; people that carved out a living in caves and small stone houses; people for whom roads were the latest in technology. I can’t imagine what their amazement must have been like at seeing this thing for the first time.
But you know, I’m sure those people didn’t just feel awe and wonder when they looked at that building. I’m willing to bet they felt some pride. This building was a symbol of the greatness of their God. It was the God of Israel that was worshipped in this place. That was the God that inspired this building. But I’m sure that as people walked up to that majestic building to offer their sacrifices, they must have taken a moment and thought to themselves: we did that. We built that. And if we can build something like this, what can’t we do? We built our God the greatest temple in the East, maybe the greatest temple in the world. We have come so far. We escaped slavery in Egypt to build the first temple; and we escaped captivity in Babylon to build the second temple, and it is bigger and better than the first. We are getting better, we are getting stronger. This temple is a symbol of how far we have come. If we can build something like this, what can’t we do?
It’s gone now. Not long after Jesus was crucified, the Romans grew tired of rebellions in this troublesome province and decided to put an end to it. The temple, that splendid symbol of power and technology and wealth and progress, oh, and faith too, was completely and utterly destroyed. And of course, I’m just talking about the building; I haven’t even mentioned the countless souls brutally killed in the massacre; the blood spilled among the ruins. So much for progress. So much for getting better and stronger.
And the Romans, they marched away pretty proud of themselves. I’m sure they thought: well that’s the end of that! With our power and our superior weapons, we don’t need to worry about these Jews and their God anymore; we certainly don’t need to worry about that upstart Jew Jesus and his followers. We took care of him first and now with the temple gone and the Jews expelled, we are not going to have to worry about trouble and strife in this region anymore. From now on there will be peace here, and we did it. We made it happen. Pax Romana. So the Romans march off, confident in their position in the world and in their future. But where is their empire now?
You know, sometimes I think we forget that when Jesus started his church, the one we all became a part of when we were baptized, the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire ruled much of the world. A lot has happened since then. A lot of things we started have come and gone since then.
The Roman empire fell and was replaced by lots of little kingdoms that fought each other all the time. Kingdoms start to consolidate and you start to get countries like England and France, that fought each other all the time. Then of course countries start expanding into empires, that fight each other all the time. Empires expand, then, guess what, they fall. Lather, rinse, repeat. The cycle goes on and on through history, and through it all humans go on behaving like humans to one another (and incidentally I don’t mean that as a good thing). There are wars, there is violence, there is strife.
First, we convince ourselves that we are on the cusp of a bright new tomorrow where with the proper leadership and technology we can solve all the world’s evils; our plans don’t work out, then we convince ourselves that the end is nigh and Armageddon is imminent. We either have all the answers or none of them. The future is either wine and roses or fire and brimstone. It is so easy to get caught up in that on both sides, and that is exactly what we do. False hope and false doom both cry out for our attention, and we give it to them both.
But if you read, mark, learn and inwardly digest our scriptures then you will know that our God is not the God of quick fixes or easy answers. Our God is not the God of one empire or another; our God is not the God of one age or another. Our God is not the God of false hope or false doom. God has shown that he is in this with us for the long haul. He knows what we are like. He knows that we are going to get full of ourselves; think we have the power and the skill to make the world right on our own, and he knows that we’re gonna fall down again and screw things up, and then in our failure despair that it is all for nothing. He knows that pain and strife are not over for us; he warned us about it, repeatedly. Jesus knows that we are going to go on being human, being hurtful to one another until the end of time, but still he keeps showing up. Wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he shows up. He promises us that he will not abandon us nor forsake us. “Lo I am with you until the end of the age,” he says. He keeps teaching us, he keeps blessing us and forgiving us. Despite our abject failure to ever be faithful to God or his commandments for very long, God is faithful to us. Empires come and go; kingdoms come and go, institutions come and go; still the church, Jesus’s church, keeps tottering on. How? I assure you it isn’t because we have capable leadership. The church has survived despite our best efforts, not because of them.
Jesus does not want us to get caught up in false hope, or false despair. He’s very clear: humans might be able to build some pretty impressive things, but they haven’t conquered sin yet. Only God can do that. Humans are going to go on being humans to each other, so we needn’t be surprised when people do evil things. There will be wars and destruction and deception. But these things are not a sign of the end times. They are not a cause for despair. God isn’t done with us yet, in fact, he’s just getting started. Birth pangs.
Temples rise and temples fall. Empires rise and empires fall. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Sometimes we humans will do the right thing, and sometimes we won’t. If you need everything to go right, or be right, in order to see God at work in the world, then let me tell you, you are missing God. Because while you were focused on whether those temple walls are standing in glory or lying in ruins, you might miss the fact that babies are still being born. Bread is still rising. Grape juice is still turning into wine. People are still falling in love. God’s grace is still bursting forth into this world each and every day. People are still hurting each other its true, they are still being human, but they are also still being forgiven. God is at work in the world, we just get so preoccupied with our own successes and failures, we get so preoccupied with the things that we build and destroy, that we can’t see him.
You know, I love the temple in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was pretty in Jesus’s day, but I love it as it is now. An ugly, ruined heap of old stones. The site of some of the worst atrocities that humans have every committed against each other. A place where humans are still being humans to each other, still hurting each other. With our skill we built something beautiful there once, and with our sin we destroyed it. And yet, people gather among the ruins to pray and dance and sing God’s praises. The temple we built may be gone, but our God is alive and well.