November 17, 2013

26th Week after Pentecost

What you believe about the future, how things are going to turn out for the world and for yourself, has a great deal to do with how you live your life in the present.  How you view the future has a lot to do with your soul, your spirituality, that interior place inside each one of us where we decide what the purpose of our lives is and then commit ourselves to it. Philosophers and poets have always paid a lot of attention to this topic.

One of T.S. Eliot’s most distinguished poems begins:

"In my beginning is my end" and concludes:

"In my end is my beginning."

Shakespeare, on the other hand, says through Macbeth:

"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

Our readings this morning are examples of eschatology, the end of things.

Jesus and his disciples are visiting Jerusalem.  This city is the center of their world, and at the city's center stands the temple.  The sight of the temple almost overwhelms them, and the more talkative ones go on enthusiastically about the beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God that appear almost everywhere they turn there in the temple precincts. By anyone's accounting, the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus was a magnificent place.

This temple was the third one to stand on the site.  The first one, built by Solomon, had lasted four hundred years until it was destroyed by the Babylonians.  The second, built by Nehemiah, remained intact for five centuries before it was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes.

The third temple, built by Herod, had been in place for nearly half a century when Jesus and his disciples came for their visit.  It was twice the size of the previous enclosure.  Ten thousand people had been put to work on its construction.  The building was completed within a decade, but the work of decoration and detail continued on for years afterward.  To see this vast complex, to walk through its precincts, must have been a wondrous experience.

Almost everyone in Jerusalem was engaged in some work connected with the temple.  There were craftsmen, blenders of incense, dealers in sacrificial animals, innkeepers who offered hospitality to pilgrims, and currency changers, such as those Jesus chased out of the temple one memorable day.  All told, the temple personnel numbered about 20,000 people, not including the priests and Levites.  To the leadership of this institution was entrusted the supervision of ritual and sacrifice, the operation of a financial system, and the maintenance of the temple police force.  It is not too much to describe Jerusalem as a temple with a city attached. 

In the light of this majesty and power, the words of Jesus seem all the more remarkable.  When those with him cannot help but praise the glory of the temple, he speaks a prophecy of destruction: "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." This prophecy came terribly true a generation later when the temple was once again destroyed, this time by the Roman army.

These words of Jesus must have sounded strange, even horrible, to those who heard them.  The temple appeared so secure.  It was a place unlike any other so far as the Jews were concerned.  To speak of its destruction while walking its precincts must have sounded crazy.  For the temple was not simply a place, even a holy place.  It was a way of life, an ideology, to which captive and oppressed people held tight.

But the Jerusalem temple is no more. Is there another temple whose sacrifice is pure and holy, where humanity can meet the true God? The answer is yes. It is no vast structure that dominates the landscape.  The temple of which I speak is the body of Christ.

Jesus declared while in Jerusalem, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again." He did not mean a building; he meant his body.  That body was destroyed in death, yet raised to unconquerable life.  That body still abides and it includes all of God’s people.

This temple is not a single place, but it is wherever God’s people gather to break bread and share the cup of salvation.  This real and mystical and visible body, this organism of human members and divine life, is obedient to God's economy, the ways of God's household, the divine patterns of justice and mercy.  All are welcome to live in this family.  The doors of this temple stand open to any who will surrender to Jesus as Lord.

The basic message of the Bible is that God is on the side of life and justice and goodness, and because of that, there is a better day coming. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. God loves the world and has a purpose for the world and for each of us in it and is at work in history and in our personal lives to bring about that purpose of peace and justice and kindness and compassion.

People who believe that become people of hope and courage; people who do not give up; people who persist in working for peace when there seems to be no reason; people who will not stop hoping and working for a safer world for our children, for a system which extends its bounty and incredible opportunity to everyone, not just those of us who were born into it.

People of faith will be discouraged on occasion, but not paralyzed; People of hope change the world because they know that regardless of how things look now, in the end is God’s kingdom of justice and mercy and love.

Karl Barth, said, "Hope takes place in the act of taking the next step."

We believe in a God who is sovereign and who works in history and in our own lives to bring about God’s reign.

We believe in God’s son, Jesus Christ, who experienced the worst life could be, and died a horrible death, and rose again to free us from fear so that we might live lives of courage and hope.

We believe, as the poet put it, that "Our beginning is our end," and, "our end is our beginning."

Thanks be to God.

Amen.