Sunday, November 14, 2010

God, Out of the Box

Thanks to Pastor Debye Swilley, who helped get me past a mental block concerning the Gospel reading. With my background in Fundamentalist Christianity, it's difficult sometimes to see beyond the apocalyptic language of the passage to the meat of what Jesus is saying to us today. Once again, it's Twitter to the rescue...

Isaiah 12
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "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."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Luke is recounting, in his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, what is known as Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. The city is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. However much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, from about any point in the city, one can look up and see the Temple, its white marble highlighted with gold decorations, smoke from constant sacrifice wafting through the air and to the heavens.

By the time Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the Temple has been under construction for some forty-six years. Barely anyone alive remembers the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. They’ve heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, it was actually torn down as part of the building project. But since the daily religious activities had continued without interruption, Herod’s Temple was still considered the second Temple, first constructed by the returning exiles in 515 BC.

The magnificence of this work in progress filled the hearts of every Jewish man, woman, and child with pride. Here, at last, a building which personified the Jewish people and the Jewish God, every stone and every embellishment dedicated to the One True God, who had led them from captivity in Egypt, and had brought them back from Babylon. And right there, in that tallest structure on the innermost courts, was the Holy of Holies – and while no one would admit believing that God actually resided in the Most Holy Place, still there wasn’t any arguing that, when you looked at the glory of the structure, witnessed the solemn dedication of the army of priests, and felt in your soul the beauty of the singing of the Psalms, deep down, it was hard not to think that this was where God lived.

But can God be contained in a building? Of course not, it’s silly to even pretend that it’s worth discussing in a sermon. So let’s change the question: can a people’s identity, can a faith tradition’s identity, be so closely identified with an architectural creation that it is, in effect, inseparable? We know, living on this side of the Resurrection, this side of 70AD, how Jesus, and how history, has answered that question. Yes, the long temple renovation will be finished, and it will stand completed… for three years, before being utterly destroyed in 70AD. As my friend, the Reverend Debye Swilley put it, “What ‘was’ has to fall, so that what ‘is’ can come.”

Here’s what that means: just days from the moment Jesus speaks the words in our reading this morning, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple will be torn apart. The idea of God being contained in a structure will be forever destroyed, as anyone in the Temple courts will be able to look inside the darkened chamber only to find it empty.

Empty, like the burial chamber three days after they lay Jesus to rest.

The fact that Jesus arose and ascended doesn’t mean that those who call on the name of Christ are to sit idle, waiting for Jesus to return. From Easter morning on, God’s identity, God’s community, God’s activity will reside not in a building – even a beautiful building – but in people: men and women in every time and place. The Gospel isn’t a residence. It’s a journey, and since the moment the tongues of flame settled on the disciples’ heads on the Day of Pentecost, people have been moving.

From Pentecost onward, men and women found themselves at odds with the Roman authorities, arrested and killed for daring to refuse to worship Caesar, blamed for everything from foreign invasion to natural disaster, they knew, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

I confess that I am doubtful if anyone in the United States today has any understanding of what it’s like to undergo true persecution. Yet there are places on this planet where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. Iraqi militants stormed a church and took worshipers hostage, killing fifty-eight of them. Since then, Iraqi Christian neighborhoods have been the scene of bombings and attacks by militants. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, was arrested for sharing her faith in Christ and has been sentenced to hang for blasphemy.

This is not, by the way, simply a problem in Muslim nations. China, too, persecutes Christians, as does North Korea, Columbia, Cuba, and dozens of other countries. Yet in these places, Christianity thrives and continues to grow. Christians persevere.

Perhaps you and I don’t know what persecution is like. Perhaps it falls on us, then, to be the voice of those in countries who cannot speak up for themselves. It’s as simple as a letter or email to an elected official, calling on them to push for human rights in all areas of the globe. It’s as simple as writing a check to a ministry or organization that works to support imprisoned and persecuted Christians, and, for that matter, any marginalized and neglected segment of the world’s population.

Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.


  1. John,

    Since I've been working with this text also, I was curious what you did with it. I like it. You have a gift. I like the way you took it. If you want to see what I did (after you preach), DM me.

    Margaret (mayog)

  2. Wow John!...You most definintly brought the Spirit of the Word Alive!...We do NOT LIVE BY BREAD ALONE BUT BY EVERY WORD THAT IS PROCEEDING OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD!....This my amazing friend is a PROCEEDING Word!...

    Thank you for the props but, I was merely a "word" in your sentence!...and was honored to be that!...

    Blessings to you in ALL that you endeavor!...You are a true gift!