Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Eternal...

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

This is the Word of the Lord.

For weary pilgrims, who travelled the mercilessly hot, dusty roads with little to eat, scarce water to drink, and the constant danger of attacks from bandits or even wild animals, one thought kept them putting one foot in front of another – one vision in their mind’s eye, one dream: the sight of Jerusalem as they topped that last hill, laid out before them like an opened flower, and there, on a hill overlooking the city, its white walls and golden decorations so bright in the sunlight that it hurt your eyes to look for long, was the Temple. That sight made the journey worth it.

Never mind that the Temple was a work in progress. No one alive could remember it any other way. And although Herod had begun the Temple expansion and renovation only in the last sixty or seventy years, the priests had been sacrificing, Psalms had been sung, and God had been worshipped in that holy place, nearly nonstop, since 516 BC, following the return of the exiles from Babylon.

And what a renovation it was! The Temple walls and its buildings soared into the air, constructed bit by bit from huge stones, some as large as forty-four feet long, which had been quarried nearby and set painstakingly in place. The result was breathtaking, to say the least. It stood boldly as the epicenter of Jewish worship, the place where humankind came closest to touching the Almighty. It seemed eternal, indestructible. No wonder even the disciples were dazzled by its beauty.

We aren’t told in our reading this morning which of the disciples commented. It may have been one of the Twelve, or it could have been a relative newcomer perhaps someone so young that they had never been to Jerusalem before.

“Wow, look, Teacher, ain’t it awesome?” Words to that effect, anyway. I imagine the comment made Jesus stop, and turn to look at the walls and buildings and gold trim, all aglow in the afternoon sun. After a long moment, her responds, almost too softly to hear. “Yeah, it’s big. It’s pretty. But it’s temporary. Every last stone is going to fall.”

To the people within earshot, it may have sounded ludicrous. If the Temple leaders had heard it, they’d have considered it tantamount to blasphemy.

Yet many of the ones who may have heard Jesus’ words that day would still be alive when, in 66 AD, Jewish Zealots began a revolt against their Roman occupiers.

This first of three revolts, sometimes called the Great Revolt, started out well for the Jewish rebels. Roman sympathizers were driven out, a Roman garrison was overrun, and the rebels even succeeded in ambushing and defeating a Roman legion. It didn’t hurt their chances that, in the middle of their rebellion, Rome itself was in turmoil, enduring its own harsh civil war and four Emperors in a single year.

But the Zealots were far from a united front themselves, and infighting and power struggles weakened the rebels. The year 70 AD saw the Roman General Titus laying siege to Jerusalem with four legions, and that was the beginning of the end for this Great Rebellion.

Titus is said to have wanted the Temple to remain intact, so that he could make it into a temple to the Roman Emperor (his father, Vespasian), and the Roman pantheon of gods. Yet when Titus breached Jerusalem’s walls and street fighting ensued, the Temple caught fire and burned to the ground, utterly destroyed. Not a single shattered, blackened stone was left on another. The gold and valuables were looted and carried back to Rome in triumph.

As beautiful as it was, as indestructible as it seemed, and though it had stood in that spot, in one form or another, for five hundred eighty-six years, it was, in the end, temporary.

And what could be said of a force strong enough, an Empire powerful enough, to topple the very House of God? Surely such an entity would itself be everlasting, indestructible.

Well Rome certainly thought so. But counting from the moment Julius Caesar became sole ruler of Rome in 46 BC, the part of the empire that Rome controlled after the third century, the western half, fell in 476 AD. In the East, the part of the Empire ruled by Constantinople lasted another millennium, until 1453 AD… but it, too, eventually fell.

In the end, even the mighty Roman Empire was temporary.

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the system of priestly sacrifices, so integral, so foundational to the daily worship of Jewish men and women, ended as well. It was as temporary as the Temple itself.

Yet these daily sacrifices were necessary, according to the Law of Moses. The shedding of blood was vital, for without it there was no hope of covering the stain of sin from a holy God. If these were temporary, what hope could there be that humanity could ever, in any way, approach the Creator and at last be reconciled to God?

In answering this question, we see a glimpse of the enormity of the sacrifice that Jesus made, for each of us and for the world. Knowing full well what was at stake, completely aware of all he would have to suffer on behalf of a creation which would scarcely notice and in large part not care, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, sacrificed himself on the cross.

Hear the Word of the Lord from our lectionary, the Book of Hebrews, Chapter 10, verses eleven through twenty five:

“And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

“Therefore, 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, for he who has promised is faithful. And 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.”

The temple sacrifices were vital, but they were temporary. The flash of the knife and the stench of burning flesh was effective but for a moment; the sacrifice had to be repeated day in and day out.

In Christ, the temporary has been replaced by the Eternal. When he cried out from the cross, “It is finished,” it was! In that one selfless act, God giving God’s own life to reconcile humankind to God, everything that could be done to wipe away the sins of the world was done.

In Jesus Christ, we have an answer to Empire as well. No earthly kingdom or empire or nation has ever lasted, not really. Every one which has risen has eventually fallen, and the citizens of the fallen one are enslaved by or integrated into the conquering one, or are else destroyed, and the pattern repeats itself again months or years or decades or centuries later. Kingdoms, empires, they’re all temporary.

Yet we who are in Christ, who have responded to the grace of God, are citizens of an eternal Kingdom, the now-and-coming Kingdom of God which shall have no end. Christ sits at the right hand of God because there is no more that needs to be done.

Not that there are no more Caesars or Herods – as long as there are countries suffering under the bootheel of a dictatorship, or power-hungry politicians saying what the people want to hear rather than what they need to hear, while the more crooked politicians simply buy the votes they need, there will be Caesars and Herods.

But the dictators will fall, and the politicians will be voted out. Power for the sake of power is, after all, ultimately self-destructive. Our eternal Kingdom of God is predicated not upon power, but upon service, upon what the writer of Hebrews calls, “provok[ing] one another to love and good deeds,” and upon the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, who – even while we were still sinners – died for us.

As we enter in to this Thanksgiving week, let us each day reflect on the sacrifice of love God has made in Jesus Christ, for each of us and for the world, and let us be mindful of each opportunity to share that wild, boundless, extravagant love with all of those around us, near and far, next door neighbor or across town neighbor or neighbor in another state or country or culture or belief system.

And on Thursday, when we pile our plates high and gather around the table and break bread in the Thanksgiving meal, let us remember 3ith joy and true thankfulness the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us all, and for every one of those neighbors I just mentioned. Once, for all, perfect and complete and eternal.

And may Christ be made known in the breaking of bread.

(Words of the Institution)

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