This sermon is based on Luke 21:5-19
This morning’s Gospel reading paints a stark image of destruction: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s Temple, the most grandiose of all the Temples and the focus of Jewish national identity during the Roman occupation of Israel.
This is a Temple which Jesus has opposed consistently throughout the Gospel of Luke, probably not least because the motivation for its construction was not devotion to the God of Israel, but rather devotion to the nation of Israel – a subtle, but very important difference. Nevertheless, the Temple had always been associated with the physical presence of God among his chosen people.
For the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple symbolised the destruction of life as they knew it. The destruction of the Temple meant God’s physical and real absence from their lives and it meant the collapse of their nation, their way of life and everything that they held dear.
What's Your Temple?
This morning, I want to ask you ‘What is your Temple? And what is our Temple?’
Because I suspect that when we talk about this kind of symbolic Temple that there are more than one and that some are individual Temples and others are collective Temples.
I want to invite us not to pass this reading off as an academic reading that only has some historical interest, because I think it actually has some profound things to say to us today. It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in the mindset that ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ Sometimes we always do it that way because it’s the path of least resistance. Sometimes we always do it that way because we believe that there is only one way to do ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be. Sometimes always doing it that way is a source of security for us: a reliable, unchanging point of reference in an uncertain world that seems to be changing all too quickly for our liking.
The church is also particularly guilty of one variation on this theme: the idea that because God and his love is eternal and unchanging, so too must everything we do in church be eternally unchanging.
And many of our hymns reinforce this idea that not changing is A Good Thing: Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with thee; Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not As thou hast been thou for ever wilt be. Now I suspect that the hymn writer intends to say that God’s compassion does not change, but I wonder how many of us associate God’s never-ending compassion with the idea that there is going to be no change in our relationship with God? Or with the idea that nothing in church ever will or should change?
The problem is that, if we want to grow, then change has to happen. The other problem is that, within the course of human life, change sometimes happens and not always for the better.
If you think that today’s society has problems – if you think you have problems – think about Luke’s readers. Because most scholars agree that Luke wrote his Gospel some time between 70 and 90 AD; and you will remember that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. In other words, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple that is recorded in this Gospel had already happened.
And so I think that Luke’s readers would not read this passage in fear and trepidation, but they would immediately recognise their own situation in it. The Temple has been destroyed. Society as we knew it and the values, people and places we held dear have been destroyed. But Jesus predicted this! Jesus foresaw it! Let’s keep listening and see what we can learn from Jesus about how we are to go forward!
I don’t think that Luke wrote this passage to instil fear and caution into his readers. I think that he wrote it to give his readers guidance and hope.
Yet today in 2007, we can still recognise the signs of the times that Luke’s Jesus talks about. Sadly, none of this is ancient history, but it’s all too contemporary and real.
Nation rises up against nation and so we have the West fighting Islamic terrorism, Palestine fighting Israel and North and South Korea at loggerheads, to name but a few. We’ve had not just earthquakes but also tsunamis; not just dreadful portents but dreadful cyclones; human-created famines in Darfur and Zimbabwe and recent plagues that farmers have had to endure.
We are not arrested and persecuted in this country because we confess Christ as our Lord and Saviour but many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries are. And some lament the fact that the UK is no longer a ‘Christian country’ (whatever that means) and Christians are surprised by and reeling under the realisation that not everyone thinks that being a Christian is a good thing; and some people even think we are dangerous: just as the Roman Empire thought in the early days of Christianity.
When Life Gets Difficult
What is the meaning of all this? Well, as one popular phrase puts it, I think it means ‘No one ever said that life is easy’.
Jesus never said that our lives as Christians would be easy. In fact, as today’s reading demonstrates, he said quite the opposite time and time again. Jesus never said that life was going to be easy. What he did say was that, when life is difficult, when we are really up against it in life, that he will give us ‘words and wisdom’.
When life gets difficult Jesus has promised that he will ‘be there’ for us. He’ll be right here in the mess with us giving us what we need, what our souls will need. Jesus didn’t promise us a magic solution to all our problems and I’d like to point out that what we need might not actually be what we want or what we think we need – and that’s the rub.
It’s tempting to give in to the idea that because things are not going as we want them to or expect them to that Jesus isn’t with us. It’s tempting to think that because things are changing in a way that’s not to our liking that Jesus is no longer with us. I suspect that at least some of Luke’s Jewish readers must have been tempted to despair as the world as they knew it collapsed around them and as they saw their Christian brothers and sisters persecuted for their faith.
It’s also incredibly tempting to try to turn faith into some kind of formula. It’s really tempting to say with the disciples, ‘Give us a sign’. They were probably talking about what we would call astrology: a tangible, observable sign in the night sky that would tell them that Jesus’ reign on earth was about to start. We ask for other kinds of tangible signs that God is with us: happiness, health, prosperity. Or perhaps an emotional feeling of God being with us or a timely word from another Christian. Sometimes God gives us these things, but even if he doesn’t, Jesus’ promise to be with us is utterly reliable.
Jesus didn’t just predict the destruction of the Temple. Jesus promised to replace the Temple with his own Self. Just as Luke is telling his readers ‘Don’t rely on the Temple as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise’, so he might be saying to us, 'Don’t rely on your own Temples – on your ideas about how the world or your life ‘should’ be – as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise. Like the early Christians, we too are being exhorted to look to Jesus as a replacement for The Temple and as a replacement for our own personal Temples.
But this passage is more than an exhortation. It is also a promise. A promise that Christ is always with us, in the power of his Spirit, no matter how dire our circumstances might seem. It’s not a promise to make our lives rosy, but it is a promise to be there in the mess with us.
In a few minutes, we will come together as the body of Christ around the Lord’s table. Christ has promised us that he will be in the midst of us whenever we gather around the table in remembrance of him.
As Advent approaches, we remember that Jesus was God incarnate. God come down to be physically present with his people. The God who felt the physical and emotional pains that all human beings feel also felt the pangs of hunger and the joy of a full belly. He felt the joy of companionship and the agony of loneliness. Here at his table is a physical sign and symbol that God in Christ feeds us and nourishes us with his presence.
And so my prayer today is that each one of us may be strengthened and encouraged by Christ who has promised always to be with us. Amen