Letting go of our temples
A sermon on Luke 21:5-19 (audio recording available here)
I’m going to do things a little differently today. I’m going to preach a sermon in three parts. I’m going to start with a history lesson; and then ask a question; and then – I hope – find the gospel in today’s story.
And hopefully I’ll do all that in about twelve minutes. So, let’s get going, shall we?
Part 1: a history lesson
There are two moments in history that we need to understand in reading this section of Luke’s gospel story.
The first is the context in which Jesus and his followers are talking.
In our reading, they are standing in the Temple in Jerusalem only a decade or two after its reconstruction has been completed. From the contemporary historian Josephus, we know that the Temple was a truly stunning place, built of massive white stones and decorated with ornate hangings and gold. The expansion of the Temple was the pinnacle building project of King Herod, and one of the largest construction projects of the entire century. It was a place designed to be awe-inspiring.
Clearly it had that impact on Jesus’s followers. Our reading begins with their expressions of wonder at the beauty of the Temple. A wonder that is understandable, and unobjectionable! This same temple has been a site of learning, of prayer, and of revelation in the life and ministry of Jesus. It is a place whose spiritual integrity Jesus had violently defended just a few days earlier. It is the center of worship for Jesus’ people. The Temple is a place to encounter God – a place where awe belongs!
As so, Jesus’s response to his disciples’ wonder should come as a shock! He hears his followers’ expressing stunned reverence and he says, in essence, “Don’t get too attached. It’s all gonna burn.” And then he goes on to predict upheaval in the natural and political worlds, and betrayal and persecution in the individual lives of the people he’s talking to.
His disciples must have been bowled over. This is the last thing they would expect. They were standing inside the central symbol of the power and security of their nation and their faith, and Jesus was telling them that they could not rely on its strength… a strength that – a moment before – had them gaping in awe.
Jesus’s words would have been totally disorienting.
The situation would be a little different for the people in our second historical context: the original audience of the gospel of Luke.
Luke was probably written in the late 70s or early 80s of the first century, in the decade or so that followed the cataclysmic Event that reshaped Jewish society and religious practice: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Whereas Jesus’s audience could hardly have imagined the fulfillment of Jesus’s words about not one stone being left upon another… Luke’s audience had actually suffered that trauma. They had stood and listened to reports of Jerusalem’s fall in the way that most of us stood and watched the coverage of the fall of the World Trade Center Towers: in shock and horror.
The people to whom Luke was recounting this story were living in the aftermath of that devastating disorientation: with doubt about where God could be in the midst of the destruction and loss; with the fear of: “if the Temple could be destroyed, how can I ever feel safe?”; and with the true and present reality of persecution. They had already endured the destruction of the Temple and were living in the middle of the fear and disruption about which Jesus was seeking to instruct his followers.
Two very different historical locations, which offer two very different perspectives from which to hear Jesus’s words.
Which leads me to Part 2: a question
The question is: what is your temple?
I mean that question metaphorically, of course. I’m not asking where you worship God. I’m asking you what is the thing, or things, that is the primary symbol of strength and security in your life and faith. What is the thing that you cling to, the place or person or idea, that elicits in your soul, if not the disciples’ awe and wonder, and least their sense that “as long as this is solid, everything else will be OK.”
Our history lesson gives us two different ways to approach that question about our own temples.
If we recognize ourselves in the disciples who stood in the Temple with Jesus, then our temples probably feel pretty secure. They are such a solid part of our lives that we don’t even realize how much we take them for granted. How much our own sense of well-being is wrapped up in our assumptions that they are permanent, the thing on which we can always rely.
I have had many such temples in my life, and I still cling to some of them in conscious or unconscious ways:
My relative health;
The well-being of my family;
Even my faith in the “rightness” of my own theology and worldview.
All of these things have functioned for me as “temples” – as sacred things that I cannot imagine losing, because if I lost them, I wouldn’t know how to go on.
And as such, these things – all good things in and of themselves – have sometimes functioned as idols in my life. They have displaced my trust in God because I thought that THEY were the thing that made me safe and happy. I haven’t recognized – I frequently still struggle to recognize – that my temples are just meant to reflect for me the goodness of God, where my true trust belongs, because only God is actually indestructible.
This is the challenge of temples that are still standing: beautiful, and strong, and maybe even awe-inspiring. They can become our gods, rather than being a place we meet God.
There is an opposite challenge when our temples have crumbled. When the thing that seemed so strong and reliable has fallen apart. When our world is shaken, or our trust is violated, or the people we thought we could rely on have turned on us, and we don’t understand how God could possibly allow this to happen.
Maybe you recognize yourself in Luke’s audience. Maybe you know what it’s like when you can’t even try to pick up the pieces of your former security, because all that is left is rubble.
I’ve spent some time in the ruins of my own temples.
When my parents’ marriage fell apart;
When my strong and loving father disappeared into mental illness, and eventually suicide;
When my sense of competence and inner strength has been unraveled by my own depression and anxiety.
I have sat, crying, among the crumbled stones of my former temples and wondered how I am ever going to find my strength now?
I have deep love and compassion in my heart for the hurting woman I am in those moments of brokenness, and also for each of you who has felt or is feeling that pain…
But I know that that is the wrong question. We don’t need to find our strength. We need to know that our strength was never in the temple.
Which brings me, finally, to: Part 3: the Gospel
If you have listened to much of my preaching I hope you know that “gospel” means “good news” – which is a simple idea, but maybe hard to link up with today’s reading. After all, the shattering declaration about the destruction of the Temple is only the second verse of the reading and it gets worse from there… with predictions of deception, and wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and plagues, and persecution, and betrayal, and even death!
All of that without a temple to run to for refuge, or security… without a solid symbol of our assurance that we know where to find God. Where could there possibly be any good news in this reading?
Well, I find it in one little phrase slid in with all the dire warnings: “this will give you an opportunity to testify.”
I don’t tend to think of arrest and persecution as a framework for opportunity, but that’s how Jesus describes it: When the temple is gone, and all normal sources of security are destroyed, and we are faced with our own vulnerability, that will be for us an opportunity to testify… an opportunity to tell a new story. A story that doesn’t need a temple. A story – in fact – that we might struggle to tell standing in the protection of an awe-inspiring temple.
And that story is the story of God made flesh, made vulnerable. Not made out of marble or stone. Not remote and invulnerable, but willing to join us in the deepest, most disorienting, most painful experiences of our lives. It is the story of Jesus, crucified and buried… but also the story of Jesus risen again.
When we learn to tell that story, we learn what we most need to know, whether our current temples are strong and beautiful, or crumbled into dust: We learn that we don’t need temples – we don’t need places of strength in our lives that will guarantee our access to God (or deceive us into thinking we don’t need God).
We don’t need strong temples where we can meet God, because God has already come to us. And the God who comes to us in Jesus promises that not even death can harm even a hair on our heads.
Thanks be to God