Sermon Preached by Acting Dean Trevor Harrison 17 November 2019
The Temple in Jerusalem was one of the most splendid man-made sights in the world at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In the Temple the pillars of the porches and of the cloisters were columns of white marble, thirteen metres high, each made of one single block of stone. Of the ornaments, the most famous was the great vine made of solid gold, the grape clusters each being as tall as a person. The finest description of the Temple as it stood in the time of Jesus is in Josephus’ ‘The Wars of the Jews’, book 5, section 5. At one point he writes, “The outward face of the Temple in its front wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men’s minds of their eyes, for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s rays. But the temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow, for, as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.”
It was all this splendour that so impressed the disciples. The Temple seemed the summit of human art and achievement, and seemed so vast and solid that it would stand forever. To the Jews it was unthinkable that the glory of the Temple should be shattered to dust. But Jesus made the astonishing statement that the day was coming when not one of these stones would stand upon another.
It was like someone standing in New York City beholding the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, all 415 metres, 150 stories of steel and glass, pronouncing that these edifices to humankind’s engineering and financial skill would be shattered to dust. It was unthinkable until 9/11!
The unthinkable happened to the Temple less than fifty years after Jesus’ prophecy. This is the warning he gave: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by soldiers, you will know that it will soon be destroyed. If you are living in Judea at that time, run to the mountains. If you are in the city, leave it. And if you are out in the country, don’t go back into the city. This time of punishment is what is written about in the Scriptures. It will be an awful time for women who are expecting babies or nursing young children! Everywhere in the land people will suffer horribly and be punished. Some of them will be killed by swords. Others will be carried off to foreign countries. Jerusalem will be overrun by foreign nations until their time comes to an end. (Luke 21:20-24).
In fact what happened was that the people did precisely the opposite to this warning. They crowded into Jerusalem and death came in ways that are almost too terrible to think about. It was in AD70 when Jerusalem fell to the Roman armies after a desperate siege in which the inhabitants were actually reduced to cannibalism and in which the city had to be taken literally stone by stone. Josephus says that an incredible number of 1,100,000 people perished in the siege and 97,000 were carried away into captivity. The Jewish nation was obliterated and the Temple was set on fire and became a desolation. Jerusalem was so completely destroyed that except for certain towers and wall- portions deliberately left, one would scarcely have guessed that it had been inhabited.
Furthermore, Jesus foretold that his followers would be persecuted terribly. There would be persecution, trials, imprisonment and death. He tells also of a world torn apart by wars and riots, earthquakes, famines and terrible diseases. What fear must have struck the hearts of the disciples as they heard Jesus speak of the bleak future?
Yet curiously Jesus tells them, “But this will be your chance to tell about your faith” (Luke 21:13). When an old world is being dislodged, dismantled, torn asunder, then you will have the opportunity to give account for the faith that is within you. When Caesar drags you into court in an effort to silence this Jesus movement, you will use the court as a pulpit to tell the world what is really going on in the world.
What we read as chaos, destruction and dissolve, Jesus reads as opportunity, the right time to tell the world about God.
We live in a time of terrorism and wars with the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the terrorism fermented by Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Isis. At home we continue to hear of murders, brutal assaults and the killing of children.
All meaning that we also live in a time of relinquishment, disenfranchisement and destruction. We must ask, is something dying or is something being born? Time and again Christians have had to ask that question for more than two thousand years. Now it is our turn to ask the question, to ponder the future. How do we read the times? What is going on in the world? Who is in charge? Where are we heading?
Jesus told his disciples that their distressing time was a time “to tell about your faith.” What is the witness to be borne in distressing times? St. Augustine bore this witness in a beautiful passage in his book “The City of God”. Augustine thinks about the sheer over-abundance with which God has enriched the earth. So many different kinds of food and taste to satisfy our developed palates. And think of all the colours. Consider the sheer range of birds and flowers too. We could have been satisfied with far less, and yet, the sheer richness of the earth, its diversity and plurality is one of the consolations God has given, a consolation not only to the righteous and blessed, but to every human being. It is all a delight to the eye, a hedge against boredom and care. Think of all the different colours in the ocean. We are astonished by the actions of tiny ants and bees, fascinated even more by the movements of huge whales. Even when it is stormy, we are fascinated by the power of the storm. What if all the weather were the same? Think of the welcome change between night and day, the soothing coolness of a breeze, who could give a list of all these natural blessings?
St. Augustine says, ‘So Christian hope is not a single hope. It is neither nihilistic despair about tomorrow, not is it simple-minded optimism. It is born out of the conviction that whatever the future holds, God holds the future.’
What is the witness that we are to bear in our sometimes distressing time? What is the word about the future?
It is the same word that Jesus gave his disciples. God is love. This world is God’s. We are preserved and given hope, not by our attempts to secure the world, but by the sustaining preserving love of God. That is our word for the future. It is a word based upon faith in God and God’s providential care for the world. God is love. This world is God’s.
Thanks be to God.