Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.
We lived in England for four years and took advantage of our time there. We visited historic sites as often as possible, almost every weekend. Some of the places were still in use after a thousand years: castles and cathedrals that still are home to people and faith. We worshipped at some of the most famous places in the world; we received communion at Westminster Abbey, took in evensong at York Minster, prayed in the chapels of Salisbury Cathedral. We visited the palaces of the monarchy, saw the ancestral home of George Washington and even visited the towns where my own ancestors lived before immigrating to America.
We also visited a lot of ruins. We saw ancient Roman sites that have been uncovered, often accidentally, by modern construction. We went to old abbeys that were destroyed during the Reformation and castles that have fallen apart due to a lack of maintenance. Some of my favorite pictures are of the family wandering through the rooms of roofless buildings with only a few walls still standing. One picture shows Bruce, Victoria and Zachary playing follow the leader along a wall that was only about a foot high that was like a balance beam. Other photos show grand windows of churches standing without walls as the stones surrounding them were taken to build other buildings in the villages.
A book I once read described the building of these incredible buildings. The walls were feet thick, but it was a waste of money to use good stone for the hidden parts. They laid good stone bricks on either side of the wall and then filled the middle with mortar and chunks of unusable rocks, the junk removed by the stone masons when they formed the bricks. This was obvious when we visited a site where the walls were gone except for the foundations, lines of rocky junk outlining what once was a grand building.
These were grand buildings. They were built to last forever, to honor God or house the nobles. They often took centuries to build. I noticed during so many of our visits that there was always scaffolding along some wall or around the domes and steeples. The builders of all these buildings, both the ones that are still in use and the ones that are nothing but ruins, thought they were building something that would last. But nothing built by human hands will last forever. They might be able to make it stand for a thousand years, and may be around as ruins for longer than that, but in the end they will disappear like everything else made by man.
It isn't just time that will bring down the manmade walls. Hurricanes, earthquakes and war can destroy something in a matter of minutes. The movement of people from one place to another leaves whole cities unoccupied and left to rot. It doesn't take very long before the earth takes back the land in these places, where weeds grow in the cracks in the road and ivy climbs the walls. Windows break and roofs cave, graffiti artists mark their territories. Fires weaken what is left until the walls can no longer stand. Once bustling cities have become piles of brick in a matter of years rather than centuries.
Imagine you are among the disciples who have been following Jesus in the magnificent temple that had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great. It was a massive structure, nearly as large as ten football fields. Jewish historian Josephus writes, "All the cloisters were double, and the pillars to them belonging were twenty-five cubits in height, and supported -the cloisters. These pillars were of one entire stone each of them, and that stone was white marble; and the roofs were adorned with cedar, curiously graven. The natural magnificence, and excellent polish, and the harmony of the joints in these cloisters, afforded a prospect that was very remarkable; nor was it on the outside adorned with any work of the painter or engraver. The cloisters - (of the outmost court) were in breadth thirty cubits, while the entire compass of it was by measure six furlongs, including the tower of Antonia; those entire courts that were exposed to the air were laid with stones of all sorts"
It was magnificent and beautiful. It stood at the top of the hill and was built with the best of everything. Josephus described it this way, "To the stranger who suddenly came over the mountain, the Temple was like a snow-clad mountain for all that was not gold was gleaming white." It is no wonder that one of the disciples said, "Teacher, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings!" I have experienced the same awe when I have visited the grand cathedrals and palaces of Europe.
Today's Gospel lesson comes to us after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The disciples have seen Jesus do incredible things. They've seen His fame and have come to believe that He really is the Oen for whom they have been waiting. They have seen the world in a whole new way. Yet, they still have expectations of grandeur. There was a celebratory mood with the pilgrims in the courts of the Temple, there to make their offerings and remember the Passover. It was an extraordinary moment for them. Though they had surely made the pilgrimage before, they probably never sat so close to the action or experienced it with this understanding of God's kingdom that Jesus had been teaching.
They were part of something different, and they were surely the talk of the town. They were part of the 'King’s court', and I'm sure the crowds were curiously watching them. What would they do? How would they act? What would they say? There might have been a bit of theatrics in the comment about the Temple. It was certainly the perfect backdrop for Jesus' victory!
The day had been filled with questions from the Temple leaders. They were testing His authority from the point of view of the Temple, the secular world and the religious traditions of His people. He established a greater authority and turned the world upside down. The last shall be first. The poor widow gives more. Give to God everything that is God’s.
It was an incredible moment: the culmination of three years of following this man. The buildings, the priests and leaders, and the devotion of the pilgrims were exciting to see. It is no wonder they were in awe. Jesus answered their awe by saying, "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down."
We might want to approach the texts for this week as prophetic - pointing toward a specific moment in time and a specific event that will be accomplished. After all, every generation has found some need to look into the future, to determine the ways of things long before they happen, to predict how things will come to be. Yet, these texts are more accurately seen as apocalyptic. This form of literature is not meant to foretell of a specific historical event. Rather, the words are spoken to give courage, strength and hope to a suffering people. There were already false messiahs in Jesus' day. There were already wars and rumors of wars. There were already earthquakes and famines. It would have been very easy for the disciples - left alone after Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension - to follow another voice. It would have been very easy for the community of faith established by Jesus to wander down a wrong path.
We know that this prophetic word was fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. but we should continue to pay attention to the warning from Jesus. Manmade buildings will not last forever. After all, this was even the second Temple; it was not the one built by Solomon. It was new and it would one day be old, just like our great buildings. Jesus warned them, and us, not to be so awed by the kingdom of the world that they miss the real kingdom, that of God.
When the disciples asked to know the hour, Jesus told them to beware and be aware. "Do not be alarmed but believe." He warned them that some will claim to be "I AM" but they should not follow the false prophets but trust God. The things they see will just be the beginning. As for them, Jesus warns that there will be persecution. The hope of this apocalyptic text is that the one who endures to the end, who believes, will be saved. Jesus warns us that it will be bad but the Son of Man will come again. We'll know the time is right when the signs are right.
We don't know when it will happen, but Jesus calls us to a life of faith and watchfulness. We are to live according to God's Word in faith and live according to the commandments of love of God and our neighbors. "Beware and be aware," Jesus tells us. He warns us to be careful who we believe and who we follow. Not all who claim to be speaking in the name of Jesus Christ are true. Some will be led astray. Some will willingly follow the false prophet because of the promises. But we can trust that God will set things right in the end.
The passage from Daniel tells of a time when God's people will suffer. The passage does not leave us in fear, however. It leaves us with a promise that God will deliver His people. Daniel tells us the wise will teach people the ways of the Lord by word and by example. Living in faith and acting on the hope of true peace: this is what we are called to do.
If today were the last day, what would matter? Is there something that we need to do? False prophets and false messiahs will call people to action. "Follow me and you'll be saved." "Go to this place." "Do this thing." Works righteousness requires action for salvation, but Christian faith is different. In the days of Jesus, the priests worked day and night providing for the forgiveness of God's people. Offerings of every kind were accepted, to cover the sins of the people. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the priests offered day after day the same sacrifices that did no good. It was Jesus who offered once and for all the blood of the sacrifice that would bring salvation to the world.
From a Christian point of view, sacrifice is no longer necessary. When the priests of old took blood to the altar day after day and year after year it was worthless, “...but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever...” The forgiveness from Christ is lasting. It is eternal. There need be no more sacrifice for sins today or ever. No Christian need look for the restoration of that ancient practice. If they are, they being led astray by those who preach a gospel of vengeance and victory. We need not win the victory again, and neither must Christ.
We find peace through Christ. By His blood, God's people are invited to dwell in the presence of God. Jesus was no ordinary priest. He was no ordinary messiah. He is the Son of God, sent to save the world. His promise was not that the world would be different. There will still be wars and rumors of wars. We still need to be comforted as we are persecuted for our faith. We still suffer at the hands of those who do not know the forgiveness of God. But we can live in hope for what is to come, dwell in God's grace and look forward to the day when we will dwell with God eternally.
The writer of Hebrews encourages us to live a different life. We are called to hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering because God is faithful. Jesus warned the disciples not to make them afraid, but to remind them that God can, has and will overcome it all. God is near. He is not lost when the walls tumble down. Rather, He is set free from those human constraints to be the God who is Creator, Redeemer and Comforter.
The wise do not put their hope in buildings or live in expectation of the end. Instead, the wise are those who trust in the Lord. Persecution will come; it has been a part of Christian faith since the beginning. Men and women have suffered martyrdom for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, killed by those who put their hope in all the wrong things. Jesus comforts the disciples in the midst of this talk of the end. "And when they lead you to judgment, and deliver you up, be not anxious beforehand what ye shall speak: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye; for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Spirit." They are to trust in God when they see these things, for He will be with them through it all.
The words from the writer of Hebrews are filled with such hope and promise, how could we live in fear? "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh."
The Psalmist understood the lesson Jesus was teaching His disciples. He knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. "Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; in thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." This is a lesson that will keep us through the hard times, faith that God is faithful to all His promises will help us endure to the end.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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