Sunday, November 17, 2013

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Malachi 4:1-6
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:(1-5) 6-13
Luke 21:5-28 (29-36)

As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.

I love architecture. I love to watch how the skyline of a city changes as you drive around it. I love to look up at a skyscraper from the street and see the lines and shapes it creates. I love to photograph the details of a building, the brick patterns, the fine stone work, the shadows and reflections created by the sun. I love buildings that are more than just boxes to shelter people and provide workspaces, but are works of art that tell a story.

I love to drive around neighborhoods where the houses are all unique, often designed by choices made by the owners. We have houses in our neighborhood that have turrets, huge bay windows, lovely porches, yards that are filled with oak trees and flowers. There are brick houses and houses made with stone. There are one story and two story houses, some large and others not so large. Some of the houses have wrought iron fences while others have cedar planks. The houses do not look alike, but they fit together beautifully, just as the neighbors live together in peace despite our differences.

When we were looking for this house last year, I told my realtor that I did not want a box. So many of the neighborhoods these days are filled with house after house that look identical, even if they have differences. They are boxes, with no distinguishing characteristics. Yes, those neighborhoods have one story and two story homes. Yes, they use several different types of brick. But after looking at dozens of these types of houses, they all start to look the same. There’s nothing about them, really, that makes you say, “I love this house.” Those boxes have no personality.

Now, we lived in one for nine years, and it was our home. We loved it because it was where we dwelt together. Home isn’t about what’s on the outside; it is about the heart found on the inside. It doesn’t matter whether we have turrets or brick or stone. What matters is that we have love and faith and each other. That doesn’t stop me from loving architecture, from the smallest cottages to the largest castles, to the interestingly shaped restaurants and the amazing skyscrapers. Each is beautiful in its own way, and even those ruins we have encountered on our adventures throughout Europe and the United States tell a story.

The Temple in Jerusalem certainly told a story. We know from the scriptures that the Temple was built as an image of Christ. Each part of the Temple points to an aspect of the character and work of Jesus. In particular, John tells the story through the “I am” statements of Jesus, which all align to aspects of the Temple. “I am the Bread of life” points to the Bread of the Presence. “I am the Light of the world” refers to the candlestick. “I am the Gate” points to the altar of incense. “I am the Good Shepherd” is the priest. “I am the Resurrection” points to the mercy seat, which is the cover of the Ark of the Covenant found in the Holy of Holies. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” takes us into the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s people protected the objects of their faith.

The final “I am” statement is about the gravevine. “I am the true vine,” says Jesus. What does this mean? Where is there grapes or vines in the Temple? It seemed as though John was taking us into the depths of the Temple, to the very most inner sanctum of God’s dwelling place on earth, and then he writes that Jesus said, “I am the vine.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the relationship between Israel and God is often referred to in terms of vineyards or vines. Israel is a vine, planted by God to bear His fruit. Hosea 10:1-2 says, “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones. Their heart is deceitful, and now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.” Jeremiah writes, “I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21, ASV)

Herod, in an attempt to ingratiate himself to the Jewish people under his rule, put a lot of money into the restoration of the Temple. It is said that he used the finest materials and went to great expense to make the Temple a showplace. One stone at the southwest corner was thirty six feet long. Joseph writes in “The Jewish War,” Whatever was not overlaid with gold was purest white.” Herod gave a golden vine for one of its decorations. Its grape clusters were as tall as a man. The decoration was symbolic of the Nation of Israel. It was enough to make any visitor think that Herod truly loved God and obeyed His Word, and to make the people believe that he was on their side.

But, Jesus is the true vine and we are reminded in today’s Gospel passage not to fall for the glitz and glitter of the false messiahs. Herod was acting as king, but he was nothing more than a puppet. The disciples were amazed at the incredible beauty of the Temple, but Jesus says, “As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in which there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” That must have been both shocking and saddening for the disciples.

There was a running storyline on the television show “How I Met Your Mother” in which Ted, the architect was planning a building that was scheduled to be place on a spot where an old building already stood. The old building was to be demolished so that the new one could be built. Ted found himself against an opponent who wanted to save the old building because it was an historic landmark. She didn’t want it to be destroyed, and she did everything to keep it intact. Unfortunately, though the building had some incredible stone work, the building itself was not only a dump, but it was dangerously close to falling down on its own. The building was eventually demolished and replaced by Teds design.

We know, of course, that when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple, He was really referring to His own body. The beautiful building they were admiring was nothing more than an image of the real. It was no longer necessary because He was the true Temple. He was everything that guided their faith inside, but He was living, real, and eternal. He was the Bread, the Light, the Gate. He was the Vine. The old had to make way for the new. The Old Covenant was about to be replaced by a new one.

The disciples had come to believe everything that Jesus said. They didn’t reject the idea that the Temple would be destroyed. They may have wondered if the destruction would be Rome’s way of putting down a rebellion, or perhaps they thought that the destruction of the Temple was part of Jesus’ plan to save Israel. They didn’t ask why; instead they asked, “When?” They wanted to know, perhaps even control, the future of the nation.

Jesus didn’t answer the question, but instead gave them a warning, “Do not be fooled.” The scriptures for today are not pleasant. Malachi talks about the day of the Lord, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burned. Paul warns those who are idly waiting for Christ’s return, because they will starve. Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple and the danger to the believers. Even the psalmist talks about vindication and judgment. When the world around us is confused and without hope, it is easy to be fooled. We listen to every voice that speaks the good words and ignore the words that can make us afraid. Jesus knew that there would be those who would claim to be from God, offering promises they could not fulfill. He warned them not to believe every charismatic speaker who promised prosperity and wealth or every leader who said that they would take care of the people. Desperate people fall easily for the lies of people who seem to have the heart and the ability to do what they promise.

We are drawn to people who promise the easy solution to our problems, but life is not always easy. As a matter of fact, Jesus told the disciples about the life they would have as His follower. It isn’t a life any of us would pursue. He spoke of war, natural disasters, and unnatural signs in nature. The disciples would face judges and prisons and violence for speaking the name of Jesus. Jesus says, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” We don’t want to be hated. We want everything we do to last. We want the world to be a garden full of roses. And while we will be blessed by our faith in Christ, it won’t be a garden of roses. Our temples might fall.

But we live in a world that insists a pretty façade will prove everything is ok. It is a world that thinks that a little money thrown at a problem will make it go away. It is a world in which some white stones and gold covered grapes define a ruler. Not much different than what they seemed to have back in Jesus’ day. The reality is that every generation has to deal with charismatic leaders that put on a show and claim to be the one to save the world. Every generation deals with wars and rumors of war. There are Christians from every century who have been persecuted for their faith.

But, Jesus promises the disciples that despite this hatred, not a hair on their head will perish. This is where the text becomes very difficult for us, because we know that many Christians have been killed over the Gospel. Of the Twelve, only one died of old age. The lives of the Saints are filled with stories of beheadings, burnings and other violence. In some places, cutting the hair is an insult. Our hair falls out due to the natural process of health and aging. What about the cancer patient that loses their hair? Is he or she any less faithful because their hair has perished?

Last week we talked about the legacy we leave behind, remembering that in Jesus’ day the memory of a person was tied up in their children and the estates they inherit. Once again we are looking at the promises of God from a tangible, worldly point of view. We want the monuments we build to last forever. We want our bodies to live forever. And we’ll follow whoever makes the best promise to protect the things we love. Jesus said, “Beware of those who claim to be the source of your salvation.”

I was watching a judge show on television this afternoon and I saw a commercial for a local lawyer. The commercial featured a woman who had become sick and could no longer work. Unfortunately, the government would not approve her disability payments. She was scared. She didn’t know how she’d pay her bills. But the lawyer understood her problem and worked to get her the justice she deserved. She said, “He was my savior.”

We usually think of the antichrist and false messiahs in spiritual terms, but the television commercial broke my heart. It is understandable that the woman might turn to someone who could help her with her problems, but the fact that she would use that kind of language just speaks to the reality of our world today. We are looking the easy answer; we are looking for a savior in all the wrong places. We rely on fallible, perishable humans and the promises they make, accepting their claims that they are ‘the one.’ But in the end they are no more able to save us than we are able to save ourselves.

The Gospel lesson is about the end of the age, and we focus on that, particularly since we are living in a time when there are wars and rumors of wars. There are false prophets touting their goods in the public squares these days. There are reasons to be afraid. We can even read this warning as one for our own time and place. Will our walls come tumbling down? It is no wonder that we worry and that we look to those who seem to have the answers. Jesus reminds us that worrying about the end times will not make anything happen and it will not make anything better. We have a purpose in this world: to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be His witnesses in this world.

Paul writes to the Thessalonians that each member of the community should do their part. The fellowship of believers is like a family: brothers and sisters in Christ. He encourages the able bodied to do their share so that the resources can be available for those who are truly in need. When everyone does their part, everything works well. Paul’s instruction goes beyond the work of the church. He encourages all Christians to be active participants in the world around them, working to provide for their own needs and for the needs of the community.

There are always those who need our help, and perhaps that is never clearer than during this time of the year. We hear stories about the need for food in the food banks and presents for children whose parents can’t afford Christmas. Our mailboxes are crammed with requests from charities for extra funding during the holidays. We are thinking about the people who do not have a place to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas, offering our hospitality and our resources. We do this because God has called us to share His grace in Word and deed. But our work does not end with giving them what they need.

We feed and clothe them, but they too have a role to play in the community. Part of our responsibility is to help them see that they do not have to be idle, but that there is work they can do, too. Many of the widows were unable to provide support, having no financial means. However, they could help to teach and guide the young women of the community, offering their time, their wisdom and their experience to help with the growth of the people and the community. Sadly, some of the widows in Paul’s time were nothing but busybodies, gossiping rather than helping. As they say, “Idle hands are the devils playground.” The women who had no real purpose in the community spent their time doing things that would never benefit the believers.

We do want to leave a lasting legacy, and so we put our time and our resources into things that we think we will last. As much as I enjoy looking at architecture, I know that the buildings I love will not stand forever. They will, like so many of the castles in Europe, one day be no more than ruins. They will topple, just as that grand Temple built by Herod fell stone by stone to the ground. As part of the community of believers, we are building a different kind of Temple. The foundation, of course, is Jesus Christ, who is the true Temple. He was right when He said that the beloved Temple would one day fall, but in this text He was referring to the real thing: Himself. The Temple that was His flesh was destroyed on the cross, but He was raised and rebuilt into something even better. We are now part of His body, pieces of the Temple that will last forever.

As Christians we continue to build that Temple by sharing the Good News of forgiveness with the world. We do this through word and deed. Our work will never gain us salvation. Our work is our response to the saving Grace that God has freely given. As part of the family of Christ, we are meant to do our part no matter what our circumstances. Some may be able to build grand buildings with white stone and golden grapevines, while others teach and guide the young into a living faith. Some will be able to give food and shelter to those without, and those without can gifts that do not require money. It is up to us to help one another discover the gifts that we have and to find ways to use them in the building of Christ’s body, the Church, His Temple on earth.

As I was reading the text for today, I thought it odd that the Psalm is one of such rejoicing. The other texts, speak of such horrors, the destruction of the world and of the Temple. How can we rejoice when we are worried a future that looks bleak?

The psalmist recognizes that our God is worthy of our worship and praise because He has done great things. “Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvellous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him.” His right hand is manifested in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. His holy arm is the Holy Spirit that reaches out into our lives to give us faith and hope so that we might live in peace doing that which He calls us to do in this life.

More than two thousand years after Jesus spoke these words, we are still seeing the signs of the end: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and false messiahs claiming to be able to save the people. Jesus’ words hold a measure of warning for us today as much as it did for His first disciples. We still have temples that will fall. Our temples are not necessarily buildings, but who among us does not love to see and worship in a beautiful church. Sometimes we hold those buildings is so much esteem that we forget about the people to whom we’ve been sent. Other ‘temples’ might include our jobs, our homes and our relationships. Sometimes God shakes the foundation of all that we hold dear so that we will look to Him and toward the vision of that which is imperishable.

Jesus is coming to judge the earth; He has come and will come again. Until that day, we will suffer during troubled times, experience persecution and we might even die. We don’t know when the day will really come, even though we can see that there are signs pointing to the end. It isn’t up to us to worry about the day, to even try to figure out when that day will come. “When” is not the right question to ask when God reveals the coming of judgment day. What we should be asking is, “What should we do?” We are called to walk in faith, to wait patiently through the fire, and to do whatever needs to be done in the meantime. We are His branches, reaching out to the world as His witnesses, sharing the love of God and building His Temple in the world through the work that is our response to all that He has done.

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