Second Sunday before Advent
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
1. Subverting the mood.
The Orthodox Christian composer, Sir John Tavener, died this week and in memory of him I have been listening to his setting of The Lamb, by William Blake.
John Tavener shows his genius in the way he interprets this seemingly very simple poem.
Blake sees a lamb and muses on its 'spiritual' identity in the light of the Lamb of God, Jesus.
Think of a lamb and we think of a sweet pastoral scene – a fluffy, wooly little white thing…
But look below the surface…
Who made the lamb...? asks Blake.
God did, and what’s more, he called himself a Lamb; Jesus was the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world.
Though a lamb is an innocent little thing, like a child.
Tavener’s arrangement is other worldly – using notes which clash and make the poem sound more like a ghost story than a child-like reflection on innocence.
And then the refrain is very rich, slow, deep and sorrowful, in a minor key.
Not exactly how you might imagine a piece of music about a lamb.
In a similar way Jesus was inclined to subvert the mood…
Our gospel is set by the Temple – the grand Jewish edifice built under Cyrus the Great and refurbished at great expense by Herod.
Crowds throng the Temple scene, going about their business, admiring the splendid architecture.
They stand and gawp at the glory and grandeur of Jewish worship.
They point up at the pillars, standing as if inviolable in the Mediterranean sun.
Jewish historian, Josephus wrote: ‘now the outward face of the Temple (…) was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, 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 own rays (John Pridmore, The word is very near you, p. 324)
So here they are, standing around saying how wonderful the building is, how it is ‘adorned with beautiful stones and gifts to God’, and Jesus simply refuses to join in.
‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.’
Prophets, those who tell it as it is, are often unpopular.
They are unpopular because they say the hard things, the things no one wants to hear.
Jesus’ prophecies that the Temple will not remain, and this came true in 70AD with the sack of Jerusalem, under Titus, who led 30,000troops into the city of Jerusalem and took the Tempe apart bit by bit.
2. Freeing faith from the private.
Jesus’ hearers lived in religiously fervent times.
The same cannot be said for Western society in the 21st Century.
Today, apocalyptic sayings (of End Times and ‘doom’) would be received as mental illness no doubt.
In those days, it’s taken as red that the end is coming somehow and that this is a universal religious event coming to all mankind…
And so Jesus’ disciples ask him ‘When will these things happen and what will be the sign of the end?’
And it’s in Jesus’ answer that we see the coming together of religious faith and public history.
One of the most pernicious separations for us as believers today in the West is the separation of faith and life into two spheres.
Whether we realize it or not, our society is set up such that religious belief is seen as subjective and private, of little real import, and everything else – politics, science, education, health, and economics are seen as public matters.
It shouldn't be like this.
If Jesus is King of all the earth, what He says about things has relevance for all society.
The faith of believers should have a direct impact on our world.
Perhaps we are beginning to see this more…
Recently Martin Lewis, the ‘moneysavingexpert’ had a much touted conversation with the ABC, Justin Welby, about the commercialization of Christmas.
Instead of the usual, somewhat pious denouncement of spending, Justin Welby refused to pour cold water on the practice of the giving of gifts at Christmas.
But Martin Lewis wanted him to go further.
If people are in debt they should not borrow to attain the kind of perfectionist Christmas that the adverts spur us onto obtain; they should buy less.
Justin Welby did agree, and was able to end the interview with the theological reason behind our desire to give gifts at Christmas: give because of God’s great generosity in giving us himself in Christ.
So a great example of how religion, or belief in Christ, has public meaning and relevance.
Another one was discussed at a recent Deanery Synod here when we heard about the Parish Nurse initiative, which sees a volunteer, who is a qualified nurse, but also a member of a congregation, go into partnership with other medical personnel, the local Doctor, and the Christians in the church, to offer what you might call spiritual health care.
There are nearly 90 of these initiatives across the UK and many more in the States – doctors are increasingly aware that health is not just a matter of taking the right pills.
This is an acknowledgment that spirituality and health are not easily separated.
Our gospel shows us a direct link between faith and history.
So, retail and spirituality; health and spirituality; history and spirituality.
I’m sure we can think of other examples where faith and life really need to be seen as one whole.
Faith is never a private matter only.
Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem point directly towards the fact that God is the God of history; He is interested and involved in what happens in our world.
This is a major claim.
Jesus, as prophet and Saviour, brings up back to what is important.
The Jews were so proud of their religious heritage but unaware that belief and behavior have consequences within history.
Unlike Jesus they would rather have kept faith to a matter of buildings.
3. Regaining an apocalyptic framework.
William Blake was something of a prophet too perhaps.
He grappled with the problem of God who made the innocent lamb also having made the not so innocent tiger.
Tavener seemed to comprehend this too, with his ghostly, unusual setting of The Lamb.
We need to see beneath the surface, to the spiritual significance of events and trends.
We need to develop an ‘apocalyptic’ framework for seeing history, and seeing our lives (apocalypto=to uncover).
‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars’ but these are not yet the end, says Jesus.
It’s true – we do hear of wars and rumours of war – we are haunted by Two World Wars, remembered last week, and by many conflicts since; but these do not happen without some meaning…
…because, like natural disasters and disease, they are a sign that all is not right with the world.
The world groans to be redeemed, and how it feels like birth pains to us who wait, especially to those who suffer acutely, thinking as we do of the traumatized survivors of the Philippine typhoon.…
The worldview of the believer is in stark contrast to that of many other viewpoints we see around us.
We believe that the beginning of the end has begun.
The Temple is destroyed.
We hear of wars and rumours of war.
Many are persecuted around the globe for their faith – there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th Century than in all the previous 19 put together.
Jesus said that we would be ‘hated by all’ because of my name.
Not the most comforting of sayings.
Perhaps one of the most challenging of all the verses in the New Testament.
We have seen how Jesus subverts the mood; how we need to free faith from the private realm and let it go into all of life; and how we must regain an apocalyptic framework for how we see the world.
As we approach Advent we pray for grace to take to heart the difficult things we read in the gospel, as well as those things which bring us comfort.
Because ultimately, reality is more comforting than wishful thinking.