A sermon on Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 Mainly the former.
Imagine yourself a tourist in New York City on the 8th of November, 2001. You’ve gotten up early in the morning to take in the sights, and you find yourself down at the southern end of Manhattan, gazing up at the enormous glass and steel man made mountains that were the World Trade Centre. You glance down at your trusty Lonely Planet and you read that, when these building were built, they were the tallest in the world – and they still are amongst the biggest things ever made. You marvel at the astonishing cost, the number of people who work there, the sheer concentration of wealth, industry, competence that stood these buildings up and keeps them going.
You turn to your travelling companion and say “will you look at the size of this thing?” And he turns to you and says: “Very soon not one stone will stand upon another.”
You would have been sceptical. But, of course, he would have been right on the money. Very, very soon it was all going to come tumbling down.
That’s the starting point of the situation we find ourselves in in today’s Gospel reading. If even something as permanent seeming and invulnerable as the Twin Towers can come down, glinting in the sun one moment and a nightmare of ash and collapsed building materials the next – then what can you trust? What can you have confidence in?
That’s the scenario in today’s reading. The very symbol of Jewish nationhood, the place where God makes his home on earth. The thriving, bustling centre of Jewish religion with its traders and priests and ecstatic singing and dancing. The place people of all races and religions come from near and far to marvel at, one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world. Jesus is saying that it’s going to be demolished? That must have seemed perhaps laughable, or horrifying.
In fact, more than shocking or offensive, it was blasphemous. That’s why it shows up at Jesus’ trial – the claim that he was going to destroy the temple, and then rebuild it in three days.
And in a way, they weren’t wrong. Jesus was attacking what they thought God was. We saw last week the problems of the temple system. First, Jesus in denounces the Scribes for oppressing the poor. Then he invites us to notice the poor widow who has just put all the money she has into the treasury, leaving her nothing to live on.
Jesus comes to tell us that, not only is the whole cultic system is oppressive, but that that it misses the point. That God just isn’t particularly interested in our sacrifices of turtle doves and so on while the important matters are ignored. In this, he follows the example of the Old Testament prophets who frequently criticise temple worship. To take one example among many:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:21-24
Like so many before him, Jesus prophesied that the whole corrupt system was going to be destroyed. And, of course, he was right. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, a few short years after it was built.
It’s easy for us to nod approvingly. Of course! Of course God is more interested in matters of the heart and of intention than in sacrifices and rituals and so on.
One of the things this passage does is to push us to look at ourselves. With the tremendous historical and cultural gap between Jesus’ day and ours, it seems alien and remote. But, in fact, it is not. The desire to erect structures between us and God is apparently a permanent feature of human life. The advantage of a temple and its sacrifices is that we’re in control. Like church, there are rosters, duties that need to be fulfilled, the right time and place for things. They had the on-duty priests advising what sacrifices to make: we have, let’s say, the flower roster. They had the shofa, we go to a lot of effort to ensure there is music at the service. They had the different zones in the temple precinct into which different people were divided. Are there places in our life together where we carefully divide between insiders and outsiders? Are there things which, like the holy of holies, no-one is allowed to touch or to question?
The temple was, for better or worse, a gigantic physical image of God. This is deeply ironic for Israel – the people whose God wouldn’t even tell them his name, referring to himself simply as something like “I am who I am”, and who forbade the worship of any physical representations.
The thing is that it isn’t the temple as such that is the problem. Worship is core to what it is to live in God’s presence. It is powerful – not only does it open our hearts to God and God’s presence with us, it also joins us to one-another. All of us who are here today are doing this thing together. A key to good worship is “full, conscious participation.” It isn’t a performance, with those of us leading a prayer or doing a reading or preaching doing it and everyone else watching it like it’s a performance of some sort. It’s only worship if we’re doing it together, with as much of ourselves as we can bring to it. That’s why we include congregational responses, and even physical gestures, into how we structure it.
By way of a brief aside, if you have any questions about what we are doing and why we are doing it in worship, please feel more than free to come and talk with me.
To put it another way, it’s part of noticing. Noticing God here, so that we can continue to notice God when we are back at home, interacting with neighbours or colleagues.
As I said, the problem isn’t the worship. And it’s not the temple, the place we do it in. It is when what we do and where we do it substitute for God.
John Calvin, writing in the sixteenth century, said: the human heart is a factory for idols. It is so hard for us to put our faith in God, rather than in our structures and practices and systems. All of them ways to try to get a handle on God. All of them inadequate to the task.
The ancients had a good term for this: the corruption of the best is the worst. It is because worship is so important, so central to our felt sense of the divine within us that, it makes such an excellent idol. Think of a trivial habit you might have. Perhaps, Melbournian that I am, my slight snobbishness about coffee. Does it lead me into feeling a bit superior towards places where good coffee is harder to come by? Does it slightly spoil my enjoyment of travel?
Do I find myself grumbling in Vernazza, a beautiful village in Italy’s Cinqueterre, that you’d think you could get a decent coffee somewhere like this?
Don’t get me wrong, I like coffee, and it was quite surprisingly difficult to find while in Italy. But it shouldn’t become a dominant thing in my life. In its place, it’s a pleasant enough thing. But if I let it assume more importance than it should, it can lead to dissatisfaction, petty crossness, a disproportionate factor in my enjoyment in life, crankiness. A sort of missing the point. Standing in the Cinqueterre, I had the experience but I was in danger of missing the meaning.
And if it’s true that something as trivial as my enjoyment of a latte can become a sort of idol, then imagine how much more powerful the temptation to idolatry is with something really important, something, somewhere, where you really feel that you find God. The sense of the sacred within us is deep rooted, and not always easy to get at consciously. But when we find ourselves reacting disproportionately strongly to something that happens in and around church, it’s probably the case that your sense of the sacred has been ruffled, and you need to ask yourself: why? Is this proportionate? Is this really somehow of God? Or, like the temple cult, am I missing the point?
This will be particularly true of us when we feel under threat. Jesus talked about wars and rumours of wars and earthquakes. I was living in Newcastle when the earthquake hit in late 1989, and it was very, very unsettling indeed. I was, as Jesus put it, “alarmed.”
In a time of, probably, unprecedented change, when church is being pushed right to the margins of society, when people don’t come like they used to, we are experiencing “wars and rumours of wars.” Unsettling change, and not necessarily change for the better.
Into this situation, Jesus speaks. Specifically he says: do not be alarmed. There will be a lot of people claiming to be me, or to speak for me, or something similar – the original Greek isn’t precisely clear here. At any rate, there will be a lot of solutions offered that are not me. And this, he says, is inevitable. It “must take place.”
Nonetheless, Jesus says, do not be alarmed.
But why not? It’s easy for him to say, we think crossly.
It is because of who Jesus is, and what he means. Unlike the prophet I quoted earlier, Jesus isn’t pointing to something outside himself. Jesus says: to trust God is, astonishingly, identical with trusting me. Jesus is God’s revelation of Godself. More than commandments, more than the glorious lost temple and all that went on in there. More than the Uniting Church in Australia and all our Assemblies and Synods and Presbyteries and Congregations and hymns and sermons.
The reading from Hebrews illustrates it, in it’s hard to understand sort of way. At the temple, the priests offered sacrifices to try to clear a path to God. But they can never take away sins – they can never overcome the gulf between God and us.
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. Hebrews 10:11
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, made the final, perfect, complete sacrifice.
It is he who gives us access to God.
It is with this central fact that we can gather together “to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
The more things seem difficult and unsettled – the more alarming the rumours of wars, the larger the earthquakes that shake our culture, the greater the temptation hold firm to what we know, to our own personal temples and our particular sacrifices, our spiritual practices that we feel root us to God.
But it is not what we do that connects us to God, rather, what God has done in Christ Jesus in drawing us into collaboration with God’s work in the world.
I won’t lie: this is going to mean sacrifice. Like Jesus who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” but took on the form of a servant, it will require putting ourselves out. It means that we have to wash one another’s feet – and, at least as importantly, the feet of those outside of our gathering. If we are to be Jesus’ body, Jesus’ hands and feet we have to ask ourselves: how, specifically, are we proposing to do that?
So let us continue the important work of worship. Let us do so in the space that those who worshipped in congregation and its predecessors before us have gifted us. But let us forget what is is that we are about – collaborating in God’s mission. Where we meet, what we do when we meet – all these things have to be at the service of God and God’s mission. They have to be a way of encouraging one another and those around us to place our final, existential trust in Jesus Christ, the one who says to us “do not be afraid.”
Sermon at Glen Iris Road UCA on the 18th of November 2018