The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 21:5-15

Even today, two thousand years later, nothing can look more permanent than the massive stones at the base of the Temple walls in Jerusalem. The day that Jesus looked across them, brand new and shining in the sun, they must have epitomized absolute permanence.

But even these will pass, Jesus warns, meaning everything in this world, everything built by human hands, all things standing and all that they stand for, will pass away into the nothingness of time and space.

I enjoy bringing people—cathedral visitors—into this space for the first time. If you watch their faces, as they walk through the door, just after they’ve walked through that little bottle-necked, plain hallway, it takes their breath away for an instant. I think it’s partly the beauty of the place, partly the vastness of the room, partly the holiness that permeates these old stone walls. In any case, they are surprised, impressed, inspired, because mentally, visually and spiritually it’s more than they expected—more than they bargained for.

You can imagine, then, why anyone was awed by the colossal structure that stood at the heart of Jerusalem. It was unquestionably the “city of God.” It was considered to be the “abode” of God—God’s “dwelling place.” The edifice stood as central to all Hebrew culture—its identity, its mission and its ministry. It was the seat and symbol of God’s presence among the chosen people.

At the time of Jesus, it was the third temple to be erected on this site. The first had been built by Solomon and had stood for 400 years, until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E.

When the Hebrew people returned from exile around 520 B.C.E., the second temple was erected and remained intact for almost 500 years, until it was desecrated and half destroyed by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C.E. Then in 20 B.C.E., King Herod the Great, the Roman territorial king in Judea, undertook the rebuilding of the temple, which was twice as large as the previous structure.

According to the ancient historian, Josephus, Herod put 10,000 people to work and trained 1,000 priests as masons so that they could labor within the most sacred places of the temple. The breathtaking structure was completed in 10 years, but the work of finishing details on the building continued years on end, which probably accounts for the Pharisees remarking to Jesus in the Gospel of John: “this temple has been under construction for 46 years . . .” (Jn 2:20). (Sounds a lot like Grace Cathedral doesn’t it?)

But the fact is that almost all of Jerusalem was continuously engaged in some kind of work that had a connection to the temple. Craftsmen made and maintained necessary ritual objects. There were numerous incense makers, and those who traded in raising, selling and overseeing sacrificial animals. Still, countless others provided lodging for pilgrims, while also

supplying them with provisions—lots of bed-and-breakfasts, motels and Kwik Shops. Currency changers and bankers associated themselves closely with the temple, as nearly all Israelites, rich and poor, deposited their money there.

In addition, there was the priestly hierarchy, which had been fixed for three centuries, consisting of the High Priest, the priests, and the Levites. These leaders not only held the sacred duties of the temple, but also had oversight over the financial and legal systems that underpinned the entire culture.

The temple was like the National Cathedral, the Statue of Liberty, the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Bank all rolled into one. It was an architectural sacrament testifying to the blessedness of God in and over an obedient people. It stood as “a light to the nations,” to those who were still in darkness, representing what life under One God could mean.

So, as such, what site and symbol of Hebrew culture could be more reliable? What element could be more secure, more dependable, and more trustworthy? None. And yet, Jesus says, “This, too, shall pass. This, too, shall fade away.”

When Jesus tells those enthralled by the majesty of this man-made structure—“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”—you can see why everyone is shocked, rattled, taken aback. It wasn’t what they expected to hear or could even imagine. Because, if the centerpiece of their world will collapse, then what in this world has survival value. If the citadel of religious, economic and political life crumbles, what will last? No doubt, those who heard Jesus make this statement
went about quickly to find a second opinion—one that more readily agreed with their material sense of security and peace of mind.

And you can’t blame them. For we all are always wanting to find our security in the seen and not the Unseen, in the visible and not the Invisible. We want to identify any wondrous part of creation, or culture, and then place it on a par with God—the sun (and sunsets), the oceans, the Colorado landscape—or Wall Street, or the Washington. We want to forget that God is Wholly Other, qualitatively different from any element of the created order—and that this God alone deserves our unwavering trust. God is superior to all natural or cultural glories (even football, even basketball, even golf and politics).

But the temptation to idolatry is strong. And an old joke echoes this reality so keenly. You remember the story where the tourist is standing perilously close to the rim of the Grand Canyon when he loses his footing and plunges over the cliff. Desperately, he reaches out and is able to grab hold of a scrubby bush growing out of the rock. Filled with terror, he prays: “God! Are you up there?”

A deep, resonant Voice comes back: “Yes.”

The man screams, “Can you help me!?”
The Voice replies, “Yes, I can. Do you believe? Do you have faith?

“Yes, of course, I have faith!” the man exclaims.

“Well, in that case,” the Voice replies, “let go of the bush.”

The tourist looks down at the thousand foot drop, and after a painful pause of silence, calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

There’s another short story that makes the point about how easily we can fall into the “temple syndrome,” –that is, putting our final trust in a person, in a human capacity or in human institutions rather than relying on the Living God. It goes that a group of scientists are sitting around discussing which one of them should approach God and inform the Divine that humanity really doesn’t need God anymore. Finally, one of the scientists volunteers, and goes to tell God the news.

The scientist approaches God, and without so much as a bow, starts in: “Listen God, a bunch of us have been thinking, and I have come to tell you that we really don’t need you anymore. I mean you’ve done a wonderful job, but we can take from here. We’ve been coming up with great ideas, discoveries and advances—we’ve cloned sheep, mapped the human gene structure, made great strides in stem cell research. In fact, we’re on the verge of cloning perfect human beings. So you can see, we really don’t need you anymore.”

God nods understandingly, and says, “I see. Well, no hard feelings. But before you go, let’s have a contest.”

“Sure,” the scientist says, confidently I’m all for it. What kind of contest?”

“A human-making contest,” God says.

“Great, no problem,” says the scientist, and he reaches down and picks up a handful of dirt. “Okay I’m ready.

“No, no,” says God. You go get your own dirt.”

We are all dust, and to dust we shall return. But let’s never forget whose dust we are. So that when our bodies do return to dust, our spirits can fly to God – who was, and is, and for ever shall be – and to God’s heavenly kingdom, which is the only kingdom that will last.

In the Name of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.