Scripture for this Sunday:
Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10.11-14,19-25; Mark 13.1-8
Anyone who has been associated with a church that has been demolished may have a little sympathy for those who heard the words of Jesus dismissing the impressive nature of the Temple in Jerusalem and rather blithely anticipating its destruction. Anyone who has had that experience – directly or indirectly – will have a sense of the anguish and grieving that takes place. And it lasts a long time. So that might convey just a little sense of the bite in the words that Jesus used to talk about the Temple in Jerusalem.
Because the Temple was more than just a church.
The original Temple, built by Solomon, had been destroyed in the Babylonian invasion and exile. The rather nasty Herod the Great (so called) had rebuilt the Temple, and by all accounts it was quite impressive. Offsetting Herod’s nasty tendency to exploit people and kill his own children, the Temple gave the Jewish people an icon at the centre of heir faith – and their Jewish identity. Despite being invaded and subjugated a number of times, the tradition of their worship stood firm. So there would have been a lot of disillusionment taking place here – and in more than one sense of the word.
First, there would have been the disillusion with Jesus when his followers, believing that he was the one to restore the fortunes of Israel, heard him “diss” the Temple. They assumed that the Temple would be a focal point for the restoration. They were right, but looking in the wrong direction. The Temple that would be the focus of restoration was the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus, not a building (or institution) of human construction.
Secondly, there would have been disillusion attached to the idea that Jesus would devalue and trash the investment of the people of Israel in the Temple. Because while Herod may have had it built, the investment came from the people themselves, directly or indirectly. And their investment in it wasn’t just material: it was emotional and spiritual, too. So, to dismiss all that investment in a rather cavalier fashion – well, it would have been rather disillusioning, even for the closest followers of Jesus.
Thirdly, and this would have been something within the minds of those early readers of the gospel, there would have been the disillusion when the Temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans, who became fed up with what would nowadays be called Jewish terrorism.
But there is also disillusion in a different sense – and a type of disillusion that needed to take place. The illusion was that the Temple needed to be there to be a focal point for the Jewish faith. It didn’t, of course. The centre of faith was meant to be God. All the building could do was to be a pointer – a signpost – towards God and God’s glory.
Now it is a fact that Anglicans, amongst others, like the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, have a lot invested in their buildings – and not just materially, but emotionally and spiritually, too. So we can understand that the idea that a church could be demolished – when it represented all the things that the Temple did in Jerusalem, even if on a smaller scale – was astonishing. There stood the result of all the fundraising that had been done. There stood all the energy and effort that individuals had themselves invested. There stood a symbol of the community. Talk about disillusionment.
But disillusionment is a very apposite word. The idea that any human construction (building or institution) can be the focal point for faith is doomed to failure. It is an illusion.
The things that humans construct (not just buildings, but institutions, as well) are inevitably flawed and often fail. Yet, God can take human failure and create something new. Like a congregation that finds itself without a church building but is inspired and led to a new ministry feeding the homeless and needy. Despite – or even through the death of a building, a ministry was born.
Jesus spoke of ‘birth pangs’ – and indeed, the process of being a part of God doing new things can often be painful. We have to ask ourselves: what new things might God be bringing to birth in, through and for us? Where do we see change that appears to be painful, when it is in fact birth pangs? Where might we be looking in the wrong direction, and missing what is important about what God is doing? One thing is true: whatever God is doing, it will usually be despite, not because of something that humans are constructing!