17 November 2013

gone

Luke 21:5-19, "When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, '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.'"

Isaiah 65:17-25, "For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth . . ."

This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The poet T.S. Eliot knew us well. We look for the bang. We look for the big production when it comes to the end of the world. And it sounds as if this is what Jesus is giving to us in the gospel reading this morning. It is the end of the world as we know it. That's great! It starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane, except in this version . . . no one feels fine . . . not even Lenny Bruce. Those who especially don't “feel fine” are those who are being betrayed by family and friends. And Jesus says that there will be those who are killed. But in the end, this destruction of which Jesus speaks, this world-ending is not exactly the type of mega blockbuster, summer-tentpole-movie that might register in our imaginations. There is not as much of a bang as we might think. There are no meteors crashing or aliens invading. What is being described however, is most certainly a ripping of the fabric of the cosmos, of what we thought we knew and trusted. It is the end of God’s universe . . . at least as people saw it then. Because Jesus's statement was at first about the destruction of the temple.

And that is the way that the world ends.

You see, the temple was the abode of God. It was God's house. The temple was the center of worship of the religion of that day. And by reports that we have from ancient sources, including our own gospel writer this morning, the temple was made of “noble stones”, filled with wealth and the offerings of the people of God. This particular temple was reconstructed by Herod, a Roman ruler before the time of Jesus. Herod the Great, he was called. And there was more than a little speculation that this “great” temple was built in such an opulent manner to show the wealth and to secure the legacy of that Herod the Great. And it was a great structure, a fitting tribute to a God that was seen as solid and strong. And that is what we could presume that the people saw: the strength and solidity of this God. This temple was where the worship of this God occurred. The temple was where the incense from the sacrifices of the people drifted up to God. It was almost as if God lived there, among the people.

And then we have Jesus saying, “there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” All of them. And that is the way that the world ends.

Because sometimes we think what we have is secure and solid, that this stone on which we stand is solid . . . until it isn't. I remember when Dena and I were both at the University of Georgia, we would occasionally go out to the Botanical Gardens there in Athens. Many times we would go there together, but then just as often, I would go there by myself too. Those times I would follow the orange trail. If you’ve done much hiking, you know the colored marks cut into the bark of the trees that let you know where you are going . . . so you don’t get lost. And the orange trail would take you back through those woods and alongside the Oconee River, a river I knew much further downriver, because that’s the river that separated East Dublin from Dublin, where I am from. The Oconee runs pretty close to my home; I could drive just a couple of miles and be at the place where my mother would tell us that a ferry used to take people from one side of the river to the other, a place where now people congregated on the weekends . . . to swing into the river from a rope, or to just hang out like teenagers do. I knew the Oconee in the way that many of us remember where we are from . . . we know where we come from.

So at the other end, back in Athens, there was this place just off the orange trail where a huge rock hung out over the Oconee. And you could sit on that rock and listen to the rushing of the water. You could see some limb that was stuck there and hear the water rush by and try to take that limb away. The water ran and ran under that rock. And so I’d sit there sometimes, just thinking, getting away from the books, thinking about writing and life and love and the kinds of things that a college student might ponder. That rock always felt so solid, like it had been there forever; and you felt like you could just sit there . . . for forever . . . too.

But then one day, it was gone. I’m not kidding. The rock was simply gone. That rock that we thought was so secure. The rock that both Dena and I had sat on, it was just gone. After what must have been years and years of wearing away under it, that large stone had fallen.

And when something so large falls, when it is destroyed even, when there is not one stone left on another, we do feel lost and scared. It can lead you to wonder where our security is now. It can make you afraid when something that had been foundational in your life is simply gone. You can understand how people feel when they have such a secure foundation in their lives, their jobs, their marriages, and maybe even their God, and then one day, it is simply gone, and not with a bang, but a whimper. . . .

And then we search for what to say. We wonder how we will bear witness to this God when where we knew God to be, the place where God dwells, is just . . . gone. And then . . . the voice that we hear . . . it is as if it is from the future. And truly, we would do well to remember that the voice that we do read in the gospel this morning, is from the future. For by the time this is written, the temple had been destroyed. The early followers of Christ have been killed for their faith. They did have to bear witness that this God was now with us, among us, but not in the way that we expected. This God no longer looks like a temple built by a foreign power.

Sometimes when our world ends, despite our fear, despite the hollowness that we feel inside of us when our temples are destroyed, when our rocks are no longer beneath us, we are called to be people of faith, people of resurrection, listening to that voice from the future that tell us, God will give you the words to say. We hear the voice from a future resurrection. We hear the voice from the prophet Isaiah when he writes that God is about to “create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” he writes.

Because often there are beginnings in our endings, there is the possibility of new life, even in death. And there is the way that God's spirit spreads out among us when our temples fall down.

This is the way the world ends
. . . and how it begins again.

Thine kingdom come. Amen.

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