St Mary’s, W-O-T 2nd Sunday before Advent, 9.30 Parish Communion, November 15, 2015.
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, 13and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
A Call to Persevere
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
13As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
BUILDINGS OR BODIES?
About 3 years ago I read William Golding’s (Lord of the Flies) The Spire. It’s the story of a Cathedral Dean in the mediaeval times who has a vision, apparently from God, to build a magnificent 400-foot spire on top of the Cathedral. The fictional cathedral is thought to be modelled on Salisbury, which boasts the tallest Cathedral spire in England. In the novel, Dean Jocelyn is transfixed by this calling – he thinks the spire will bring glory to God; it will be a visual sign for miles around that the kingdom of God is ultimate and reigns over all. Unfortunately for Jocelyn, and for everyone else, it gradually becomes clear that the present Cathedral is resting on foundations that will not support the weight of the planned spire.
The Master Builder tries to tell Jocelyn this but Jocelyn interprets it as resistance to the heavenly vision. For Jocelyn, all his trust is in the spire, the completion of which will represent a triumph of faith over adversity. As the novel unfolds, we get the longest and most detailed description of a church building project recorded anywhere in fiction. It’s all about joists and pulleys and octagons and ropes and scaffolding and geometry in decidedly pre-technology days. It quite outclasses even the paperwork we have to complete for faculty applications today. The rest of the novel unfolds with melodramatic intensity as Jocelyn becomes unhealthily consumed with his passion for the spire and the Master Builder turns to drink to alleviate the stress of building a huge structure that he knows will fall. By the end of the novel, Jocelyn is a ruined man, disgraced amongst fellow clergy, mentally unstable and living in constant fear of the imminent collapse of the spire. It is a gloomy but salutary tale about the limitations of earthly buildings.
Jesus had a run in with the Jews of his day over the Temple in Jerusalem. This incredible building had been built on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, by Nehemiah and the returning exiled Jews, about 350 years before the time of Jesus, and was extensively renovated by King Herod in about 11 BC. With some stones weighing up to 400 tonnes each, it was capable of accommodating up to a million people. In Jesus’ day it symbolized everything that was important to the Jews about their religious heritage.
We know that Jesus went in and out of the Temple like any other observant Jew. One day as he comes out, one of his disciples points out the fabric of the building with great pride. ‘Look, Teacher; what large stones and what large buildings!’ Now I don’t know about you but I often wonder to what extent the things Jesus said made his disciples cringe. It would have been best for everyone perhaps, if at this point, Jesus had replied: ‘Yes, aren’t they wonderful; we’re so blessed to have this Temple for our worship. We’re so grateful to Herod for all his renovations. Praise God for our architectural heritage.’ Unfortunately, he immediately replied with apocalyptic words, dire words about the Temple’s destruction, which, I imagine, would have been taken rather badly: ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down.’
You can imagine the awkward silence afterwards. Not one mention of the beauty and significance of the building. Not one mention of how important it was for the Jews to preserve it as a sign of their being set apart by God. Not one acknowledgement that faith in God was in any way bound up with a religious building. We imagine them all walking off in silence looking awkwardly at each other as they came down the steps, thinking to themselves, ‘What on earth was all that about?’
We know his words went down badly with the authorities because they come back up at his trial: ‘This fellow said ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’’ Of course they can only think literally and see their building and their religion threatened. They fail to see that the body Jesus is talking about is his own.
As for his disciples, whether upset, angry, or just plain puzzled, they needed to continue this conversation urgently and so they come to him later that evening. They go to the Mount of Olives, a place where you can be still and ponder the things that have happened down in the busy city. On this hillside within sight of the Temple they sit and ask Jesus about his enigmatic words: ‘Tell us when this will be and what will be the sign that all these things are to be accomplished?’ As Jews they would not have been strangers to the apocalyptic – the idea that God will bring history to a final, sudden conclusion, as the kingdom of God is finally ushered in.
But in order to be born anew, the earth must experience birth pangs. Some of you will have experienced birth pangs yourself; I certainly have. They always tell you in NCT classes that when your birth pangs start, you mustn’t go into hospital until they’re five minutes apart. Luckily for me, I’m married to a rowing coach, who’s very handy with a stopwatch. So my birth pangs were minutely timed, and when they were 5 minutes apart, we went into hospital and Tom was born. The timing somewhat fell apart with subsequent children, as they were in a hurry to arrive and stopwatches seemed rather a superfluous luxury. But the main thing you know about birth pangs is that they may be uncomfortable, even painful, but they will surely lead to something being born. It is the same with history.
What are the birth pangs of the earth? You’ll find them in verses 7-9 of the gospel today. And this is where we need to develop a distinctive apocalyptic understanding of events ourselves. Apocalypse means to uncover, unveil or reveal. The things we see on our TV screens every evening, the wars, conflicts, natural disasters and famines, are the beginning of the unveiling of the new heaven and new earth that God will finally bring in with his second coming – something we will look further into as Advent begins. As Jesus says: ‘For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs’.
The apocalyptic approach to history – the idea that things will come to an abrupt and for some, terrifying end – is one that is perhaps easier for mankind to grasp than it used to be, as we survey our ecological ruination of the earth.
Jesus’ earlier prediction that the Temple would be dismantled, came true of course with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. The Roman Generals apparently sat surveying the incredible building and hesitating slightly before destroying it, brick by brick, in AD 70. The temple that was destroyed and built again after three days was, of course, the temple of Jesus’ own body. And here we have the heart of what Christ’s first Advent means. He has redefined religion entirely to be primarily focussed on his physical body and his once for all sacrifice, not on a Temple and repeated sacrifices for sin, as was the way of the Old Testament.
This is spelt out for us even more clearly in the letter to the Hebrews, which we had as our first reading. The Prayer book puts this as well as anything else: referring to Christ, it speaks eloquently of ‘his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. It immediately then talks of the giving of his body in bread and wine.
In view of this, with what kind of attitude can we approach God? We can approach with ‘a true heart, in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean’ and with a clear conscience (Heb. 10:22 ff.). And in view of knowing God loves and accepts us just as we are, we can live out of that confidence as we spur one another on to good deeds and as we make sure we keep meeting together – it’s all very practical. There’s a hint from Paul that some have stopped meeting together, and that this is to be regretted.
Most ministers would concur with that. Let’s not stop meeting together! For that to happen, we don’t necessarily need a building, but we are blessed with one, and a very beautiful one at that, one whose spire is not falling down and whose roof is temporarily at lest, watertight. As we gather here to receive Christ in bread and wine, may we have the confidence that Hebrews talks of, that through the gift of Christ given for us, we will find acceptance for ourselves, love for others, and ultimately, the lasting home for which we have always longed.