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Clearing the Table

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The New Revised Standard Version The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then 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?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 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.

Stones, fractures, epic constructions being torn down.
We live in a time when many of the institutions that we have held so dear are quite frequently being questioned. Will democracy survive? What does the future of the church in America look like? And the ever pressing questions of this time of year — What are the appropriate side dishes to bring at Thanksgiving?
Today, I want to challenge us to rethink Thanksgiving. Because if we’re honest, the practice of gathering at the table with family and friends each year as a marker of an American cultural celebration can get kind of old. The stories are worn out — pilgrims and their “peaceful” meal with the tribes of American first people. The iconic turkey hunts of our nation’s colonial days. The myth of Thanksgiving is rich with cultural symbolism, but I think we can agree we often have trouble placing what it truly means to be “thankful” in the midst of it all.
My grandfather would always gather us around the table before the meal and encourage us to go around the table to say what we were thankful for that day. I remember catching someone roll their eyes as he began or trying to share so profoundly and eloquently that I totally missed the point of sharing about gratitude and mostly just shared about how great I thought I was as a teenager. The tradition of giving thanks gets muddled up in all the other stuff(ing).
But this practice, this calm, somber, slow sharing of gratitudes — in my opinion — this is incredibly subversive and growing moreso. It is dangerous to name the truth of the blessings of God. Especially, it is provocative to name what we are grateful for in a world where there is so much to worry about, so many things to be afraid of, so many disasters and dishonest people and failing institutions.
To say thanks, to speak thanksgiving — this at its core is a way that the Christian tradition honors the resurrection. Because we say thanks to God in the face of a world which is falling apart. We say thanks to God in trust that the temple will fall and be destroyed and not rebuilt, but instead made entirely new. We entrust our thanks to God in the face of the void — knowing, longing, expecting that the returning Christ will turn those “thanks” and blessings into powerful gifts of resurrection and new life.
Ok, let’s remember the context of Jesus’ words to the disciples. They are emerging from the temple after Jesus has been discussing the way of the Kingdom with the Scribes and religious leaders and his disciples. Last week, we remember that Jesus calls us to risk it all, to commit our whole self to the work of liberating love, just like a widow giving her small gift of great cost to the Temple. Jesus invites us to respond to God not by place our trust in dying institutions, but in the deep hope that God will set us free through our love of neighbor and pursuit of the Kingdom.
So they walk outside the Temple and one of the disciples says — “wow, look at that massive building, isn’t it impressive? If only we had a church like that, people would sure flock to our mission. If only our parking lot were bigger or we had that kind of signage out front. Oh goodness, if we could only get our greeters to be that friendly or our pastor’s sermons to be as powerful as the ones you were giving in there, Jesus…wow, then we would be on our way!”
I can just picture Jesus turning to look at this disciple and rolling his eyes. “Are you kidding me? Did you hear anything I’ve been saying?”
To the credit of the unnamed disciple who’s speaking up, the Temple Mount and the structures upon it were quite impressive. The Temple was enormous. The magnitude of the temple mount and the stones used to construct it exceed in size any other temple in the ancient world. Inside, it had a footprint of something like 12 football fields. If you have ever visited a site like this, or the Temple Mount itself, you know the enormity of the structures of this era and how impressive they certainly are.
But Jesus rolls his eyes at the disciple and is like, “What, these stones? They will all fall.”
We can’t get into the engineering of it, but I can just hear the disciples chuckle — “yeah, right Jesus, do you know how heavy those things are?”
But, in hindsight, we know that this happens. The Temple is destroyed. And what Jesus is getting at is deeper.
“Do you want to place your trust in stones, a temple that will fall apart? Because it’s not going to last.”
Jesus’ Message — Interpretation
The disciples wanted Jesus to agree with them, to take on the mantle of Priestly King, to waltz into the Temple and take ownership of it, and he does, but not in the way they wanted. And this is Jesus departing the Temple for the last time, in the final week of his life, preparing to go to a different mountain, to die.
Jesus is getting an enticing offer from the disciples — “look teacher, take the power that is yours!” It should remind us of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, a bookend to what he experiences now at the Temple steps. Some commentators think the unnamed disciple might be Judas, the one who would ultimately betray Jesus for not rising to power.
In his dismissal of the longevity of the Temple, Jesus assures us that the coming of his Kingdom will bring about more cataclysmic changes, especially to these structures that no longer serve God’s people, but rather oppress and exclude those who seek justice, mercy, and love.
Jesus’ words are a final disqualification of the Temple as the focal point in his story, the story of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Temple did not become the location of his ascension into Lordship. Instead, he advises the disciples to be alert, to wait, to be cautious of anyone who tries to gain power like this. Do not confuse religious institutions and their complicity with the empire for the way of the Kingdom of God! Do not buy into or get in bed with the ones who will trade power for exclusion, dominance and lordship for oppression!
Today’s Context
I have to imagine some of you are sitting there thinking — “What is going on, I thought I came to church to remember to be Thankful this week? Where is this guy going?”
I’ll say two things — first, wait for it, I’m gonna get there, but just not how you think. And second, what you’re experiencing is probably very similar to the bewilderment the disciples might have felt in this moment — what is Jesus talking about!? We like this Temple, it’s where our whole sense of the cosmos, God’s presence, our religious practice is located! Tear it down? What?
Let’s put this discussion into our context. Maybe today, Jesus would visit the Vatican. Or the Capitol building. Or maybe our church buildings, maybe 910 14th St. in Bellingham, WA. And I want to push on us and say that I think he might say the same thing about those buildings, those institutions — friends, they will fall, they will fail.
This is not encouraging news, especially if we have spent our lives investing in these institutions. They will fall, at least how we know them to be today.
I don’t want to rush quickly to the good news, but rather I’d like us to sit with the gravity of that. The structures that we have created to house God will never house God the way we’d like them to. They will fail and will need to be rebuilt. That has been the case of the church for centuries. That is the truth we face even today.
Pause there. Hold that thought.
Let’s go back to the Thanksgiving table. Think about the most iconic Thanksgiving meal, the perfect setting, the time you had the best piece of pumpkin pie, the juiciest piece of dark meat, the most laughter and joy with your family. Capture whatever comes to mind — this memory, this vision, THIS is what we long for Thanksgiving to be. Each year after we will do the things that will hopefully, somehow, help us to reclaim that memory. We’ll try to set the table similarly, try to recreate the mix of people, add just a little more nutmeg this time to see if it will be perfect again.
But the truth is — it doesn’t work. We can’t go back.
(Again, you’re asking — what’s with the big bummer of a sermon?)
The Turn
The Temple falls. The church fails. Jesus dies. The King is dead. The green bean casserole gets burned. Somebody tells a racist joke. Someone spills eggnog all over the floor. Your grandmother, in her death, is no longer with you at the table. Hearts break. The world is not as it should be.
Jesus describes all the signs to his disciples, earthquakes, wars, famines. Many of Christians have interpreted these to be signs of the end of the world. And by God, if you’re paying attention to the news, it’d be hard to deny that some days it sure feels like the end of the world.
But here’s the turn. Actually, Jesus’ final words in this text are the turn. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
The wild thing that we, the Christian church, proclaim, is that we believe in resurrection. Not simply a rebuilding of the Temple as it was before, but a calling forth of new life from what was dead. “Behold, I am making all things new!” says the Lord. The huge stones of the Temple will fall, but they do not fall in vain, they do not fall to crush the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the sinner and the ones who long for redemption.
Jesus’ death — which is foreshadowed here, for those of you still following along, through the thinly veiled metaphor of the Temple falling — Jesus’ death does not end in a tomb with a body but rather the spark of new life for Christ and through him all creation. A new way of existence breaks forth.
The death is about the beginning of a birth. The beginning of labor pains, the productive work that will lead to beauty and freshness and possibility and HOPE!
The disciples can’t hear this. We struggle to hear this. But here’s a way I think we are invited to hear it anew today — The failing of the institutions around us, the failings of leaders to do what’s right, the breakdown of order — while it is painful and leads to struggle — it also holds the possibility of opening, of new life, of resurrection.
This is one of those peculiar things that we Christians do — we believe that Hope is possible, that new life is always possible, that God is always up to something and, since God is good and loves Creation, God is doing something good, even through the most impossible of circumstances.
I promised we’d bring this on home to Thanksgiving and here it is. This year, I want you to rethink Thanksgiving. I want you to, with utter disregard for your beautiful China or neatly laid napkins or however much the cranberry sauce is going to stain the carpet — I want you to (at least in your heart) clear off the table, wipe the whole thing clean, empty the space and brush all the past aside.
And here’s what you can do, instead: Thank God for what is changing in you. Thank God for what you see on the horizon. Thank God for what you don’t have concrete answers for yet, but think God might be guiding you toward.
Certainly, we thank God for the blessings that have been given us already, that which has been good this year. But since those moments are dead, since we only have this time, right now, this moment of anticipation, we have to rethink where we locate our gratitude. Do we locate it only on what once was, what memories we have? Or do we locate our thanksgiving in the trusting of God’s goodness, which is always out ahead of us?
What might it be like to thank God for what is being “birthed” in you? What might it be like to open yourself up to others, ones who you belong to, and speak into being a new possibility that God is creating with your life, with your shared life, with our common life? What might it be like to live like the widow who trusts in God’s providing love enough to give her two coins? To risk drawing close to those who are different from us, our neighbors and our enemies? To risk hopeful love.
A final word of hope for us today, a word for us to be thankful for as we gather this week: The Temple was torn down. The church cracks and fails us. But Christ, in his resurrection, does not dwell in these buildings. No. Christ dwells in us, in our frailty and failings as well, but in us as temples of ongoing resurrection and restoration. You, me, each of us who proclaim’s Christ’s lordship of our lives, we are now the site of the Kingdom of God. And we, the gathered church here at St. James Presbyterian — we are the workshop, the connection point, the practice ground where we come to see what the house of God looks like as a body of many parts and then we are sent out to be that presence of God in the world.
So today, may you go out and live with full gratitude, knowing that you are a site of the Kingdom of God. And will you come back to tell the stories of thanksgiving and hope with us, as a family, once more. Amen.
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