Opposite the Temple
copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 15 , 2009
When Mark wrote that Jesus, following his foray to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, sat “opposite the Temple” on the mount of Olives, Mark was describing not only what was — and is — literally true. The Mount of Olives was opposite the Temple mount, the one is across a small valley, the Kidron valley, from the other. They are two hillsides facing one another, the Mount of Olives standing actually somewhat higher. In a way it is similar to the fact that, for years, the Presbyterian church I served in Salem stood where the Labor and Industries building stands today in the same sort of relationship to the capitol building: “the Presbyterian church opposite the capitol,” though we might not phrase it that way. Mark wrote these words as a similar description of a location, but also more than that.
Mark was describing what would have been, in a few years, also theologically true. The Temple was destroyed in the first century, never to be rebuilt. The mountain from which Jesus ascended, the Mount of Olives, stood opposite, representing a new truth about the way God could be worshipped. For generations, the people had worshiped God on the holiest site they knew, on the mount where a Temple had stood for generations, three different Temples:
· First the much heralded Temple of Solomon which was destroyed by the Babylonians;
· Then the Temple built in the time after Israel’s exile in Babylon, the Temple of Zerubbabel;
· Finally, in Jesus’ generation, it was a new Temple, which was begun under Herod, 20 years before Jesus’ birth and was not finished until after his crucifixion, made of massive stone blocks, huge stones, some the size of semitrailer trucks. Some of the hewn stones from that Temple form the foundations of the temple mount on which today the Mosque of Omar — the Dome of the Rock — stands, part of those foundations are commonly called the “Wailing Wall.”
The sight of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was and remains one of the most spectacular views of Jerusalem, visited by virtually every tourist to the city, and in Jesus’ day, it offered an unparalleled view of the magnificence of the Temple building, a building which, as Jesus spoke of it with his disciples, was a brand new structure. When they were visiting the city, Jesus had told them that the Temple, built of the massive stones that they could see before them, would be “thrown down.” Later on, they asked, understandably, from the elevated perspective of the Mount of Olives, “when will this be?” I’m sure they also wondered how this could be; anyone looking at those massive stones, that immense structure, might have wondered at Jesus’ words.
The Temple was enormous and opulent, a walk around its perimeter would have been about 2/3 of a mile. Its marble-clad walls were 150 feet high, and each block weighed many tons. Outside there were columns of 40 foot high marble. The outer courts were entered by ten different gates, each of which was covered in silver or gold plate. Records show that two of the doors stood 45 feet high, and the one famously called “Beautiful Gate” in Acts was cast of bronze brought from Corinth in Greece. The eastern face of the Temple and parts of the side walls were plated in gold, which along with the white marble, caused the Temple to glow as if on fire in the rising sun of morning, much as the golden Dome of the Rock does today. But the Temple, unlike today’s much smaller mosque, completely dominated the mount visually, as well as the city around it.
Today we know that it was about 70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when the unimaginable happened and the Roman legions came into an increasingly restive and rebellious Jerusalem to do just what Jesus had said they would do, tearing the Temple down to the extent that what remained amounted to little more than a pile of rocks. Then all Jews were barred from from Israel, from Jerusalem, and from the Temple grounds for about 19 centuries. These things he wanted them to understand as he sat on the little mountain “opposite the temple,” the Mount of Olives so well-known by Christians as a location where there was once a garden in which Jesus was betrayed, where nearby in Bethany there once had been the house of Mary and Martha, the location of some of Jesus’ most profound teaching, and where also there was a hilltop from which the disciples watched the resurrected Christ rise into the heavens. It became, in many ways, a new mount for believers, the old one with its Temple having been cast down without one stone remaining on another for about 2000 years now. The new place, the new mount was ultimately where faces looked toward heaven, opposite the lower hillside where downcast eyes revealed only the ruins of the old Temple.
The Temple had certainly been made of solid earthly stuff, as solid and expensive as could be found, but the deeper foundation which Jesus sought, as with the foundations of our own lives, was the foundation of deep faith. That is why in last week’s reading, anyone who heard Jesus’ comment on a poor widow’s two half pennies placed in the Temple offering box being a gift greater than anyone’s would have caused building committee folks to scratch their heads in wonder. Tiny donations do not build immense, magnificent buildings. But they reveal a deeper foundation than the foundations of buildings, a foundation of deep faith. Humility, service, commitment to the message Jesus brought will outlast columns of marble and doors plated with gold.
There must have been despair in the disciples hearts at the thought of a wrecked Temple, but there was to be a future hope on its way as well.
Bruce Larson once wrote that the neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to see in his church. It is an imitation, but a good one, dispensing spirits instead of the spirit, escape instead of what is really real, but one thing is true of such places as we used to see on the old TV series Cheers: it is a place with a fellowship that is permissive, accepting, and inclusive, where “everybody knows your name.” It is unshockable, democratic, and even confessional, a place where people often tell things to each other that they would never say anywhere else. Such places flourish not because people are alcoholics, though some are, but because we are created by God with a desire to make ourselves known and to know others, to love and be loved. Probably Christ wants his church to be unshockable, democratic, a place where people can come in where “everybody knows their name” and say, “I’m sunk!” “I’m beat!” “I’ve had it!” Alcoholics Anonymous has this desperately desired quality. Churches too often miss it.
The qualities Christ seeks in us are not that we be builders of great temples or great fortunes or great reputations, but that we be builders of great fellowships where the lost the least and the last can come and find in one another the presence of Christ, opposite the Temple, standing with those who cannot stand alone.
Of course our reading begins with the words about the Temple, but continues with words about the last things, the final things, what scholars call “eschatology.” One of my friends once said that the word eschatology sounds like a medical term. “How is your eschatology today?” But it’s not something measured on an blood test or electrocardiogram. Eschatology is talk about last things, final judgment, and it is a topic that always appears in Gospel readings as we approach the season of Advent. The four disciples who approached Jesus after his lesson at the Temple, stood looking with him at the glittering, brand new Temple from the perspective of a hillside a half mile away, and were inspired to ask a question about last things, ultimate things.
Jesus responded with two points.
First, that there would be a multitude of religious pretenders coming their way who will claim to know not only the purpose of the world, but the finer points of God’s timing. That was and still is the case. Jesus said to them and to us, “Many will come in my name ... and they will lead many astray.”
Second, religious pretenders notwithstanding, remember that no matter how solid it appears to be, neither this Temple, nor the good old earth itself is going to last forever. As one preacher put it, Jesus seems to be saying, “You never know, so live alertly, live expectantly, live now.” We all know what it means to live in other ways so that we only see what our lives would have meant had we been paying attention:
· Real life is not living at home and going to high school, real life comes when I get out of high school and go to college or get a job;
· Real life isn’t this starting-level job, real life is when I get that promotion;
· Real life isn’t being single, real life is when I find the right someone and get married;
· Real life is going to start when we have some kids and are a family;
· Real life will be when our two year-old is finally out of diapers and in school;
· Real life is when our kids finally get off to college;
· Real life is when the last tuition payment is made;
· Real life is when I finally get my retirement;
· Real life will be after I get that bypass surgery I need...
Author Annie Dillard put this point in the most concise and telling way I have ever heard. “How we spend our days,” she wrote, “is of course how we spend our lives.”
The “holiday season” — as our culture persists in referring to the coming 4 or 5 weeks from Thanksgiving through Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years — comes at many of us like a freight train on amphetimines. So much to do, shopping, greeting cards to send, parties to organize or attend. There is nothing wrong with all this, it’s just important to remember to stop and realize, as if Jesus stood beside us to say it, that one day none of these things we are attending to so frantically will remain. Not one will remain standing. Don’t go through the motions of these coming days, but live in them. Perhaps, as a friend of mine said, this is the holiday when you may think about living enough in the precious moment God has provided to “tap your spoon on the water glass and look at one dear face or all the dear faces across the cranberry relish and say: ‘I’ve been meaning to say this for so long; I love you, and I thank God for you.’”
I encourage you to do such things in the midst of this passing world you love, that is populated by people and places you love, in this church that we all love so much. And I do this myself as I say now to each of you, I love you, and I thank God for you.
In the name of the Triune God who loves us with such unfettered abandon. Amen.
Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved