Thursday, November 21, 2013

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

"As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."

Two times in the history of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, it was destroyed. The first was in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians who afterwards took the Jews into exile. The second was in A.D. 70 by the Romans who effectively drove the Jews out of Palestine. After the year 70, the temple would never again be rebuilt even down to our own day. All that remains of the Temple is the Western Wall which was part of the foundation of the second temple. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these two destructions of the temple on the development of Jewish and Christian religion. The day on which the temples were destroyed is still commemorated every year by pious Jews. I would guess that about a quarter of the Old Testament deals either directly or indirectly with the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, while the destruction of the temple by the Romans is foretold or alluded to numerous times in the New Testament. In our Gospel lesson, we have an instance of the latter. Our Lord foretells the destruction of the temple. Looking around at its "noble stones" and "offerings", Jesus remarks that "the days come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another."

Our Lord is say something far more profound than merely a historical note about the future destruction of the temple. Our Lord was reminding his disciples and us that we live in a world of change and decay and death. If you looked at the temple in A.D. 30, it would have been difficult to imagine its destruction. The stones that formed its foundation on the Western Wall are huge blocks that weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Could such a building really be destroyed? It can, and it was. In the same way, there many things in our lives that appear immune to change and decay. They may appear as sturdy as a heavy boulder. They may even seem invincible. When we are in good health and our loved ones are in good health, we often feel this way, but of course, one's health can change in a moment. It's odd in a way that we are surprised when one's health takes a turn for the worse: on one level we know that we cannot live forever in these mortals bodies, and yet sickness often catches us surprised and unprepared. I believe there is a good explanation for this tendency.

Theology teaches that humans have a hunger and capacity for God. We have a God-shaped hole inside of us. God of course is eternal and unchanging. In our broken and sinful state, however, we often look to other things besides God to give us that sense of permanency and stability, like our health or the health of loved ones. Those other things, however, are anything but permanent and stable. Health changes from wholeness to sickness; fortunes change from abundance to loss; the things of this world decay. I had the chance this past week to drive through some sections of rural New Jersey. The next time you drive past an old barn with its siding falling down or an abandoned house with a hole in its roof, consider the fact of how little time it takes for such decay to set it. 50 years, 100 years at max. The things that somehow manage to survive the ravages of time like the pyramids in the Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome, people flock to because they are exceptions to the natural course of things. The fact is one day even these monuments will whither away.

If your happiness is in the things of the world, the things that change, if your trust is in "the noble stones and offerings" of the Temples of this world, this is sure recipe for unhappiness: it is only a matter of time before things fall apart. You might be thinking that this is grim view of reality, but, my friends, it is true accounting of life in this world. So, instead of expecting permanency and stability from the things of this world, we can look to the Rock that is higher than we are, Him in whom there is neither variableness nor shadow of turning. In Him, you can receive all the good things of this world with gratitude for the time that you do have to use and enjoy them. I have a favorite image to illustrate this point. Imagine a piece of your grandmother's china. Everybody probably has some prized piece of porcelain that has come down through the family. The fact is eventually it will break or be lost. Most people either keep that treasured heirloom locked up in a cabinet; they do not use it or enjoy it because they are afraid it will break. They do not want to face the fact, that whoever inherits it may not value it as much as they do. Other people may use the china, but when it chips or breaks they are devastated. The hard truth is that it was only a matter of time. In God, we find the source of everything that is beautiful. He made the world, and all the beauties of nature. He made humans in his image, so that we can create beautiful things after the patterns we see in the world. If we find our true home and happiness in God, then we can use and enjoy that family heirloom without anxiety, knowing that at some point it will break but that is okay because our ultimate joy is not based on it. Like grandmother's china, we have similar anxieties about our children. Some would like to lock them away and shield them from every trouble or evil. Others manage to cut those apron strings, only to be mortified if the young person encounters some exacerbating trial or has a wayward streak. My friends, a wayward streak in your child should not be surprising: your children are after all made in your image. The only true security and protection for our children is to entrust them to God in prayer and with faith.

As we approach the holiday season and the frenzy of consumerism that erupts during this time of year, may we not be deceived into thinking that some object will make us or our children truly happy. May learn to look for the permanency and stability that we so desire not in the things of this world, but in Him who does not change. And may we our hearts learn to seek and pray after God, like the words from one of my favorite hymns: "Swift to its close, ebbs out life's little day, / Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away, / Change and decay in all around I see, / O thou who changest not, abide with me."

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