Who knows how this will look by Sunday. (Much different. Here’s the sermon as delivered.)
It must have been a bit stressful to hang out with Jesus. You never knew when a casual comment or simple action would lead to something cosmic in significance.
He is like one of those people you run into sometimes. You see each other coming in and out of a store, maybe. You say, “Hi” and smile to each other. Then you say, “How are you doing?” Now, we all know that the correct answer to this question is something like “fine” or “great” or maybe “it’s been a rough week, but things are getting better.” But sometimes you get someone who acts as if you really meant it when you asked how they were doing – and this tends to happen when the person on the other end is not doing well – and you end up spending a long time listening to them tell you about everything that has been going on in their life. And all you wanted to do was pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread on your way home.
Well, this is how Jesus could be.
Here were the disciples making an innocent observation. “Wow. Jesus. Look at how great the temple looks. Look at that stonework. Look at that gold. Wow. Isn’t that great?”
I love the line in this translation of the Scripture.
“But Jesus said …”
The disciples were expecting something straight forward and simple. They expected Jesus to share their appreciation.
But that is not what they got is it?
“You think this temple’s a big deal?” Jesus tells them. “The time’s going to come when this is nothing but a big pile of rocks. Not even a big pile. It’s going to be rocks strewn all over the ground. Not a single stone will be piled on top of another stone.”
Now, to an ancient Jew suggesting that the temple would be destroyed is kind of like showing up at Thanksgiving dinner grabbing the turkey and dressing off the table and throwing it out in the back yard.
You just don’t do it. You don’t even talk about.
Today, in Israel, in Jerusalem there is a section of the old temple wall that you can still see. In an open air plaza, there is a section of wall about 190 feet long. The stones in that wall are the stones that were there when Jesus and the disciples walked the temple grounds. They were put there by King Herod. To this day, Jews gather to pray before this wall.
It’s all they have left from the old temple. Romans, Christians, and Muslims have over run the temple since the day of Jesus. On the mount where the temple once stood sits the third most holy site in all of Islam.
This 187-foot section of wall from the old temple is all the Jews have. And it is the most sacred spot in all of Judaism. Two thousand years later, men will shed blood to protect those stones.
I tell you all this to give you a sense of what kind of impact Jesus must have made when he said what he said.
I imagine the disciples looked around in shock to see if any of the other Jews at the temple that day heard what Jesus said.
And then they gathered around him with questions. “When will this happen?”
And does Jesus answer them?
Does Jesus ever give a straight answer? Not often.
He gives them this cryptic warning.
“Watch out. People are going to show up claiming to be me, asking you to follow me. There will be wars and revolutions. There will be earthquakes and famines and terrible signs in the heavens.
“And you … you my followers … people are going to grab you and throw you in jail and haul you to courts. Your own families are going to turn on you. Some of you will even be killed because you follow me. You are going to be hated because of me.
“But don’t worry. Stand firm. By doing that, you will gain eternal life.”
When I read passages like this, I always wonder if one of the disciples might have said, “Um, you know Jesus, I was just trying to point out the pretty rocks on the side of the temple there…”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus can be pretty annoying some times.
Here the disciples were having a pleasant day at the temple. They’d probably finished praying for the morning. They were strolling together in the great crowds and activity of Jerusalem. And then Jesus takes one little innocent comment and suddenly we’re living through wars and bloodshed and pestilence and persecution and torture and murder.
I mean come on. How about we just take a nice walk? Is that too much to ask?
Has Jesus ever made you feel like that? Has God the Father?
You ever get that moment where you want to say to God, look just lighten up a bit, okay? I know there are children starving in Haiti right now. I know I shouldn’t have looked at the girl in the hallway that way. I know I shouldn’t have lied to that guy. But come on. I’m just trying to have a nice day here.
My kids have one of those Brio train sets. It’s a wooden train track and has little wooden engines and cars. Zach, when he was little, was a huge fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, so we have a whole bunch of those weird little engines with faces on the front of them.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned about building a Brio train track. It is really easy to do it wrong. You have all these straight pieces and curving pieces that you can pick from. The curves in particular curve different amounts. So, it is really easy to be putting one piece down after the other as you go. They all fit. You find yourself going where you want to go, but when you get to the end, somewhere along the line you made a bad choice and the two ends won’t connect.
You have one piece here and one piece here with a gap in between that no piece of track will fit or close. So, you go back and try to trade out pieces to get it to work. And it never does. Not well at least. I always end up kind of forcing it into place. It leaves kind of a big kink in the line at some place. But it fits. Sort of.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
I think part of what Jesus was doing that day in Jerusalem was trying to keep the eyes of the disciples on the end of the track. He heard in the comment about the pretty stones something that he thought needed to be corrected.
Maybe it was the admiration for the wealth and riches of this world. Maybe in their voices he heard the sound we sometimes make when we are talking about that new toy or gadget or car or dress that we really want.
You know that sound, right?
You don’t even need to hear a whole sentence to recognize it. Our family would be out in the mall around this time of year and JillAnn would come up to me and she’d say one word … “Daddy” … and I’d know what was coming next.
Maybe Jesus heard that tone in the voice of the disciple who pointed to the temple.
Or maybe it was their reverence for the temple itself.
This is not news to you – I don’t think – that we humans sometimes get so attached to the parts of religion that we create that we lose sight of God. We get so tied into a building or a certain theology or a way of doing things that we begin to equate those things for God.
Before I was baptized, we attended a United Methodist Church in Bloomington that had one of the best preachers I’d ever heard. His sermons were funny and folksy but always managed to hit you right in the heart. Here’s a sign of how good he was. I still remember some of the things he said in those sermons.
Well, unfortunately, he had a crisis in his marriage, and he had to leave the pastorate for a while. This happened while we were away from Bloomington. When we came back, though, and he was not there preaching, it was like it wasn’t even church, at least for a little while. I’d grown so used to him as the voice that talked to me about God, that I’d gotten confused.
Well, this would have been a real risk for Jews in Jesus’ day. When Solomon built the first temple, the Bible records a prayer he prayed as that temple was dedicated. In the prayer, Solomon asked that God always dwell in the temple and that any prayer prayed to the temple would always be heard by God.
You can see how Jews might begin to confuse the temple – something made by human hands – with God.
I think Jesus wanted to shake the disciples out of that.
That’s what he wants to do with us as well.
Just like the disciples – we are just like them still – we fall too easily in love with things that are not God. We get too impressed and too caught up in things that sparkle before our eyes are take the place of God.
We let the things of this world that pass away distract us from God.
We let the outer trappings of religion – a building, a certain way of worshipping, a certain set of doctrines or beliefs – get in the way of the true object of religion.
We lose sight of the end of the track because we are too busy putting down one piece after another.
Jesus wants to shake us out of that.
And not just because love of wealth or turning the church into an idol is bad. It is. But because he knows those things will not hold us up when the hard days come.
We may not be tortured and murdered for our faith – like some of our brothers and sisters around the world are still to this day – but we will all come to days in our lives where the world falls apart. We all know pain and suffering. We fall into darkness. We find ourselves surrounded by enemies. We get betrayed by life or by friends or by family.
In those days of torment, all the things that so distract us on the bright morning walks through Jerusalem – all those things disappear. They cannot save us. They cannot comfort us.
Only God can.
Only faith can give us the strength to stand up in the face of the worst days of our lives.
Jesus did not want his disciples to forget that truth.
He does not want us to forget it.
He was willing on that day in Jerusalem to be a little annoying to get his point across.
Praise God for a Lord who shakes us up and keeps our eyes on the end of the track.
In the name of the Father …