Proper 28: Malachi 4:1-2; Ps 98; 2 Th 3:6-13; Lk 21:5-19
26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2013
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
We’ve spent the greater part of this season after Pentecost on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples and we arrived there last week where the Sadducees immediately challenge Jesus because they did not believe in the resurrection. Others have also been challenging Jesus and his presumptuous authority as he sits in the Temple daily and teaches. And through all these challenges, he continues to surpass expectation, answering without defensiveness or angst, but turning thought, belief, and ideology securely grounded in law on its head. He offers a new way to think about life and God and what it means to be a person of God. His approach is not only fresh and new, but revolutionary.
People had gotten bogged down in the milieu of their time, and it was a pretty good and prosperous time to live in Jerusalem. Say what you want about Herod, but he was a builder and the Temple in Jerusalem his masterpiece.
He more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount and though the Temple was finished in eighteen months, the outer courts and decorations took another 70 years or so to complete and was not finished until the year 64. A mere six years later, it would be destroyed so that not one stone would be left upon another. Many of its plundered furnishings would be carried to Rome and paraded through every city and town on the way, as were large paintings of the Roman siege and the burning of Jerusalem. The point of this parade of pride was to demonstrate the strength of the Roman military and quell any thought of uprising or resistance especially in her furthest provinces. And, maybe, that was accomplished to some degree, but the unexpected and quite unintentional result was that the people of the Roman Empire knew the Jewish Temple’s magnificence”and the people were impressed.
The Temple was impressive. This morning we are told it was so impressive it became a point of distraction for the disciples. They have been listening to Jesus answer his opponents and tell parables against them, they have seen both rich and poor contribute to the Temple’s coffers, and now they begin to look around the room and realize the glitz and glamour of this place.
They notice the bedazzled altar, the silver and gold plates and cups, the rich furnishings, and intricate stone work and they comment on it, pointing it out to one another and allowing themselves to get caught up in the beauty of this place and maybe, if just for a moment, forget the gift of God with them that sits among them.
We do that sometimes, don’t we? We find ourselves so easily distracted by beauty”the stain glass windows, the mosaic floor of the chancel area, the painted ceiling tiles of the nave, the glorious voice of the choir or the delicate sounds of the strings, appreciating it for its beauty and forgetting that God is at its center. The music draws us into itself, the intricate work of the tiles focuses us on the pattern and we stop there, appreciating the beauty but not seeing the truth”these things will end, the notes will stop, the Temple will fall and not one stone will remain upon another, time will not stand still and we will not be frozen in it. These tangible things cannot be our hope, though they might lead us to that which is true, truly good, truly beautiful.
And that is what Jesus reminds his disciples that day in the Temple”these things that you see, these tangible things, though dedicated to God are not God. They will fall, there will be an end to that which you know and it will not be a happy event. It will be filled with pain and anguish for all people, but especially for you. You will suffer and endure hardships, but your endurance will pay off in the end because it is in that endurance that you will gain your souls, that you will gain salvation.
But not if you are so easily distracted”not if you are more interested in the beauty that surrounds you rather than the words that will bring you everlasting life; not if power and prestige are more attractive than humility and caring for others; not if success is measured by beautiful stones, fancy gifts, and impressive buildings.
It’s important to remember that this story is not about us. We want to make it about us; we want to make it about the end times and all the horrific things we will have to endure in order to gain our souls.
We want to point at 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti and Australia, the Typhoon in the Philippines and question if these aren’t the signs that the end is near”and if we were reading Matthew or Mark this morning, that might be an appropriate question because they both frame this conversation between Jesus and the disciples in eschatological or end time terms.
But Luke is talking about the Temple in Jerusalem that will be destroyed in the year 70. He is giving us an accounting of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus, in his most prophetic manner, points to that destruction and now, we can look back, historically, at the events Luke’s Jesus alludes too and discover the truthfulness of Jesus’s words. This story is not about us, but it still speaks to us”not in an end of the world as we know it kind of way, but in very personal and real way.
When we lose something or someone, we suffer and that suffering is very real. And the last thing we want to do is to testify to the greatness of God in those times of suffering and loss.
We may turn to God for our hope and comfort, but to praise and glorify God seems unimaginable. Suffering and loss rarely feels like opportunity. And yet, time and again we hear stories of those who testified to God in the midst of their suffering, who turned to God and proclaimed the greatness of his name.
It was that way for Thomas Dorsey, otherwise known as Georgia Tom. He was born in Georgia in 1889 to a preacher father and piano teacher mother. He moved to Chicago as a young man to continue to study music and played piano at rent parties, clubs, and church on Sundays to pay the bills. He was a great blues player and incorporated that blues style into his gospel music.
By the end of his life in 1993, he would be credited with over 400 blues and jazz songs, countless gospel hits, the honor of the first African-American elected to the Nashville music hall of fame, the first African American to open a recording studio, and a significant influence on African American gospel music, as well as most American hymnals and English speaking churches world wide.
But his life did not lack suffering. As Nancy Westfield tells it, In August of 1932 he left his pregnant wife in Chicago and travelled to a large revival meeting in St. Louis to be the featured soloist. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, ˜Your wife just died.’ Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth. The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and his son in the same casket and withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite sometime.
While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, though the night,
Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
This morning’s Gospel is not about us, but we can take something away from it”Jesus always give us words and wisdom in the midst of our trials and suffering. No matter what our opponents, be they friend or foe, may say or do to betray and persecute us, we will not perish. No matter what our experience or losses become, they are not the final word. There is something more and by our endurance, by our trust in Christ, we will gain our souls.