26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 November 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 13.1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 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.”

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Or, at least a memory of life. Might they find a photo album unsinged, a truly fireproof safe that protected important documents, a wristwatch blackened but still ticking? Probably not. More likely, they would find nothing but soot-covered bedsprings and a heap of ashes where the dining room table once stood.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

The devastation in Paradise and other California towns is unimaginable. Fires that raced faster than cars engulfed everything in their path. “Search and Rescue” teams reluctantly became “Evidence Gathering” teams, since the only thing that survived the fire was bone fragments and tears.

Will they rebuild? Can they rebuild? Or better to gather the borrowed clothes and sooty sleeping bags and limp off to someplace new, someplace far from the fires.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Both the Old Testament (Daniel 12.1-3) and Gospel readings this morning hint at a similar search. Though written centuries apart, they each reference a time of unprecedented tumult and terror.

Daniel’s audience faced persecution from the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV—a brutal turn-of-the-millenium tyrant, who lusted to destroy any remnants of Jews on his territory. Daniel writes, “There shall be a time of anguish such as never occurred since nations first came into existence.”

In fact, Daniel’s audience in the 2nd century BCE would be submitted to all manner of horror. And when it was over, their lives would be little more than dust and ashes.

Jesus moved through the world in a similarly troubled time. Though today’s exchange about the grandeur and durability of the temple took place early in the 1st century, years before the temple would actually be destroyed in 70 CE, Jesus was an astute sniffer of the political winds.  Like smoke sullying the air hundreds of miles away, Jesus sniffed the trouble ahead—for him, for his disciples, and for the whole city of Jerusalem.

Enemies always had their eyes on Jerusalem (they still do)—if they could capture the city, they could rule the whole region. But, even more diabolically, enemies knew that if they could capture the temple in Jerusalem, they could destroy a whole people.

The temple in Jerusalem was more than a significant house of worship, more than a stunning cathedral or synagogue. God’s people believed the temple was, literally, the dwelling place of God.  There is no emotional or spiritual equivalent for us. Because as much as we love this beautiful worship space, and even though we speak of meeting God here, none of us means that literally. If this building burned to the ground, we would be sad, but our faith would not be destroyed.

It was different for the people of Israel. God resided in the temple itself.  Since the days of the wilderness wandering, when the Ark of the Covenant was carried before them as a sign of the presence of God, the God of Israel had always been found in a place. For their sake—they needed to know God was close.

Erected by King Solomon ten centuries before Christ, the first temple in Jerusalem stood for 600 years, before being destroyed by invading armies. Rebuilt a century later, the second temple—20 stories high, built on foundation stones each weighing 400 tons—was unassailable, built to withstand any intruder. It dominated the Jerusalem skyline and protected God and God’s people for another 500 years before the conversation we overhear today.

That the temple would be destroyed a second time was not only unimaginable, but impossible. But it was possible. And Jesus could imagine it. He spoke the truth: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

How would God’s people survive a second such tragedy? Where would they go to meet God? And, more significantly, where would God go?

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

We have grown hard to unspeakable tragedies—the recent discovery of mass graves in Iraq, the displacement of millions of refugees worldwide, shooting venues and victims too many to count. Hard to imagine, easy to forget. But the climbing casualties in California’s wild fires trouble even the most jaded among us.

Metaphors abound. Paradise Lost. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Though none of us has survived such a conflagration by flame, many of us have lived the metaphor: dreams gone up in smoke; the loss of all we hold dear; nowhere to run/nowhere to hide. Tragedies like those threaten to destroy us. Sometimes, they do.

God has survived such tragedy, as well.

As I watch footage of cadaver dogs and white-suited searchers poking, sniffing through the ashes, I cannot help but imagine God doing the same.

Sifting through our ashes, searching for signs of life.

God created us in such hope, loves us with such passion, but has been disappointed again and again. Built to love, we love to hate. Designed for community, we isolate ourselves from all but those who agree with us. Voices made for praise, we raise them, instead, in anger and accusation.

Will God find any fragment of the people we were made to be? Will God uncover any evidence of the life God desires for us?

Yes. God’s dreams for us have not died. And God never stops searching.

When we gather here, in this temporary sanctuary, we are, for a moment the people God intended us to be. Regardless of political opinions or social status, we pray with one voice, eat at one table, hope with a single hope.

When, in our daily lives, we do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, God is able to erect walls of safety around us and those in our care.

When, as the writer of Hebrews urges (Hebrews 10.24) we “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” we stand on an unshakeable foundation.

All temples always fall. Fire always wins. We always disappoint—one another and God.

Day after day, century after century, God sifts through the ashes: restoring life when all seemed lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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