A sermon preached Nov 18, 2012 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Nothing says Thanksgiving like Jesus predicting wars and the destruction of a temple, does it? Now, I know that Thanksgiving is not a liturgical holiday, it is a secular holiday, but still. Before we can begin our new church calendar with advent in two weeks, the lectionary readings for the last Sunday in ordinary time have some unfinished business with us.
Before we get too excited about pumpkin pie, or the day after Thanksgiving sales, or day of Thanksgiving sales (sigh), or putting up the tree, or whatever it is on our minds these days, we need to spend some time tearing down some temples.
It is hard for us to understand just how upsetting the prediction of the destruction of the temple would have been to Jesus’ audience. This prediction is the foundation of the legal complaint the temple authorities bring against Jesus, leading to his crucifixion. The temple was the 2nd rebuilding of Solomon’s temple. And when it had been destroyed previously in their history, the Jews had not fared so well. Being carted off to exile, apparently, was not something they wanted to do again.
But this temple, which was still being finished as Jesus and his disciples would have walked through the gates, was supposed to last. It was huge, with a circumference of nearly a mile. It had gold and silver on the walls, so it glowed when the light struck it. The walls were 150 feet high and some of the bricks were 50 feet long and weighed over 500 tons.
This was THE temple. “Look teacher”, his disciple said. “What large stones and what large buildings!”
But, Palestine was occupied by the Romans. And by the time Mark’s gospel is being written, Titus is sacking Jerusalem, massacring many of its citizens, selling others into slavery, and looting and then burning the temple, leaving a people once again without a home, sending them, once again, into exile.
“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replied to his disciple. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I bet that wasn’t the answer the disciple was looking for.
His comment about the large buildings is sort of jarring in the narrative, actually. Jesus and his buddies are hanging out by the treasury at the temple, watching people bring their donations. The rich people give out of their abundance. The poor widow gives her two pennies. This passage is often preached as praising the widow for giving so generously out of her poverty, but I’m not sure that is Jesus’ point. He doesn’t criticize the rich people for their generous sums. But he doesn’t actually praise the poor widow, either.
What he observes is that her gift is larger than everyone else’s because she has just given away the money she needed to live on. The “truly I tell you” is one of Jesus’ trademark “pay attention” comments. But he isn’t talking to the widow. He’s talking to the disciples. He’s talking to us.
Truly I tell you, you have set up a system here at this temple that is ridiculous. You require sacrifices from people that allow the rich people to feel holier than the rest of the world and force the poor widow to go hungry. Do you think this is the sacrifice my Father wants?!
He isn’t saying we shouldn’t give out of our abundance or out of our scarcity, but he is saying that when we give, it shouldn’t be so we can put gold leaf on the walls. We should give so that we can make sure the poor widow doesn’t only have two pennies in the first place.
And as soon as Jesus says this, the disciple says, “Look teacher! What large stones!”
Do you see what I mean, how jarring that is? It is as if the disciple missed the “truly I tell you” nature of Jesus’ last comment. Every time I read about one of the disciple’s boneheaded actions in the gospel accounts, part of me says, “oh no. you didn’t just say that.” The other part of me says, “how much worse could I have made the situation?”
Because that’s what we do. If we were to have the chance to walk around town with Jesus, would we be any different? “Look teacher! What large buildings! Aren’t we impressive? See what we’re doing for God? Aren’t you impressed?”
“ALL WILL BE THROWN DOWN.”
We hear this, I suspect, as bad news. We are attached to the monuments we have made to ourselves. We like our lives. Our routine. Our comfort.
But I think that “All will be thrown down” is good news.
It is as if Jesus is promising to deliver us from our illusions of control, from the things that distract us, from the things that get in our way and keep us from bringing a good sacrifice to God.
Long before the Temple was in Jerusalem, a town called Shiloh was the religious capital of Israel. It was in Shiloh that the Ark of the Covenant resided. It was here that Elkanah and his wives, Penninah and Hannah, would come to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts.
And, each year, as they would journey to Shiloh, the text says Penninah would provoke Hannah. Perhaps this is the ultimate family Thanksgiving of dysfunctionality. You can remember this story this week when your own family goes over the river and through the woods. We don’t catch the dialogue, but I suspect it went something like this.
Penninah: “Hannah, aren’t you excited to go to Shiloh? So we can say thank you to God for all of our blessings, for all of our children? Oh wait. You don’t have any children, do you? Silly me. I forgot. So, what do you thank God for?”
Hannah, remembering that her mother told her if she had nothing nice to say, she should just curse silently under her breath, said nothing.
Her husband, who loved her greatly but seems a touch clueless here, says, “why are you crying? Am I not better than 10 sons?”
So Penninah walks into the temple with her children, proudly, knowing that God has blessed her greatly. Elkanah walks in, dutifully, appropriately. Hannah walks in, deeply distressed and weeping bitterly. She pours her soul before the Lord, begging for a child.
Eli, by all accounts a good priest, sees her praying. Her lips are moving, but no sound is coming out. So he determines she must be drunk (obviously) and chastises her.
Hannah is the one person in the whole place who has come before God as an open book. She’s not hiding behind any monuments to her own holiness. She is not there to impress God. She is there, pouring out her heart to God.
And Eli, rather than telling Penninah to take that smirk off her face, interrupts the one person in the room who is honestly praying.
Some days we just don’t get it right, do we?
But Eli quickly recognizes his mistake when she responds to him. He sees the honesty in her pain and anxiety. “Go in peace.” he says. “The God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
And God does. Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a healthy boy she named Samuel. And after the boy was weaned, she took him, just as she promised, and gave him to the Lord. Left him at the temple in Shiloh with Eli, only to see him once a year when the Elkanah family came to worship and sacrifice.
I can tell you right now what my song would be if I were to leave one of my sons at the Temple as a sacrifice. “No. no. no. please God don’t make me. You can have him later. Let me just keep him until adolescence, or until he’s ready for college, then you can have him.”
But Hannah’s song in chapter 2, which I invite you to look at this week as you prepare for Thanksgiving, Hannah’s song is one of thanks and praise.
We know the ending of the story.
We know that Hannah goes on to have 5 other children. But she doesn’t know that when she’s praising God.
We know that Samuel grows up to be a great prophet of God, who anoints Saul and later David to be kings of Israel. But Hannah doesn’t know that when she’s praising God.
By not building a temple to her own glory, Hannah ends up giving the people the prophet Samuel. By giving a real and honest sacrifice, a foundation is laid. Samuel anoints David as King of Israel. David’s son, Solomon, will build the first temple.
And then Solomon’s great great great grandson, Jesus, will be the final temple.
But just as Hannah doesn’t know the end of her story when she’s offering thanks to God, the disciples don’t know the end of the story either. And, as they sit on the Mount of Olives with Jesus, looking over the city of Jerusalem, with that temple shining in the sunlight, they ask Jesus, “so, Jesus. What’s going to happen exactly? Were you telling us another parable when you said that big, beautiful temple is going to fall? Oh, you weren’t kidding. hmmm. so when will this be?”
We all want to know the end of the story. But Jesus doesn’t give it to us. What he tells us instead is not to worry. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed.”
If you are giving all that you have to this new temple, to Christ, you can trust that the foundation is strong and that the story is going to end well. For all its militaristic imagery, this is a passage of hope. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
As any woman who has given birth can tell you, the phrase ‘birth pangs’ doesn’t quite cover the pain involved. But ultimately, the birth pangs are not an end to themselves. They are a beginning. Once the pain is over, you have a baby. New life is coming. This is the GOOD NEWS!
This passage is not to be poured over, searching for clues about the date of Christ’s return on the clouds. It is about how we live our lives here and now, in hope.
Yes. There are wars.
There is pain.
There is destruction.
There is loss.
There is hardship.
But they aren’t the whole story. There is New Life in Christ. The temples we build to our own glory will be torn down, but once the rubble is cleared away, we are less burdened. We are free to give a real sacrifice. To offer to God all that we have.
So, this week, as we count our blessings, let us ask God to clear away our illusions. To remove the things that keep us from coming before the Lord. To make us like the poor widow, giving all we have, even if we don’t know the end of the story and know how we will feed ourselves tomorrow. To make us like Hannah, laying bare our souls before God, and giving a real sacrifice in thanks and praise.
We don’t know the end of the story, but God does. And for that, we can be thankful.