The gospel lesson this morning comes near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It logically falls in two places on the liturgical calendar – during Passion Week, just before the Last Supper; and today, near the end of the Christian year.
The setting is the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Luke, Jesus was standing in one of the courtyards watching the people come and go. A poor old widow walked by and put her last two pennies in the offering. He told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow put in more than all of them, for all these put in gifts for God from their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, put in all that she had to live on.”(Luke 21:3-4)
About that time, he overheard some people marveling at the beauty of the Temple. He turned to them and said, “As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6)
You can imagine their shock. The Temple was huge. To get an idea of the size and scope of the Temple, just go to Jerusalem today and stand at the Western Wall. It’s massive. It rises about seventy-five feet above you. Some of the stones weigh up to one hundred tons each. What you don’t realize is that, while you’re able to count twenty-four rows of stones, there are another nineteen beneath the ground. And, where you see about a hundred feet of wall from side to side, the whole wall runs about fifteen hundred feet.
But that’s not the half of it! This is just one of four retaining walls that encircled the base on which the Temple was built. The Temple itself towered another sixteen stories on top of the mount above. It was huge. And not only huge, but ornate. The Jewish historian, Josephus, said that the outer structure of the Temple was covered with gold plates such that, when the sun came up, “it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.” There was so much white marble that, according to Josephus, “The temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow.”
Plus, it was just as opulent on the inside, as the outside. Imagine standing in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, or the great Taj Mahal in Agra, India. That’s something of the size and scope of the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. Yet, Jesus said, “As for these things which you see, the days will come, in which there will not be left here one stone on another that will not be thrown down.” (Luke 21:6)
Of course, he was right. The Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. and leveled the city of Jerusalem. When they marched away, all that was left was a pile of rubble. The effect was both devastating and demoralizing. The Jewish people were forced to scatter to the four winds. They would be without a homeland for the next nineteen hundred years – 1947, to be exact – when the United Nations partitioned a small sliver of land in the Middle East to create the nation of Israel.
Yet, they survived. If anything, they grew stronger and more resilient. And that’s what I like for us to think about in the sermon this morning – how, so often, out of the rubble of tragedy new life springs forth, more abundant than ever.
Going back to Jesus’ day, the Jews put too much emphasis upon the Temple. As a friend of mine used to say, they had an “edifice complex.” They allowed the magnificence of the Temple to overshadow the majesty of God.
All that changed when the walls came a-tumbling down. From that point on, they would worship wherever they could – in homes, shops or small make-shift synagogues, and their temples might not be anything more than table, a menorah and a copy of the Torah, if they were lucky enough to have one. Yet, over time, this had a positive effect. The simplicity and smaller scale made the worship setting all the more intimate and personal.
Our World Religions class visited Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock this fall. It’s a nice, modern facility that speaks of a vibrant congregation and its faithfulness to God. But it’s not opulent, nor should it be. It serves the purpose. More importantly, it doesn’t take away from a focus on the essentials – God’s covenant with Israel, the Torah, keeping of the Sabbath. The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. was a blessing in disguise because it forced the Jewish people to take responsibility for worship wherever they happened to be.
In his book, The World’s Religions, Huston Smith says it also shifted the authority from the priests to the rabbis. To this day, the leader of a Jewish congregation is a rabbi, not a priest. The emphasis is on reading, studying and learning the Torah, not making sacrifices to God. So, out of the rubble came new life. The same can be said of most disasters – in the wake of recovery, those who survive are often stronger and more appreciative than ever of the simple gifts of life and love and friends and family.
A case in point is the community of Wichita Falls, Texas. Wichita Falls was hit by a massive tornado in 1979. Fifty-eight people were killed. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. No sooner than the winds died down, the community came together like never before. People from all walks of life stepped forward to volunteer their time, materials, money – whatever was needed. In addition, relief poured in from all over.
To distribute the funds, the community set up a special agency called Interfaith Disaster Services. They hired a woman named Johnie Harris to coordinate the effort. Folks from all the different churches stepped forward to help people rebuild their homes and put their lives back together. It became a sort of symbol of the kingdom of God on earth, as denominational lines gave way to community effort.
My best friend, Lee Cary, got there in the aftermath of the storm and helped with the rebuilding effort. When the bulk of the work was finished, he came up with a novel suggestion: Why not just continue working together like this? Duh! Why not? Others agreed, and so they changed the name of Interfaith Disaster Services to Interfaith Ministries and, to this day, it serves as the vehicle through which churches and charities across the community work together to serve the common good.
Out of the rubble springs new life. It holds true for individuals, as well. When you lose your job, or a loved one dies, or you go through a divorce, or you find out you’ve got cancer or some other dreaded disease and your life seems to be in ruins, your first impulse might be to throw in the towel. But, as the dust settles and you start going through the rubble and taking stock of what you still have to work with, you find that all is not lost. There’s plenty left to salvage.
What’s more, as you start putting the pieces of your life back together, something unusual happens – you find out that you’re actually stronger than you were before. You’re more humble, to be sure, but more appreciative of the simple things in life and more sensitive and compassionate toward others who are dealing with losses in their own lives.
Well, what I’d like for you to think about is that, unless you’ve been there, you really don’t know. I was fifty years old when I first experienced the death of a loved one. Up until then, I’d been immune. Oh, I’d preached no telling how many funerals and comforted countless individuals and families in their grief, and I thought I knew what they were going through. Little did I know. I realize this is a bitter pill to swallow, but, in the end, it’s a word of Good News we need to hear: Out of the rubble of tragedy and defeat and loss comes new life, new strength, new hope for the future.
This is what the Apostle Paul experienced in his own life and shared with the church in Rome. He said, “Moreover we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Like you, I’ve prayed long and hard for Adam Watkins in his recovery from that roadside bomb in Iraq. I’ve prayed that he’ll once again be strong and healthy in mind and body.
I’ve also prayed that he’ll be able to assimilate this experience into his life of faith. There’s not one of us here today who wouldn’t turn back the clock, if we could, and spare him of that terrible ordeal. But, given what he’s gone through, just imagine the potential he has to encourage and strengthen others: “If I can do it, so can you.”
Those who’ve experienced the hardships of life have a witness of faith to share that’s able to weather any storm. Endurance is the key – hanging in there when your world falls apart – trusting God to give you the strength to persevere and, not only persevere, but prevail – believing with every confidence that “all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes.” (Rom. 8:28)
This goes back a couple of years, but remember Hurricane Rita, the one that struck East Texas and Southwest Louisiana? It didn’t get the press that Hurricane Katrina got, but it was just as devastating in its own right. In the wake of Hurricane Rita our church in Bryan took up a collection to help in the recovery effort. The folks came up with $4,200. Some said we ought to give it to a deserving family or church, rather than to a relief agency. We checked with the Presbytery office, and they gave us several options. As it turned out, one the churches that was practically demolished was the home church of one of our deacons, so the Session met and agreed to send the entire amount to this church.
That was in December, 2005. Well, I got an email yesterday from the folks in Bryan. With our help – and a lot of others, to be sure – First Presbyterian Church, Silsbee had a service of rededication. According to the news report in the local paper, “It has taken a full two years to repair the damage inflicted by Hurricane Rita and the congregation is now eager to celebrate with friends and former members as they reclaim their sanctuary and redefine their mission as the only Presbyterian Church in Hardin County.”
The deacon who grew up in Silsbee added this footnote: “They should have titled the article: ‘The Little Presbyterian Church That Could.’ It was a long struggle to get the church rebuilt, and the congregation definitely leaned on God for help.”
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m willing to guess that, if you were to visit First Presbyterian Church, Silsbee today, you’d not only find a congregation alive in the Spirit, but one that’s stronger than ever in its gratitude to God and its outreach to others.
Out of the rubble springs forth new life, again and again. Thanks be to God!