Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – November 18th, 2018

Text: Mark 13:1-8 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Doomsday Deceivers

13 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”

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

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

Because a week separates last Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the one I just read, it’s easy to lose sight of the contrast between them. Last week, we read of the poor widow whose two little coins represented everything she had, and today’s Gospel lesson has Jesus telling his disciples that even the magnificent Temple would one day be a ruin.

What’s the contrast? The poor widow gave all she had for the maintenance and upkeep of the Temple, a symbol not only of the presence of God, but of permanence and stability; yet Jesus, even as he commends the generosity of this widow, tells his shocked and bewildered disciples that even this great structure would one day be a memory.

After all, they were contributing to something that had existed for 500 years and which they assumed would always be there, in addition to making a statement of faith to God.

The Temple in Jesus’ day was the Second Temple, and here are just a couple facts about it to illustrate how grand it was. First, some of the stones used to build it weighed as much as 400 tons, and second, it had enough space to hold 1,000,000 people!

So being told that even that huge, imposing, mighty Temple would one day be gone truly must have rocked the disciples’ world, and not in a good way.

It almost seems like that widow, and everybody else who contributed to the Temple – rich, poor, or in between – had made a bad investment.

If so, they were not alone. There are countless other examples – in practically every museum in the world, you’ll see stone carvings commemorating the victory of some long-dead king in some long-forgotten battle, or carved pillars – called stelae – on which are inscribed songs of praise to whatever god their creators believed in.

Legacy. Permanence. Heritage.

These are words that resonate with every one of us here today. We all know that we are but sojourners on this earth, and deep within us is the desire, the need, to leave something behind. Those of us who are parents want to leave our children, not just with fond memories of us, but we also want to give them the tools and resources they need to be successful in a life that one day will not include us.

But I think that one of the most important and deeply-rooted desires we have is that we want to impart to our children is faith. We want them to believe as we believe, as our parents believed, and their parents believed before them. We want them to have the same love and reverence for God that we do, the same sense of caring for others, the same desire to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all the rest…well, the words of the last stanza of “For All the Saints” say it better than I can:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
in praise of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

When their day comes, we want our children and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, to be in that “countless host” with us.

There are few impulses or motivations more powerful than that. That’s why our religious forebears built a church on this spot 158 years ago, and this building 127 years ago. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for this holy place. In addition, and maybe even more, we owe a massive debt to all those who have in their generation kept St. John’s alive. It may not be as grand as some churches, or as large, but it is the place generations of faithful people have called home.

So, we can easily understand the reaction of that unnamed disciple in today’s lesson, when he sees the magnificence of the Temple, built by their people as the very home of God, the very center of their universe., and tries to digest what Jesus tells him “There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”

The point Jesus makes with all this is that nothing that is made by human hands will last, or can last, forever. He warns us to be on guard against that all-too-human tendency to place our faith in things which cannot save, things like buildings, or governments, or rates of return. These are all just objects or human innovations. If we place our faith in them, sooner or later we discover that our faith is disastrously misplaced. For in the end, they will all fail. Rather than placing our trust on the gifts of God, Jesus calls us to place our trust in God, the giver.

There is a hymn, “All My Hope on God is Founded,” by a man named Robert Bridges, who was Britain’s poet laureate in the early 20th Century. One stanza goes like this:

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower. [1]
In other words, it’s not this building, or any building, or person, or group, or technology that brings and keeps us close to God. It’s what’s written on our hearts. It’s the gift of faith that lives there. It’s the love of God for us and the love we share with the world that burns there like the welcome flame or a hearth on a cold winter’s evening.

When we look at the world that way, suddenly recognize that the terrible things that happen are not permanent.

So this week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving with those we love and remember with gratitude the God who makes it all possible, let us realize once again that God is in charge, and that love for which we give thanks has the first, and the last, word.

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.


[1] Quoted in Barclay, William, The Gospel of Mark, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001