All will be thrown down

I couldn’t help but smile when I read our education update for this week, “We often hear from visitors that our physical space is breathtakingly beautiful, serene, and conducive to prayer.”[1] Our adult education team invited us to gather in the back of the sanctuary this morning to learn more about Vine Street as sacred space and how to read it – the windows, the columns, the aisles, the chancel, the carvings at the end of the pews. I couldn’t help but smile at God’s exquisite sense of humor. Here we are learning about the architecture of the sanctuary and the organization of liturgical space just when in our gospel reading Luke paints a scene for us in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus and the disciples were there during the final days of his ministry. When Jesus heard people speaking about the temple, its breathtaking beauty, its magnificent size, and the splendor of all the gifts dedicated to God, he said, with great calm, I imagine, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The temple in Jerusalem was still under construction then. It was one of Herod’s biggest and most ambitious projects, begun in the year 19 B.C.; the temple itself was completed in less than two years, but work on the outer courts and decorations continued until 64 A.D.[2] The temple was enormous. Some scholars estimate that the outer court could hold 400,000 people, and that at festival times it frequently held crowds of that size. The temple was also magnificent. The first-century historian, Josephus wrote, “The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.”[3] It was a glorious space, reflecting in its splendor the very glory of God. It was also a space that didn’t reveal at first glance how it was being funded. In the same chapter, just moments before this scene, Luke shows us Jesus looking up and seeing rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”[4] The church has long held up this impoverished woman as an example of generosity and complete trust in God, but she passes through this context, quietly reminding us that Herod’s grand project came with a price tag; she put in all she had to live on, but he still put his name on it. The beauty of the temple was fraught with contradiction, and the gospel text won’t let us get away with sight-seeing without noticing the tension. The Jewish people knew it was a house for the name of God to dwell, but they also knew that Herod had reasons for building it that had little to do with God’s name and a lot more with his own.

“As for these things that you see,” Jesus said, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They asked him for a forecast, for details of time and circumstance, for knowledge that would put an end to the uncertainties of their days. But the response he gave them and gives us is a warning, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” In every generation there are those who worry about the end of things, who are tempted to read the news about wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues like a train schedule or a chapter from the history cook book – do not go after them, he tells us, follow me. You will experience moments and hear stories that break your hearts and drain your souls, and inevitably somebody will tell you that it all makes sense because all those events are mile markers along the tracks to the great and final day, but they are not. Follow me, stay with me, don’t confuse the kingdom of God with beautiful stonework or with neat systems of thought that fit together seamlessly like blocks in the temple wall. The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. The sacred space you know and love, he says, will collapse. Where you stand in awe today will one day be ruins. The ideas you have of God and how the purposes of God are being fulfilled – pretty buildings, all of them, they will fall. Every structure and system for housing the holy name will wear out its use, will disappoint and die. Follow me, he says, and learn to trust the faithfulness of God more than your ideas. Learn to trust the creative possibilities of God more than the limits of your own imagination.

Follow me, he says and he points to the city without tears of which Isaiah sang:

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in the city or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. No more shall they build and another inhabit; or plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Isaiah takes us back to the beginning of our story in God’s garden; his song carries echoes of the great promise of life in communion and how sin disrupts the blessed conviviality. He sings of the tree and the serpent, and we remember the lies and the curses and the fury that turn Cain and Abel from brothers into murderer and victim – but now the song is not the sad old tune of the fall but the older and forever new tune of God’s faithfulness: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord. A city without tears and without temple, where humanity and God are at home. Jesus points to this wondrous city of peace and says, “Follow me.”

But we all notice a little hesitation in our step. It’s not that we don’t like the song, it’s quite lovely – but a world without violence, terror and fear is just a bit much to wrap our skeptic minds around. In fact, we find it much easier to imagine the whole world burning up in violence, terror and fear.

Only the young possess the simplicity

To accept a truth transcending rote and rule,

So that, like star-led shepherds, children see

The fact of miracle.

But logic, the sophist, clouds the maturing life, 

Caution replaces the fearless face of youth,

Till the sceptic mind prefers a plausible lie

To a fantastic truth. [5]

Plausible lies are things that appear to be real, valuable, and permanent like the thick walls of a temple. They are designed to help us in the mastery of ourselves and our world.[6] Plausible lies are lies because they continue the illusion that life can be mastered and that we are its masters. And plausible lies are plausible because they leave the promises of God out of the equation.

God promises the creation of new heavens and a new earth, but we hesitate, despite the tug on our hearts. Walter Brueggemann suggests that the vision in Isaiah “is outrageous because the new world of God is beyond our capacity and even beyond our imagination. In our fatigue, our self-sufficiency, and our cynicism,” we remain convinced “that such promises could not happen here.”[7]

But Jesus points to that promise, tirelessly, and he embodies the fantastic truth of God’s faithfulness to sinful humanity and to all God’s creatures, all the way to the cross. That scene in the temple, that teaching about the collapse of our religious constructs was among his final teachings before his arrest. What followed were rejection, betrayal, denial, torture and political theater. Sin had its way with him. Every lie, every injustice, every self-righteous illusion, every hateful word and angry blow – we let him have it. And he died because he bore it all.

But God, on the first day of the new creation, raised him from the dead, putting an end to the reign of violence, terror, and fear. What a fantastic truth.

Follow me, he says.


[1] /education-updates/2013/11/12/vine-street-as-sacred-space.html

[2] Six years later in a Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation the entire structure was razed, leaving only portions of the outer wall standing.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 5.222

[4] Luke 21:1-4

[5] G. S. Galbraith, “Fact and Wonder” Christian Science Monitor, Nov 25, 1959, in Peter Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002) p. 116

[6] Ibd.

[7] See Lectionary Homiletics Vol. XV, No. 6, p. 61