A Meditation on Isaiah 65: 17 – 25 and Luke 21: 5 – 19
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church November 17, 2019
Maybe we should have stopped after the Isaiah readings. Maybe we should have stopped instead of moving on to Luke. We could have stayed with a hopeful word instead of a frightening one. We could have lingered over a world in which the only tears shed would be tears of laughter or joy! What a world that would be. No tears over another school shooting, no tears over natural disasters like wildfires and flooding. No tears over lives that end too soon. No tears shed by children who are abused, by teenagers thrown out of the house, by hungry people of all ages. A world without tears.
Can we possibly imagine that? A world free of pain? God can.
And God invites Isaiah to share that vision with the people. God can imagine a world in which no created being has to be a predator in order to live, no created being is another’s prey. Wolves and lambs and lions and oxen, grazing together. Imagine a world in which no human preys upon another in order to be richer, in order to be more powerful, in order to be more, more, more. A world of fairness and justice.
Can we imagine that world? A world of trust and faith? God can.
And that symbolic snake? That snake that caused so many problems when the world began? That snake that represents all of our greed, all of our unhealthy desires? (Please note I said “unhealthy,” for not all desire is wrong. Desire becomes unhealthy when it causes us to abuse ourselves or others.) In God’s dream the snake will no longer tempt or lure or entice anyone to live in fear or shame, to live afraid of God. That symbolic snake, with a diet of dust, will shrivel and die.
Can we imagine that world? A world without evil? God can.
So why does God’s dream wait? For that we have no answers, but Jesus tells us how it will be in the waiting time and he doesn’t even remotely pretend that the waiting time isn’t something we would all like to avoid. If we could only have stopped our reading with Isaiah. Well, at least we stopped at verse 19 of Luke’s message…it only gets worse from there.
Jesus is in the Temple, teaching, as he was doing every day (21: 37). Each night he would sleep in the Mount of Olives, preparing himself for what lay ahead. No wonder he returned to this same olive grove on the night of his arrest. It was a place of comfort and rest. From this hill he could look out across the city of Jerusalem and pray for her people, pray for his own strength. In the morning, he would rise with the sun and return to the Temple. He had accosted the money changers on his first day, condemning their predatory practices, and uncovering the injustices that were taking place at God’s house. He then went on to teach and to engage with the religious leaders in the stories we have discussed the past two weeks. The story we skipped – which precedes today’s prophetic speech – is of the widow and her two pitiful coins. Another story of the world’s inequity and of the breadth of God’s awareness. Jesus’ compassion for her is also a condemnation of the economic imbalance: Jesus sees a world in which a widow starves, while the Temple reserves overflow. Such a far cry from God’s dreams.
Then a voice interrupts Jesus’ thoughts: “These stones are magnificent!” And it is Jesus’ tipping point. The massive, carved stones are magnificent. The staircases and columns and porticoes of this massive temple complex would have been breath taking. They were all part of Herod’s attempt to prove that “his” temple could compete with all the others. Unlike Solomon, whose desire was to construct a home for God, Herod was motivated to rebuild the Temple out of selfish desire. Makes for a strange dynamic, doesn’t it? The Jewish people had their massively expanded Temple, but at what price? Jesus is drawing attention to the back story. “You can celebrate the beauty of this place, but remember how it was built. Remember that it was erected by human hands, from human desire, and that human hands can bring it down.”
At the time Luke recorded this story, the Temple had already been destroyed. All that Jesus described had taken place, the destruction and the persecution. In 70 CE, Herod’s temple was destroyed by the Romans as a response to four years of Jewish rebellion. The center for worship, for celebration, for repentance was gone. The community’s gathering place – for both Jews and the first followers of Jesus – was gone. And though Jesus had foretold this story, we must not think he felt no sadness over its loss.
He was brought here as an infant and placed in the arms of Simeon, who gazed upon his tiny face and said, “You are a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” Simeon then turned to Mary and said, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates oppositionso that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” There was another waiting there: the prophet Anna. And though we do not know her words, we can imagine how she sang over the infant, rejoicing in the one who would bring light to the world’s darkness.
Jesus returned to the temple at age 12, and stayed behind after the caravan had headed homeward, causing his parents unspeakable panic. His only answer for them was that he belonged in his Father’s house. In his adult years he spent many hours in the Temple, teaching, healing, praying. So, yes, Jesus would have understood how people could be dazzled by its beauty and he would have sorrow for its eventual demise. But his primary concern? The needs and hopes of the people who entered through its gates.
I confess I feel guilty when I read this passage and feel a twinge of grief over the loss of, what is essentially a compilation of stones. I’ve touched the Western Wall, the remaining Temple fragment, and witnessed the agony of some who were there praying on the day of my visit. I love experiencing places of worship: cathedrals and sanctuaries and synagogues. I seek out the symbols and the artwork. I want to touch the water in the baptismal font, and study the stained glass windows. I find sacred spaces to be inspiring and restorative. I could easily spend days in the National Cathedral in Washington and I regretted that I did not have more time at Sewanee’s All Saints’ Chapel on a recent visit. And so, I watched in shock as the video streamed of Notre Dame burning, and felt relief at hearing that funds were pouring in for the rebuilding efforts.
But then other voices spoke up. Voices that asked, “How is it possible to receive pledges for one billion dollars in a matter of hours for a building, but we can’t raise a fraction of that to care for human beings?” The Washington Post in a report on this controversy noted that last February, “the United Nations launched a record call for $4 billion in aid for Yemen, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. “Almost 10 million [people] are just one step away from famine,” Secretary General António Guterres said in his pitch at a donor conference in Geneva.[i] Jesus would have asked us the same disturbing question. Religious expression and artistic expression are often inseparable. It is our creative God who give us creative voice. But there is a balance, and feeding, sheltering, healing cannot be a lower priority.
The Temple in Jerusalem was not beautiful primarily because of the stonework or the golden menorah. Its primary beauty emerged out of what took place there. The prayers and songs and dancing made it beautiful. There was radiance from the stones, but a uniquely different radiance from the teaching and healing and demonstrations of compassion. Sanctuaries are beautiful when they are places of love, justice and peace. The words we speak and sing, the interactions we have with one another, the motivation to continue to pursue God’s dream for our world – these things drench a worship space in holy beauty.
Unlike Jesus’ day when people gathered at the Temple every day, we meet here once a week, a little more during the Christmas season or Holy week. What if our sanctuary embodied God’s dream in fuller ways? Wouldn’t that make it even more beautiful?
Churches across the country have opened their sanctuaries to provide overnight shelter for homeless members of their communities during extreme heat or cold. St. Boniface Church in San Francisco is one example. A padded pew, a blanket and a pillow are a luxury to those who live on the street. Fourth Presbyterian in downtown Chicago, leaves its doors unlocked throughout the day. People come and go, sleeping on a pew, using the restroom, sitting down together over a healthy lunch. Each Friday, the sanctuary of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is converted to a food pantry. The sanctuary! These are just examples of ways that faith communities are sharing their sacred space…I wonder what might be possible for us?
Walking in God’s ways is risky, and Jesus promises we will experience hardship. But there’s something I worry about more than suffering. I worry about missing opportunities to chase after God’s dream. I’m not sure that we will be able to tame the lions and convince them not to eat the lambs. But we can feed our neighbors, we can shelter the vulnerable, we can work for justice here and now, in our little corner of this world. I love these stained glass windows, the communion ware created by a local artist, the quilted paraments made by a friend of Grace, the chancel furniture created by Charlie and friends, the hand blown glass font. The flower arrangements and art created by the worship team. These make our space so beautiful. But more beautiful than that is the commitment that I see in you, the desire that you carry within you. Your presence makes this sanctuary a beautiful and holy place. And when you leave this place, you carry that hope and promise of God’s dream with you.
And God smiles, and says “Look at those majestic people!”
Thanks be to God. Amen.