Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The destruction of the Temple
November 15, 2015, 5:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday November 15, 2015

Daniel 12.1-3; Psalm 16 ; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25; Mark 13.1-8

Wars, earthquakes, famines: has there ever been a time in this world’s history when these things have not happened? Man-made disasters, natural disasters, people killed, or injured, or made homeless. This sermon was largely prepared before we heard of the terrible events in Paris, but can be heard against the background of our present circumstances.

The Gospel reading is set in the last week of our Lord’s earthly life. He has come to Jerusalem, and his disciples are convinced that very soon he will reveal himself as Messiah, and begin a new age of peace and justice. The enemies of Israel will be finally defeated, and the prophecy of Daniel will be fulfilled, when “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Jesus and his disciples are standing on the Temple Mount, gazing at what was then one of the wonders of the world. “One of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” We probably don’t really understand just what the Temple meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day. It was far more than a church, or even a cathedral, or St Peter’s in Rome. We have many churches and cathedrals. The pagans had many temples. For the Jews, the Jerusalem Temple was unique. It was, literally, God’s earthly dwelling-place. Of course God lived everywhere, his throne was in heaven, but he had chosen Israel, chosen Jerusalem, chosen this building to be present among his people. Ponder, if you will, on the overtones of the words, “real presence”.

The Temple was also the place of sacrifice, the place where the people gave thanks for the blessings they had received, and where sinners could be reconciled through the appointed rituals. It was the responsibility of the priesthood to maintain and operate the sacrificial system, giving priests huge prestige and influence. The Temple was also particularly associated with the monarchy. A thousand years earlier, King David had planned it and King Solomon had built it. It had been destroyed by the Babylonians, but after seventy years rebuilt (though not on the same scale). It had been profaned by the Greeks, and cleansed by Judas Maccabaeus, thus founding a new royal house. To establish his own credentials, Herod the Great had started to rebuild the whole structure in an even more magnificent style, and it was still not complete. To Jews, the Temple represented a guarantee of God’s protection and presence.

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.” Imagine how shocking that must have sounded! At his trial, a few days later, one of the charges was that he had said, “I will destroy this Temple, and rebuild it in three days.” Arrogant blasphemy, to Jewish ears. The nearest parallel I can think for Christian sensibilities is if someone spoke of the profanation of the Blessed Sacrament.

We all know that, at the time of Jesus, Palestine was ruled by the Romans, all the territory now included in the State of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and much more. Jews looked back to the glories of Solomon’s kingdom, and resented the fact that for centuries they had been subject to one foreign oppressor after another. The Romans were only the latest. Just as today, there were terrorist groups who took what opportunities they could to do harm to the oppressors. There were others who collaborated with Rome and were perhaps even more hated by the zealots. One of the things not often realised is that the hard-line Pharisees were among those who supported the idea of “direct action”, (in modern terms an “intifada”) that would forcibly and violently expel the oppressors and establish a free nation again. There were many whose mentality was not that far from that of ISIS today- destroy the unbelievers, and establish the rule of the righteous, at any cost. Those who studied the ancient prophecies (such as the Book of Daniel) were convinced that the time was ripe.

Jesus was also convinced that the time was ripe for God’s intervention, indeed he knew that he himself was the key player in that intervention. He also knew that the true Enemy to be overthrown and cast out was not the Roman Empire, but the Empire of Satan, operating through hatred, greed and lust for power in human hearts. He knew that the new age, when it came, would be a kingdom of truth and peace and love, when Jews and Gentiles would together form one human family.

Time and again, in his parables, and especially here in his words to the disciples, Jesus warned that those who take up the sword will be killed by the sword, and that those who try to establish peace and justice through violence and warfare will themselves be destroyed. It did not take supernatural wisdom, only ordinary political insight, to know that if the Jews tried to take their freedom from the Romans by force, they would be utterly crushed. Forty years after Jesus spoke these words, that is exactly what happened. False Messiahs arose, Jerusalem was besieged by the Roman legions with their eagle-standards, and the Temple was once again destroyed.

But before this, God had done his own work of redemption and liberation. Jesus meekly surrendered himself to those who could not understand or accept his message, the leaders of his people handed him over (today we call it “rendition”) to those less squeamish than themselves for torture and execution. Jesus himself was, and is, the true Temple, the dwelling-place of God with mankind. That Temple was destroyed and rebuilt in three days.

This was the true sacrifice of reconciliation, foreshadowed in the Temple ritual. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” This is the sacrifice which is, day by day, week in and week out, “aftershadowed” (if I may invent a word) in the Holy Eucharist. Here Jesus the true High Priest makes present his self-offering to the Father, that he may draw us in, wherever and whenever we are, so that with him we too may offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a “reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice” to God the Father Almighty, and so learn to fulfil his Holy Law, namely to love him with our whole hearts, and our neighbours (everyone else) as ourselves. When we do that, we will be saints.


I think it highly likely that the great powers of today, America and Russia, will succeed in crushing the fanaticism of ISIS- but at what cost in the lives of innocent people, and with what legacy of hatred that will one day break out again? “Force and violence are the only language these people understand,” it may well be said. That may be true, but in that case can we not try to teach them another language?


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