This sermon was preached on the morning on November 15th 2015, a few days after the terrible attacks in Paris on the night of November 13th. The sermon was written before those attacks, but required some last minute tweaks to take them, and their effect upon us, into account. In researching and writing it, I am indebted to another sermon I found online preached by the Rev'd Dr Willimon in 2012 - A World Rocked by God. If you have the time, I highly recommend reading it. Part of me toyed (for a moment only, mind) with reading out his sermon instead of writing my own. I'm sure you'll see the sermon below owes much to it.
Before I start my sermon, I’d like to invite you to take some time to look around you. Notice the walls, the ceiling, the beautiful stained glass, the intricate tiling on the floor, the pew on which you are sitting.
All this? With all the years it has been here, and stood the test of time? This that feels so solid, and lasting? It will pass. The walls will crumble. The ceiling will collapse. The stained glass will shatter. Weeds will push their way through the tiles, and they will crack and break up. The pews will rot. The person next to you will die.
In our gospel today, Christ’s disciples ask him about the end times – when, as we heard in our reading from Daniel, Michael, the great prince and protector of Israel will arise, and there will be a great time of anguish. “What will it be like?” They ask. “When will it happen? How will we know?”
It’s like Christ dodges the question. “All this shall pass,” he replies. The disciples ask about the future, and Christ tells them that it is ‘still to come’. Never mind the future; what you see here and now? This great, sturdy temple? The world around you? It’s temporary. It’s all temporary.
I’ve said in a sermon before – in my first sermon, actually; preached two years ago next week – that November is a season of remembrance and reflection for Christians. Next week, ‘Christ the King’, is the Church’s New Year’s Eve, and the week after, Advent marks the start of the new Church year.
Here then, at the end of the Church year, where thoughts naturally turn to endings, Christ invites us to reflect on the finite nature of the temple, of the world, of our own lives. “All will be thrown down.”
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It’s transitory; all transitory. The temple, the world around us, ourselves. None of it is eternal. All will end.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of creating an image, representing the universe out of sand. The sand-painting takes days, or even weeks to create. Once created, this beautiful and complex image is ritualistically destroyed; swept away into a jar, and poured into a river. The image – a sand mandala – signifies the transitory nature of life and the universe.
For 500 years, each time a new pope was crowned, he would be reminded three times during the ceremony, “sic transit gloria mundi” – 'worldly glory is fleeting'.
Jewish tradition credits the wise king Solomon with coming up with an answer for a request for a phrase that is eternally true, in good times and in bad times. “This too shall pass”, he responds.
The concept echoes in all religions. This, that now exists, will not. Only the things of God remain. Christ says only a few lines later in his sermon from our Gospel reading this morning, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
It’s a deep, spiritual concept to grasp. If all things are fleeting, what is it that matters? The great temple of God collapses into rubble, but God himself remains. Our money and our belongings will turn to dust. We will, at some point, join it. “You fool!”, God says to the rich man, who has built bigger and bigger barns to store his goods, “This very night, your life is being demanded of you. And who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?”
We are comfortable with God being creator, with God flinging stars into space, breathing earth and life into existence, forming humankind from that earth, and knitting us individually in our mother’s womb, but as well as being Alpha, God is Omega – the beginning and the end. God sets limits on humankind’s lifespan as part of our creation story. There is an established tradition of God destroying human constructions throughout the Bible – the tower of Babel, the walls of Jericho, the temple of Jerusalem.
God destroys. Surely, he must? If God is the god of all things, he is the instigator of endings as well as beginnings.
Hang on, though – this is supposed to be our Gospel – “Good news”! How is this God of destruction, this prophecy of the taking-apart of the earth good news?
I guess it depends on your perspective. The destruction of the walls of Jericho was a catastrophe for the inhabitants of the city. It was an astounding victory for Joshua. The fall of the Syrian president Assad would be a disaster for the ruling Ba’ath party and their supporters, but many oppressed Syrian people would find much in it to rejoice over. Closer to home, the collapse of the UK housing market would leave many home-owners extremely concerned for their finances, but the falling house prices that would be the result could only be seen as a good thing for the thousands of people who cannot afford to buy their own home in the current climate.
We in the liberal west, living in a rich country, are well-off. We are safe and secure. Even against the backdrop of the terrible events in Paris on Friday night, we are still safe; compared to people living in war, terror and oppression around the world, we are safe and secure. We do not expect this kind of horror to occur to us, and it is incredibly rare when it does. But, let us not pretend; our status-quo is built on the backs of the poor. Around the world, people are exploited so we can eat chocolate and drink coffee, buy cheap clothes and play with electronic gadgets. “This,” says God – our status-quo – “will be thrown down.” Not with guns, or bombs, or terror; that is not how God works; but through time and nature, and changes in the hearts of humanity.
I can’t pretend that there’s a part of me which does not want that to happen. I am complicit. There is a part of me for which this would be bad news. Not for those who are exploited at my expense, however. The collapse of my status-quo would be good news to them. The exploited will rejoice at God throwing down the stones of our western temple.
Is this good news for me? Maybe not. Should it be? Certainly.
“The spirit of the Lord”, says Christ, “is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
How do you bring real good news to the poor without pulling apart the structures supporting the rich? How do you release the captives without destroying their prisons, or putting their guards out of work? How do you free the slaves without causing issues for their masters? Not one stone will be left here on another; all will be thrown down.
This destruction? It's not wanton, like we have seen in the news all too recently. It is not brought about through acts of terror. The destruction that God brings is for a purpose. It’s for good news. Christ says so himself; we heard it this morning: “the end is not yet… this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” God destroys in order to bring to birth. From death comes life – and life to the full.
The temple? It was too small to hold God. He outgrew it, and he tore it down, stone by stone.
Our structures, our theology, our world, our heaven and our earth – these are too small to hold God. He will tear them down.
And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
All of this is temporary.
What is our Gospel today compelling us to do then? Part of the message here calls us to focus on the eternal AND the present. If this too shall pass, we must make the most of the good times – and find the good in the ordinary times. We must not take for granted the people around us; their presence with us, like all things in this earth, is fleeting. And we can take solace in the knowledge that the bad times, like those good times we have known before, are temporary – death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
The other part of it calls us to change the present, to be a part of the destruction of that temple that is too small to hold God. God’s ways are not our ways. God does not support our status-quo, built on the backs of the poor and the oppressed. He comes to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. We must do what we can to help dismantle injustices, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. If that involves destroying a few of our own personal temples, then so be it – Lord, help us to do so; for in their destruction will be new birth, and through it, we will bring good news.