Text: 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8
One of my dearest friends from college is in town this weekend which of course means I’ve spent a good portion of the last few days reminiscing about the good ole days. The first time Paula Jo and I met our first day freshman year, an event which involved accidentally breaking a bathroom door together; the time we were both in Romeo and Juliet and my dear friend decided to shake Shakespeare up by add-libing a few Texas colloquialisms; the time we drove a UHaul through the drive-through of a Taco Bell that was missing its clearance sign and caused (only minor) damage.
One of the other memories Paula and I share is of a morning in September our senior year. All of our friends got the news of planes crashing and buildings falling separately, from professors in class or listening to the radio while driving to campus or watching TV in the student center while wasting time before class. By that early afternoon, we had gathered together our friends at Paula’s, even calling those friends who had graduated and were in now Dallas, telling them to drive up to Sherman so we could all be together. The rest of the day we spent talking, watching only snippets of news, and consoling ourselves with mindless entertainment where you know good will win out over evil and all will be right with the world.
I can’t speak for all of you, but I can say that for me and my friends that day shook us in a way we had never experienced. When I was growing up I’d hear about wars and the threat of wars but never, ever actually believed anything would happen HERE. Look, teacher, at this mighty country! We’re the United States – we’re too mighty, too tall, too distant, too powerful for anything to happen to us, to happen here. I thought and spoke so highly of my country, this mighty nation which – though it certainly had made missteps – could not be brought down low.
That morning was a reminder of vulnerability long denied. No matter how high, no matter how strong, no matter how great, even the most amazing of buildings, nations, can fall. Last Sunday Rob Hill, our guest preacher for the 10:30 service, while expressing concern about where our nation is going, spoke of how all superpowers fall, the pattern they often do so in. That’s not something we really talk about - how this superpower we live in will one day fall. But, given all the superpowers of the world that have come before are no longer superpowers of today, it’s safe to say we will. Nothing in this world is forever – no matter what the diamond commercials say. Some things pass violently, quickly as we saw 5 years ago, some pass slowly, even peaceably. Even when we intellectually understand – to look at the great accomplishments of our time, our species, I doubt many of us think “this too will pass.”
It’s hard to admit in part because we have too much invested. We build up these great structures and great nations, we put to work the best of our ability, often the best of our hopes, ambitions, dreams. Buildings that rival any architecture seen before inspire us, nations which were built on the promises of possibility and freedom give us hope. To see these crumble, the stones thrown down, is heartbreaking and dream-crushing. Reverend Hill wouldn’t expressed concern about the state of the nation, he wouldn’t care, we wouldn’t care, if we didn’t believe there was something uniquely good about what we have been or at least could be.
Buildings and nations aren’t the only things we build up. We also have a tendency to build up our leaders – politicians, church leaders, general do-gooders. While we may be skeptical of people in power in general – politicians in particular – there is often at least one person who sneaks in, who surprises us with their integrity, with their passion for doing what we would call good. We lift these people up, put them on pedestals, look to them to guide us, even save us from whatever state we’re in. Not only do people come claiming to be our saviors, we place people in the high esteem and import we should save for only one without them evening saying “I am he.”
Just as buildings, nations fall, so do people. The news has been littered lately with high profile falls from grace. We have put much stock in the minister who’s moving people to righteousness, a congressperson who speaks of morality, the philanthropist who gives and gives of him or herself. And then we find out about those skeletons, find out that those who promote a certain standard of being don’t live up to it.
While it is good to put faith in people, to expect things from people, it is just as important to understand that people are… people. We are limited, faulted. That’s why we confess every Sunday. And so as faulted, fallen people, yes, our great leaders will disappoint us – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in shockingly great ways. Though we often like to paint them in broad, perfect brushstrokes, not even Mother Teresa or Ghandi were without their faults.
Even though all things must pass, even though no one can be perfect and righteous all the time, still we keep looking to buildings, nations, leaders – that which is of this world, of our hands, of our desires and ambitions, for our hope, for our guidance, for our salvation. While it is a good and even necessary thing to find those things in this world to an extent, we should not find – will not find – our ultimate hope, guidance, or salvation in this world. For this world is not the ultimate. It is not all that there is, all that will be.
Jesus knew of our tendency to find our meaning, our being in this world and continually challenged us to look beyond what we saw and knew. The words Jesus told the disciples don’t paint a happy picture – nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, and this is just the beginning. They aren’t easy words and but they are words the disciples needed to hear.
We aren’t the ones who look to our own accomplishments in awe. The Temple the unnamed disciple was in awe of wasn’t just an impressive building. While the huge stones, gold, bronze, marble trimmings, beautiful gates, walls and cloisters and courts around it were worthy of a taking snapshots, maybe even buying a souvenir snowglobe to remember it buy - it was what the Temple meant that was truly impressive. The Temple – first built by Solomon and recently redecorated and expanded by Herod – was once where the Ark rested, where God lived. The Temple was where you sacrificed, where you found forgiveness for your sins, where you could petition God. The Temple is physical evidence of Israel’s chosen status, of their relationship with God, of God dwelling among them.
For the Temple to come down, for not one stone to be left on another, it wouldn’t just take a big wind, it would take a big change, would mean a big change. When the Temple fell during the Babylonian invasion and exile, the people of Israel had to completely rethink what it was to be God’s people; their lives were altered forever. It is understandable that for many a Jew person in Christ’s time, the fall of the Temple would be the end of the world. The disciples, having heard his foretelling of the fall of the Temple, want to know more – want to know when and how they could tell and…
And Jesus does not give them detailed answers. He warns them of being lead astray. The signs he mentions are horrible, but sadly not unusual. Before Christ, during Christ’s time, and after Christ, we have had wars and famines and many other frightening things. No matter how many times people have tried to claim it’s the end, so far it hasn’t been. For these are just the beginning of the birthpangs, so Christ says. What comes after, he doesn’t say.
The details of how this world will pass and God’s kingdom be brought in are not his concern rather that this world WILL pass, that there is more than what we see, that a new world, God’s kingdom will be birthed. He wants us to know that even the world we know will not always be with us. An end will occur, we just don’t know when.
The end, the end times, the apocalypse, the second coming – all of that can be a frightening thought. And yet Christ says, “do not be alarmed.”
“Do not be alarmed?” My taste of rumors of war my senior year of college terrified me, put my friends on alarm. That semester many of us didn’t make it to class all that much – would rather spend time with each other than learning about the subjects that had seemed so important only a few weeks.
When your way of life is threatened, even your life itself, it’s a hard to not be alarmed. When everything gets turned upside down, when those you thought were good and true prove false, it’s hard not to lose faith, lose hope. In her song of praise Hannah shouts with joy for the changing of fortunes. Such a thing is worthy of shouts of joy – when it is your fortunes are rising, when you are the once-barren who now has seven children. But when you are the once prosperous, the once proud, the once strong, the once mighty that has been brought low, it is frightening. If you are not the people with the Temple of God among you, if you are not the mighty superpower, if you are not the follower of a perfectly righteous human being, than what or who are you? What or who do you have?
All things must pass. Not one stone of the Temple will remain on top of another. Over enough time, not even one stone will remain. Not one stone except one – THE One, the Rock, the Everlasting, the one who will not be brought down low, the one who will not pass. The stones of the temple may be thrown down, may crumble under the weight of time or war – but God, that rock will not.
If your earthly leaders fall, your worldly kingdom comes to an end, your awe-inspiring buildings are demolished, you still have an ultimate leader, a kingdom, a reason for awe. When Christ tells the disciples to not be afraid because of war or threat of war, because of the end, that is because he knows that even this world which both sustains and houses our lives is not the source of our LIFE, and our end in this world is not the end of our life. Because even if the world we know no longer exists, if kingdom after kingdom falls, another world, another kingdom, God’s kingdom, will rise. Do not be alarmed because this – this is not the ultimate.
It is good to strive, to create the best nations we can have, beautiful buildings, look up to strong leaders and righteous people – as long as we do not pin all our hopes to these, as long as we understand that because they of this world, they too will pass away. Only God is the everlasting one, only God the rock which does not fade, there is none like God. We cannot put our ultimate hope in buildings or nations, in politicians or preachers, in anything or anyone of this world. We must place it with God. With the Great I Am – who was, and is and always shall be. Amen.