Sunday, November 18, 2007

33rd Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“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.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “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. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is the third holiest site in Islam. The Temple Mount is home to two mosques, the rather humble looking Al-Aqsa near the south wall and the Dome of the Rock in the centre. The latter is one of the world’s most iconic buildings, and our visit was going to be a highlight of the tour.

The routine was the same each time: We would arrive at a site, the guide would step off to make final arrangements, and the tour host would begin to describe the significance of the site. The guide would return, and we would exit the bus.

Inside Jerusalem, of course, everything is more complex. The city is divided, and each quarter of presents a varied degree of safety for western tourists. The closer you get to the Temple Mount, the more complex things get, since the site is sacred to three of the world’s major religions.

On this day in 1992, the situation was fairly calm. But as the wait on the bus increased, and one of our hosts joined the guide off the bus, we knew something was up. Everyday brings some new circumstance to the Temple area, so patience is required. We waited.

Finally, after a very long time, a very frustrated pair returned to the bus and described the situation. One of our hosts, a woman named Nualu (a former nun who had become a very evangelical Protestant) spoke first. “It’s okay,” she said, “we didn’t really want to visit that place anyway, it’s an abomination.” The few of us liberals, stuck at the back of the bus, were immediately on our feet. As the foolish self-appointed leader of the liberal minority, I made it to the front of the bus first. After lodging my objections to describing the third holiest site in Islam in such a terrible way, she just stared at me like I’d grown a third head. Our wacky little tour continued.

If you remember back to about the same time, Bill Clinton was running for president and took as his unofficial campaign slogan the self-reminder “it’s the economy, stupid.” Well, when reading a passage like Luke 21, I have to employ a similar self-reminder, to say to myself, “it’s the temple, stupid.” Everything points back to the temple, and the shadow it casts over scripture is a long one. The temple is also the key to understanding the problems in the Middle-East. Solve the religious issues, and peace may follow.

Jesus spoke about it so frequently because of its place at the centre of Jewish life. Imagine parliament, a cathedral and the Bank of Canada all rolled into one. And then add the abiding belief (still current among orthodox Jews) that there exists a “holy of holies” where God lives. Only then do you begin to get a picture of how the temple was viewed. It was pilgrimage site, national treasury and the place where religious (and therefore national) law was debated.

When one the disciples mentioned the beautiful stonework adorning the temple, Jesus had the opening he needed. Soon, he said, no one stone of this temple will remain standing. In fact, a time is coming when it will appear the world is ending. Just before that happens, however, you will be arrested and dragged into court. You may even find yourself face to face with governors or rulers, and you will get to speak. Don’t prepare for this moment, he said. Instead, trust that I will give you the words to speak, works the no one will be able to refute. Even the people closest to you will betray you, and hate you for mentioning my name. But not a hair on your head will be touched.

It’s hard to read this material without getting hung up on the end of the world. We tend to reject it, and believe instead that Jesus was more concerned with life on earth than the fiery end he describes from time to time. Yet even in rejecting the end of the world scenarios, it still makes it hard to read and understand the stuff that surrounds these ideas.

Looking ahead, to the words Luke wrote in his second book, the Acts of the Apostles, we begin to get a better sense of how we’re supposed to see this stuff. At the very beginning of Acts, the risen Christ speaks to his disciples:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The restoration, the coming calamity, is postponed. And if not postponed, at least arriving after a number of other things have happened first: receiving the Spirit’s power, witnessing to the gospel, and travelling to the ends of the earth. In other words, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to take time, because more than a few things have to happen first.

This takes me back to my Clintonesque self-reminder about the temple. In a matter of verses, the disciples are back, in the vicinity of the temple, doing their thing. This time Peter is preaching and healing and making trouble for the leading priests. They are warned off on the first day, but soon they return. Peter and company are quickly arrested and thrown in prison. An angel of the Lord comes in the middle of the night and releases them, and like moths to the flame they head back to the temple a third time.

By now they were becoming popular. Many of the newly baptized remained, along with people being added day by day. The authorities feared a mob if they arrested the disciples again, but something had to be done. A moderate voice appeared, and the decision was made to flog them and send them away. It’s here in Acts 5 we hear an amazing little verse that puts this story in perspective:

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.


There are certain occupations that stop conversations. Someday, just for fun, introduce yourself to a group of strangers and tell them you are a funeral director. Nothing will clear the room faster. Just behind funeral director is minister. I call it “the great conversation killer,” a revelation that will scare off all but the most intrepid strangers. I never sure if church folks understand this, accustomed as you are will the strange creature called clergy.

Maybe you are familiar. I have heard stories where one of you will mention to a co-worker that you have a busy time booked at the church and somehow the co-worker has registered surprise. Perhaps you get the same silence, or the associative link where they say, “yeah, my sister-in-law goes to church.” The one I really like is the mini-review: “I went to church once: it really sucked.” At one time I would also hear, “really, you’re too young to be a minister.” And then one day no one said it anymore.

Sometimes it is just easier to omit the church thing. Maybe we’ve become comfortable as the half-of-one-percent of Scarborough in a United Church on Sunday. Maybe all the terrible things that happen in the name of religion and all the tension in places like Jerusalem gives us pause. Maybe the halting conversation and the embarrassed reactions add up to the point that I’ll make up some new career, tell them I’m an architect or an astronaut, and hope they don’t ask questions.

Then, in the back of my head is that little voice from Acts:

As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.

Then I feel all guilty, and suddenly I’m a minister again. The truth is I have the best job in the world: I get to surround myself with great people, think about my faith all day and spout off, uninterrupted, for 15 minutes every Sunday. And you pay me to do it. I am grateful that I am counted worthy to do this work and suffer (in a small way) for my faith.

In the schoolyard we seemed to learn that if you were too enthusiastic about anything we open ourselves up to ridicule. The world may not understand our passions, and we may get knocked down as a result. But I would encourage you to set aside your apprehension, just a little, and take a risk or two in sharing your faith. Tell people what this fellowship means to you, and the place your faith plays in your life. Don’t worry about what you will say, because finding the right words is the work of the Spirit. Someone you know would be enriched by finding this place: we only need to courage to speak, with God’s help, amen.


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