Monday, November 18, 2013

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

Sometimes you just need to figure out where you are.

Now, in sailing, it’s easy. Assuming you are six feet or so above the water, the horizon is 3 miles away. Or while cruising, if that’s your style, the horizon over the rim of your piña colada is 15 miles away, assuming the deck is 125 feet above the water.

Sailing Lake Ontario, of course, you generally know where you are for a couple of reasons, first being GPS, now on every smartphone. The second is the CN Tower, which is so tall that it seems to follow you around the lake like an unblinking eye. It is actually a bit annoying, since you see the tower and think “almost back” when you are still hours away.

Funny conversation: We’re filling up at Ontario Place and the dude beside us has one of those fast boats that makes you think of Miami Vice. He says: “Where you headed?” and skipper says Youngstown.

“Oh yeah,” he says, “how long does that take?”
“About five hours...and you?”
“About 18 minutes.”

Back to the horizon thing for just a moment, it is one of three aspects of celestial navigation that old-school sailors still think about (just after you drop your smartphone overboard). You have the horizon, some celestial object, let’s say Polaris for example, and then it’s position as noted in the Nautical Almanac. Put down you piña colada, sight the first two with your sextant, consult the book, and voila!

Here in the church, we have our own version of the Nautical Almanac, and it’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. It gives you your relative position in the church year, and all the corresponding data such as the readings for the day, and you don’t even need an awkward looking instrument. And the coordinates are printed in your bulletin, noted at the top: “Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost.”

Okay, you’re thinking, that seems odd. Maybe a little, but the only other measure might be ‘days until Christmas’ and that would sound too much like the Wal-Mart. So here we are, twenty-six Sundays since the last high Sunday, ready to step on a path that will take us through the next six months of frequent high Sundays. Next week is ‘Christ the King’ or ‘Reign of Christ’ and then it’s on in to Advent.

So while this Sunday does not have a formal name, we might as well call it “Destruction of the Temple Sunday,” because that’s what we tend to get the week before the week before the week we begin Advent. Think of it as biblical GPS: a time, a location, and a scan of the horizon to discover that it’s nearly time to think about incarnation.

But that would be jumping ahead. First we need to hear an ascension psalm, and imagine Jesus among the pilgrims, making his way up to the temple, reciting Psalm 121 as he goes:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

And the proceeding into the city, more words for the journey, this time the Psalm that follows:

I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates,
O Jerusalem.

And then, by Psalm 134, we have arrived:

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary,
and bless the Lord.
The Lord that made heaven and earth
bless thee out of Zion.

What’s harder to visualize, as we read and recite, is the architecture of pilgrimage. First the steps that lead to the pilgrims entrance, the double gate on the southern wall of the Temple, is reached by a long set of stone steps, with unusually long treads, making it hard to look up while you approached the gate. Through the gate, Jesus and his fellow pilgrims would have been plunged into near darkness, and then followed the interior staircase back to the light of the Temple courtyard.

(Just as an aside, when Neil Armstrong was given a tour of the southern steps and told with some certainty that Jesus walked them, he remarked that standing there was as moving as first stepping on the moon.)

Sadly for Jesus and his fellow pilgrims, the architecture of pilgrimage suddenly changes, and we encounter the things that will later bring anger and recrimination, the turning over of tables and a radical statement of destruction that begins this morning’s passage.

So what did he find? Well, we know that the Temple was filled with various creatures suitable for purchase toward the required sacrifice, and we know there were money-changers, exchanging profane currency for currency appropriate for an offering. And you can imagine that such a currency exchange would be about as fair as modern currency exchanges, yet another source of anger.

But the most alarming feature of Temple architecture would have to be the Holy of Holies, the place where God was said to dwell, and the place that was off limits to everyone save the High Priest, who could only enter once a year. So fearful was this place, and so lethal to anyone other than the High Priest, that he was actually sent in with a rope tied around his waste, which would allow the others to pull out his body should the High Priest perish or faint while inside.

The architecture of pilgrimage, indeed the whole architecture of the Temple and the Temple entrance bespeaks inaccessibility, and the kind of gulf that made God distant to most people. And the pilgrim Jesus, with a growing sense (in the early years, at least) of his unique relationship to God, would properly ponder the renovation of such a sacred system.

But driving the sellers and money-changers away would not be enough. By the time Jesus was ready to formalize the Jerusalem phase of his ministry, and begin a complete program of Temple reform, he had reached a new set of conclusions. Listen again:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

Now, even the Roman General Titus couldn’t completely destroy the Temple, though he tried his best (70 CE). What Jesus was plotting was a spiritual revolution, a symbolic destruction of the architecture of faith, beginning with the Holy of Holies. No more would God be wholly inaccessible, no more would this fully transcendent God rule from a distance, but God would come closer—much closer as the disciples would soon understand.

Jesus describes it thus (Luke 17) when he says “the coming Kingdom isn’t something you can see, nor will people be able to point to it and say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is,’—because the Kingdom of God is within you.” The architecture of faith is transformed in their understanding, stated by Jesus even before the disciples and others would understand his true nature.

For that, it would take Paul to describe the Jesus they experienced, such as in Colossians where he says “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God” (1.15). God walked by their side along the pilgrim road, even as Jesus prayed daily to God, for God was in the midst of them. Immanent and transcendent, maker of sky and sea but as close as the heart beating inside you.

So what does this revolution do for us? How do we respond? First, we have each constructed Temples that have somehow become a barrier to a life with God. There is something in the structure of our lives that needs to come down, some set of stones best not left one set upon another. And with God's help, we can figure out what it is.

It seems appropriate, then, that we begin this look within on the Sunday before the Sunday before the beginning of the season of preparation for God’s arrival in our midst. We need time: time to look within, time to take stock, time to imagine a life with God as close as the heart beating in here. May there time enough for this preparation, and God find you anew. Amen.


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