I preached this sermon (or one very much like it) at St. Lydia's on Sunday, March 17, as a part of our exploration of the Gospel of Luke. The text is Luke 21:5-33: Jesus speaking about the destruction of the temple. You can read the text here.
Over the last few weeks,
I have been making my way through an eight part, seventeen and a half hour
PBS documentary called “New York: A Documentary.”
It was made by Ric Burns, brother of Ken Burns,
and it documents the modern history of New York City,
from Henry Hudson landing on the tip of Manhattan.
The first five parts of the series were released in 1999,
and watching it,
I was aware of a certain, sweeping, tone.
It is a grand portrayal of the city,
with arial shots of glinting buildings
and shining blue waters, choppy in the breeze.
There is something naively hopeful
about the perspective of this documentary.
Something almost innocent.
And then the camera pulls back for a shot of the Manhattan skyline,
the two towers of the World Trade Center
rising up to pierce the sky.
And I realize that the people who are telling this story
have not yet experienced disaster.
And it shows.
If the filmmakers were to re-make this documentary today,
I’m sure that its tone would be different.
I’m sure that the story of the city would be a bit more humble,
tainted with something that tastes a bit like regret:
the knowledge that we’re not immortal.
Like Icarus, we tried to fly too close to the sun.
The way we view the past
is based on how we experience the present.
The story we told of this city in 1999
is not the same story we tell in 2001.
Or in 2013.
The past is mutable,
our perceptions of it adjusting as our own perspectives change,
as our own stories play out and take shape.
This is true of the stories we tell about our individual pasts,
and about our collectives pasts,
of our community, of our nation.
And it’s true of the gospels as well.
The gospel of Luke was written sometime between 75 and 100 ad,
and just as a documentary we would make now
would reflect our collective experience of the recent past,
the gospel of Luke
reflects the recent past of the writer and his intended audience.
the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.,
perhaps just five years before this gospel was written.
And it was not just the temple that was destroyed,
but the entire city of Jerusalem,
decimated by the Roman Emperor Titus.
The writer of Luke is writing to an audience
whose lives have been violently altered --
who have been scattered from a city now under Roman occupation
and find themselves a persecuted minority
in a political landscape that is chaotic and shifting.
The significance of these words from Jesus’ mouth are not lost on anyone
who would have read Luke’s words in the time they were penned:
When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies,
then know that its desolation has come near.
Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains,
and those inside the city must leave it,
and those out in the country must not enter it;
for these are days of vengeance,
as a fulfillment of all that is written.
Basically, the author is saying,
Jesus told us it was going to be like this
and truly, it is awful.
But don’t loose heart.
This is a part of the arc of the story that we must live out.
The temple in Jerusalem was something to behold.
It was a mammoth, hulking structure with twelve grand flights of stairs leading to its entrance.
The first century historian Josephus wrote that
“...the entire face was covered in gold,”
“...the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash
that persons straining to look at it
were compelled to avert their eyes, as from solar rays.”*
Jesus stood in the temple that day, just before passover,
as all the folks from the small towns around the city
stared at its grandeur and ooohed and ahhhed.
And he told them,
It’s all coming down.
Not one stone will be left upon another.
It would be like standing in front of Grand Central Station
or the Metropolitan Museum
and saying to all the tourists
one day all of this will be gone.
Things seem permanent until the day we realize that they’re not.
Towers made of glass and steel
are invulnerable until they crumble in dust.
Our bodies are reliable until they turn against us or fall apart.
Our jobs are secure until the moment they’re gone;
our relationships are reliable until someone leaves us.
Perhaps you have experienced a moment of sudden knowledge
of how fragile and uncertain the world around us really is.
How all of it,
our warm apartments and good health and steady, rhythmic lives
can evaporate in a moment
when the ground beneath us suddenly shifts
and everything changes.
In this passage, Jesus is telling us something that feels so backwards,
and yet is so true:
everything that you see, feel, touch, everything real,
none of it will last.
All of it will crumble.
What’s real is what you can’t see.
What’s real are my words.
Some Christians like to fixate on the end of the world.
It’s kind of a funny thing to do, because we all know it’s coming.
Everything comes to an end.
So why spend so much time trying to figure out when?
The signs that Jesus talks about tell us more about our past than our future.
A hurricane hits New Orleans
and we find some population to blame
or call it a sign that the end is coming,
rather than wondering how we,
abandoned so many to poverty,
without assistance or protection.
What’s terrifying is not the signs,
not the symbols and the imagined future they might signify,
but the present that we’ve all be complicit in allowing to come to pass.
What’s terrifying is the fact that we’re always so surprised.
Nation will rise against nation,
and kingdom against kingdom;
there will be great earthquakes,
and in various places famines and plagues...
it’s not so much a prediction
as it is a description.
And one that is all too familiar.
The end is indeed coming:
the world ends a little bit every day.
“And beyond the end of time,”
as one commentator wrote,
He is there waiting.
We can live our lives in expectation,
not of the end of the world,
for we know already that the world is ending,
but in expectation
of the one who is coming,
the one who is waiting.
Heaven and earth will pass away, he tells us.
but my words will not pass away.
These last few weeks
I’ve been feeling this strange pull to listen to some of the music
I was playing and listening to in college.
A lot of it is classical stuff that I studied and then put away for a while
when I moved away from music as a serious career goal.
This week I took out a bunch of old CDs and finally loaded them up
on my computer.
I’ve been immersing myself in the Goldberg Variations
performed by Glenn Gould
and Lully’s dance suites.
I was most tentative to listen once more to Bach’s Cello Suites
recorded by Pablo Casals.
I used to listen to that recording with my partner
the year I lived in the Netherlands
as we’d sit and drink tea and I’d feel this strange combination
of being perfectly at home and, at the same time,
more homesick then I’d ever been in my life.
It was the Cello Suites that I practiced through all four years of college,
returning to them again and again
because they were like a deep, cool well
and you never reached the bottom.
Listening to them this week,
I found that they opened up something forgotten in me,
excavated memories that had lay dormant.
I remember every note.
every rise and fall of phrase.
I can sing them, whistle them,
and still I am delighted and surprised by Casals’
imperfect and soaring performance.
Because of this recording,
this physical thing,
which can be lost, found, deleted,
I can cling to Casals’ performance,
listen to it again and again.
But even if the whole whole world fades away,
even if the buildings around me crumble
and not one stone is left upon another,
I will still have the cello suites,
because they have been written upon my heart.
That’s what Christ gives us.
Words that are more than words, but an imprint of love,
written on our hearts.
Words that he have given us to take in
and to try to live out.
Words that will never leave us,
even after the city lies in ruins.
We could not loose them, even if we tried.
Everything is ending.
All the time, all around us.
But there, in the distance, beyond the end of time,
past everything has that has passed away,
Christ is standing, and waiting.
And he will not be moved.
*Josephus, The Jewish War, 5:207-208
*R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreters’ Bible