Sunday, November 15, 2015
Text: Mark 13:1-8 (The Message)
1 As he walked away from the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! Those buildings!” 2 Jesus said, “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.” 3-4 Later, as he was sitting on Mount Olives in full view of the Temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew got him off by himself and asked, “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” 5-8 Jesus began, “Watch out for doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One.’ They will deceive a lot of people. When you hear of wars and rumored wars, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history, and no sign of the end. Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming.
This past weekend, Riverside Church in New York City celebrated its 85th anniversary. Now that’s not so old by many standards – not as old as the cathedrals of Europe or the Pyramids nor has it lasted as long as the temple in Jerusalem. I chose to picture it on the cover of today’s bulletin because it was on my mind and comes as close to representing the temple as any structure I know. I attended services there off and on while I was in college. I believe the first time I saw it I uttered something like the disciple who said, “Teacher, look at that stonework! The stained glass! The vaulted ceiling! The organ! Those buildings!”
Riverside Church is a magnificent structure. I’m not sure what Jesus would say about it, but I’m guessing he would be more concerned with the religion practiced there than with its grandeur, more focused on its ministry than its majesty, more apt to care how it serves God’s people than how it stands in matchless beauty. This is not to say good things can’t come from a beautiful place. We have committed ourselves to making ministry in and of the building bequeathed to us. I have a feeling that the Riverside community is trying to do the same. Still our facilities are neither permanent nor are they what ought to define us. This is related to what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples in today’s text.
“…the walls came tumbling down.” Only this time the destruction was not a victory for the children of Israel, it was a crushing defeat. Their magnificent temple lay in ruin at the hands of their Roman oppressors, the ultimate act punishment for their ill-considered rebellion.
According to Mark, Jesus predicted these events, but did he? It’s difficult, probably impossible, for us to have a definitive answer to this question. Perhaps Mark gives this text to Jesus in order to strengthen the focus of what Mark wants to say to his own community. It may be that this gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple and Mark thought there was a lesson to be learned from the rubble. Is he putting words in Jesus’ mouth? Is he drawing on an older tradition that attributed this prophecy to Jesus? Could Jesus really see into the future and predict the destruction to come? Instead of spending our time on this conundrum, let’s look at this text from a different perspective. How does the text fit into the fabric of Mark’s gospel? How does it move forward what Mark is trying to say to his community – and to us – after the walls have tumbled?
Over the past several weeks the lectionary has focused on Mark’s gospel. We have been journeying with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem and faces the end of his earthly ministry. In chapter 11, Mark reports Jesus’ triumphal entry into the ancient city. After looking things over, he retires to Bethany for the night. The next day he re-enters the city and goes straight to the temple where he overturns the tables of the “money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” His proclamation – “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:15-17). Thus begins a week of direct confrontation of the religious authorities and the temple system. By implication, Jesus seems to see theirs as rotten religion.
It is not entirely clear what Jesus’ intent was in disrupting the activity of the temple. Maybe his intention was to cleanse it of impurity, of a kind of cultic practice that abandoned the spirit of Jewish tradition and the truth of its law, making a mockery of its form. But then, maybe his intention was to announce the end of temple worship altogether with the promise of the God’s Beloved Community as an alternative. Given Jesus’ harsh critique of the religious authorities and temple practice, I tend to favor the latter view. This may be an entirely anachronistic reading on my part but I think for Jesus the religious practices of his day had become rotten beyond redemption.
Now to be clear, I am not at all suggesting that Jesus thought Judaism itself was rotten. Remember he was a Jew and never made any claim for starting a new religion. However, Jesus does not seem pleased with what had been done to the faith of his ancestors. And the religious authorities were certainly not pleased with him. In fact, after his action in the Temple, the text says, “…when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).
Last week we considered how Jesus excoriated the scribes for their self-aggrandizing hypocrisy. His attack on temple practices directly affected the priestly caste, especially those who literally ran the temple and presumably benefited socially and financially from its culture and trade. Alan Culpepper cites three ways these practices represented rotten religion. “First,” he says, “there was the poison of using worship as a means to something else. The merchants of piety were buying and selling inside the temple. They found worship to be a reliable means to prosperity.” He argues that “Treating worship as a means poisons it and leaves it as barren as polluted waters or a fruitless fig tree.”
Given the physical organization of the temple into a hierarchy of courtyards and chambers, he sees “The second poison that led to the condemnation of the temple [as] the poison of observing social distinctions in God’s presence.” He claims, “The temple itself was designed to enforce social exclusivism…The entire structure of the temple was therefore calculated to enforce social distinctions of race, sex, and family status.” Again, he argues that Jesus would have “viewed the observance of such distinctions in the presence of God as obscene.”
As we noted last week in considering the scribes as religious authorities “the third poison that permeated the temple was hypocrisy. People sought to use worship to appease God.” Culpepper says, “They recognized their sinfulness but resolved to continue in it. They worshiped merely to attempt to placate God and so perhaps find sanctuary for their sinfulness in God’s house” (R. Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, p. 389ff.) Of course none of these charges would ever apply to us. No one in modern religious practice seeks to profit from the faith, to elevate their status at the expense of others or to exercise a hypocritical front to cover their own shortcomings.
All this is stirring in Jesus when an unidentified disciple comments on the splendor of the temple. Jesus’ heart must have sunk at such a remark. Had they not been listening? Had they heard anything he’d said, seen anything he’d done? Well, time was drawing short. Let me once more tell them how it is, but this time in more dramatic terms: “You’re impressed by this grandiose architecture? There’s not a stone in the whole works that is not going to end up in a heap of rubble.”
What in the world can he mean by this? A little later, Peter, John, James and Andrew take him aside and ask for an explanation. “The time is coming when none of this will stand, in fact, none of this will matter. Remember the time I told the Samaritan woman, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these to worship for God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth’?” (John 4:21-24)
“You see big change is coming. Some will see that change as catastrophic. Things like earthquakes, famine, wars and rumors of war all happen. We know that. Still, practitioners of rotten religion, whether certified or charlatans, will try to convince you that these are signs of the times and you should follow them. But don’t be fooled. True worshipers worship in spirit and truth, in faith and humility, in compassion and love. Remember the great commandments, the foundation of real religion – love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as you would your very self? You need neither temple nor any other elaborate structure to practice such religion. This is religion to serve God and all of God’s creation.”
Bill Herzog writes of today’s text, “No building is imperishable, not even the temple. It can be torn down stone by stone, which is exactly what the Romans did when they razed Jerusalem in 70 CE. But,” he continues, “the people of God are imperishable, they will outlast any building…the rulers…overlooked the most valuable ‘stones’ in their kingdoms, the people they exploited and discarded. Jesus would use these stones to build a very different edifice a movement that would become the cornerstone of God’s renewing work” (William R. Herzog II, Prophet and Teacher: An Introduction to the Historical Jesus, p. 204).
Isn’t this the challenge to us as we seek to be the church today? We have been too long hung up on the trappings of our traditions – on buildings and numbers on institutional structures and maintaining the right reputation. We want to be respectable Baptists, if that’s possible. But how often have our hang-ups and desires led us to practice rotten religion? How many have turned their backs on the church and, with it, the faith because of poisonous practice? If we want to be relevant and meaningful to sinners and seekers, Gods people all, don’t we need to make sure we worship in spirit and in truth before recognizing any other claim on our time and energy? Could we become “stones” to build up a movement dedicated to God’s renewing work in the world? When the tempest rages, can we provide shelter from the storm? Can we stand for justice and righteousness, for peace and compassion, for love that transforms everything it touches and makes it good?
While it is true that we have a building both to care for and to make good use of in the name of Jesus, the Christ, it won’t us to sing Ken Medema’s challenging invitation now and then. It’s just a little reminder for us to steer clear of any practice of rotten religion.
Come build a church with love and spirit,
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.
Come build a church of human frailty.
come build a church of flesh and blood.
Jesus shall be its sure foundation.
It shall be built by the hand of God.