NB: I preached a version of this sermon on November 17, 2019 (Proper 28C) at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I prepared the readings and hymns for today’s installation service, I found myself gravitating to images of shepherds and sheep. We’ll hear St. Peter writing to the leaders of the church that they are to tend the flock of God that has been committed to their care. We’ll sing the hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” I was really thrilled when Hando said he could do a Bach piece I particularly love called “Sheep May Safely Graze” with Suzanne.
I love this image of Christ as Shepherd and church as flock or sheep. I love it because I do think that, whatever else, the Church should be a community and a place that is safe. Not in every possible way. We hear dangerous words and we handle dangerous things, and there’s nothing I can or should do about that. But I do strive, I do pray, that the church would be safe in ways the world is not. That whatever the world thinks you deserve, whatever you think you deserve, you would be welcomed here with kindness. You would not be stigmatized or suspected or mistreated because of who you are. That no one would be abused or exploited. That we are part of something bigger than us, something that will outlive us, something that will be real and true after we’ve turned back to dust. My great desire for the church is that it would feel like home in the best way, that we would feel like sheep who are in the care of a shepherd, that all the threats that menace us in a hostile world would not overcome the grace upon grace we receive here.
And then Jesus has to mess it all up for me.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, ‘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.
So much for sheep grazing safely in their Father’s pasture.
This is a shocking thing for Jesus’s disciples to hear. The Temple of Jerusalem is the center of Jewish religious life and the center of Jewish national identity. It is, in a sense, the center of the whole cosmos, the point around which everything spins. A world where the Temple is thrown down is a world where sins cannot be remitted by sacrifice, where offerings of praise and thanksgiving cannot be made before the throne of God, where the praise of Israel has no home.
Jesus tells them that this Temple, like the last one, built by Solomon, will be thrown down and utterly destroyed.
It is a drastic word. So the disciples quite understandably ask Jesus what sign there will be that this is coming. They want to know how to prepare for this terror. They want to be ready.
It’s hard to know what to do with a doomed thing. When we get news this bad, we tend to react in one of two ways.
The first way is something we might call denial. We do not accept the doom. We will fight it. We will outsmart it. We will figure something out. We will break our own rules to preserve something that is important to us. We will dismiss the bad prognosis as fake news, as a conspiracy, as the whisperings of enemies seeking to undermine our confidence. We will not change or adapt but instead will frantically try to change the fate that we are facing. Surely, Lord, something can be done about the Temple. We can fight the Romans, we can pray harder, we can do something and the Temple will be safe. It will endure.
That is one response. The other way we tend to respond in these situations is something more like despair. We give up the doomed thing in advance. We insist that we knew the fix was in all along and that it didn’t matter that much to us anyway. We say goodbye before we part. We withdraw. Surely, Lord, the Temple isn’t so important after all. It’s full of corruption and compromise and anyway the Gentiles were never going to let it stand. The world is out to get us and there’s no point in fighting it. We can just worship somewhere else.
These are very normal, very human reactions. Think about the end of a loved one’s life. There are the people—maybe you!—who didn’t accept that it was happening who insisted that things would turn around, that there was another treatment, or just that everything was fine. On the other hand, there are the people—maybe you!—who just drifted away and didn’t come around anymore as the end got nearer.
It’s hard to know what to do with a doomed thing, especially when that doomed thing is at the very heart of your religion and your nation.
It is worth mentioning here that Jesus has just watched a poor widow put two copper coins into the Temple treasury. And he praises her for making her offering to the Temple—the Temple that will be thrown down—out of her poverty. Jesus does not say “get a load of that sucker, putting her money into something that’s just going to die.”
And it is also worth mentioning that Jesus and his followers are in the Temple area every day, preaching and teaching. After Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, they will continue to worship in the Temple every day.
So there’s a third option for what to do with a doomed thing. Not denying that it is doomed, and not giving it up prematurely. You can love it. You can love it all the way to the end, without fooling yourself and without being afraid to look foolish.
The disciples want some control over this situation by knowing what’s going to happen and when. They want to gain some control over this disaster by being ready for it. Jesus indulges them up to a point. But he’s clear that they are not to prepare a defense of themselves before they need it. They are not to destroy the Temple in their hearts beforehand, they are not to fantasize about confronting the world’s wicked rulers. They are to love the dying world, love it fully and completely so that when the moment comes for them to bear witness, they will have only the guidance of the Spirit to rely on.
Christians have been sorely tempted over the years to look for signs in the world. To look for a secret code that will unlock the future for us. We do not want to be taken by surprise. We want to know the score. We want to avoid being duped. Our first mail delivery in Richardson brought a big glossy mailer for a conference promising to teach us the signs of the end times. I got another brochure under my windshield wiper a couple weeks later—different signs, different organization, but the same general idea.
And this is such a tragedy because there is no need to engage in this kind of Biblical astrology. The world is not a puzzle to solve. It’s a family to love. So much will change about our world, so rapidly. There will indeed be massive migrations and changing weather patterns and crises we can’t anticipate. We will be tempted over and over to yield to denial or despair—to fool ourselves or to refuse to look foolish. To be ridiculous or to be cynical. But Jesus shows us, and tells us, how to love the very thing we cannot preserve.
There is a quote attributed without evidence to Martin Luther, who was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow. “Plant a tree,” he replied. It’s a made up quote but it expresses something very much at the heart of the Gospel: that the future is not in our hands. It’s in God’s hands. But the present, today, is very much in our hands. And the present, with all we love and hold dear and cannot keep, will open itself to love. Amen.