November 13, 2016

Another Country


The readings for this day are at this link.

Text: Luke 21:19: "By your endurance you will gain your souls."

On a Sunday like this, after a week like this, there is only one place for the preacher to begin; and that is on a warm spring afternoon in a dusty plaza in Jerusalem, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem, and they have been watching the comings and goings of people at the Temple. What they knew as the Temple was in fact the second temple; the temple of King Solomon had been destroyed some six hundred years before.

But a new temple had been built after the people of Israel were released from captivity in Babylon. That is the temple Jesus and his disciples are looking at across the plaza. It has been the focal point of Jewish identity, Jewish worship, and even the earthly dwelling of the very presence of God, for more than five hundred years. It must have seemed to them the most permanent thing on the planet.

Over those years the fortunes of the Jewish people have waxed and waned. They have known a few good times, and a lot of bad times. They have been invaded, conquered, enslaved, and colonized. But the temple has always stood there, a silent testament to the timelessness of the covenant and their hopes for the future. Through good kings and bad kings, victories and defeats, feast and famine, it has stood serene and solid.

That is what Jesus and his friends are talking about as they look at the people coming and going. It is so splendid, one says. It is such a testament to our place in God’s priorities. It is thing of such surpassing beauty, the pinnacle of all that is good and right about our history and our faith as a people.

Jesus hears all this, and what he says to them must have been shocking, or disturbing, or frightening. Because instead of admiring it, he tells them this five-hundred-year-old sacred mount will all be swept away.

I’m not sure whether it would have been more disturbing to hear Jesus making that unsettling prediction, sitting with him in that dusty plaza, or to know, two thousand years later, that he was exactly right; it was all swept away. Of course Jesus had the benefit of sympathetic writers. Jesus lived in the first thirty years of the common era; the temple was destroyed by Roman armies about thirty years after the Resurrection; and Luke’s gospel was written about twenty years after that. So his biographers could credit him with knowing well in advance a catastrophe they had seen come to pass.

Even so, this story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; And that suggests that there is something of significance, not in the little vignette of the conversation in the plaza among a group of friends, but in the message that Jesus means to communicate with the story.

The people around Jesus knew themselves to belong simultaneously to two separate regimes. Their physical bodies—their lives of working and earning, of making contracts and obeying the laws, all of material matters of their lives were under the control of the order imposed on them by Rome: the empire, the army, the laws.

But their spiritual lives, their lives as faithful and observant Jews and children of the covenant, those lives were under the control of the leaders of the Temple. The people of Israel had their own parallel structures of power, and that power was exercised in ways that were often in competition with the authority of Rome.

To be a faithful Jew in the days of Jesus was to be a person at one and the same time subject to both of these power structures. More than occasionally the claims of those two structures would come into conflict. Do you pay taxes to the Emperor? Do you offer sacrifices at the competing temple of the Roman gods?

It was complicated, yes, but it was also a source of pride. In most places where the Romans took over they simply claimed all authority, earthly and heavenly. Their temples and their rituals just supplanted, or took over, the ones of the peoples they had conquered. They would often set up statues of the Emperor in the temples people had built to worship their own gods—and that was meant to send a clear message about just who was in control.

But not in Jerusalem. There was something about the Jewish God, something about the way the Jewish people kept to their ways, that set them apart—even to the extent that Rome didn’t interfere. Until, of course, things changed. And then it all came crashing down.

In one sense Jesus, chatting with his friends, was talking plainly about a specific thing: the Temple, that building that meant so much to the Jewish people. But in a broader sense—I would even say a more important sense—he was talking about both regimes they were part of; about the temple of the Jewish god and the power structures of the Roman emperor. All of it—the Temple that seems so timeless, and the emperor who seems so powerful—all of it will come to an end. None of it will stand forever.

•  •  •

Whatever your experience of these past days in our national life, whether you see not just the outcome but the process as a reason for despair or a reason for hope, we come into this place at the end of those days as followers of the teacher in the plaza in Jerusalem.

And we are meant to remember that all of the temples and towers we build, all of the structures we create and the powers we confer, are fragile.

We build them, yes, but we can damage them, too. We can raise up leaders who will call us on to build yet greater things and higher pinnacles; and we can give ourselves over to the thrall of the voices who seduce us into fear and division. That isn’t just a mistake made by the people we disagree with; it is a trap that each and every one of us is equally able to fall into.

And it isn’t just the temples our societies create, the structures our governments establish. It is ourselves as well; the order and stability of our own souls. We can build them up with hope, make them into something strong and sound; and we can poison them with fear, damage them, undermine them, by our choices, our words, and our deeds.

But like those people around Jesus, we are people of two places.

We are citizens of this republic, this incredible, blessed, fragile republic.

And we have a place in a different regime; we are citizens of another country.

Richard Holloway, years ago the rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston, put it this way:

“I find myself in a strange kind of divided state in which I live in two countries and feel the tension between different allegiances. I find myself in a bewildered state, going my way like everyone else, finding some enjoyment ‘before the night cometh’; but at the same time, I feel myself to be a citizen of another country, hearing the commands and pleadings of another king. And something inside me answers to that other country and its voices with a sort of recognition and a sense of its truthfulness and claim upon me.”

So in this moment of uncertainty and transition, as much as we long for comfort, for assurance, Jesus tells us this: towers rise, and towers fall. And he tells us this: the faith we invest in the regimes we give ourselves to should reflect the degree to which we can trust them to stand the test—not just the test of our time, but of the ages.

So we must remember that we are citizens of another country, a country where the longing for justice is not driven by fear, but realized by mercy.

We are dwellers in another country, a country where acknowledging the humanity we share in common with all the peoples of the earth is a gift we treasure, and the standard by which we are measured.

We are workers in another country, where the temples we build are founded on the rock God’s mercy, with walls made straight by the line of God’s righteousness.

And we are subjects of another king, a ruler who calls us to our highest humanity by teaching us to look for the sacred spark he has planted in every other person we meet.

That is our place; that is our temple.

That is our sovereign, who lays down the laws that are the gentle constraints that give us true freedom.

And amidst the storms and confusion of this world, those are the values by which we are called to direct the course of our lives, so that this country will, by God’s grace, more nearly approach that place where our true allegiance lies.

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