[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
A few years ago, I heard a couple tell about a party they had for three other couples at their house. All eight of these people were committed Christians who were also highly successful. Much of their conversation revolved around the latest job offers, the houses they were building, the new cars they'd just bought, and the latest gizmos and gadgets they'd acquired. Their conversation took a more serious turn though, when one of the men reminded them all about the fate awaiting this earth according to the Bible. "One day," he said, "this will all burn."
God: Remind us this morning of what is truly important. In Jesus' Name. Amen
In last week’s Gospel lesson from Mark, you’ll remember, Jesus contrasted the large offerings to the temple made by powerful religious/political elites (what one of the kids during last week's Children's Sermon called bishodents, mixtures of bishops and preidents) to the paltry offering made by a poor widow. Jesus said that because the widow gave all she had to live on, while the bishodents put in their leftovers, the widow's offering was worth infinitely more than theirs.
That should have been a warning sign to the disciples (and to us). God doesn’t value the things that we often value.
Bigger isn't necessarily better.
Influence doesn't mean moral rightness.
A seminary diploma doesn't indicate deeper faithfulness.
God doesn't always look at things the same way that the world does.
This is the same principle that God revealed to the ancient judge Samuel hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
Samuel had gone to Bethlehem in order to anoint a son of a man named Jesse as the new king of Israel. Samuel was about to give the honor to the handsome Eliab. Eliab evidently looked like a king. But God said, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature...for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart..."--that is, on the faith and the motivations a faith relationship with God creates in people.
Even if the disciples didn’t remember an incident which, even for them, would have been part of their ancient religious history, they might have understood that big isn’t always better or that outwardly religious or successful doesn’t necessarily mean closeness to God, from Jesus' encounter with the rich man.
There, you’ll remember, Jesus told an evidently religious wealthy man that his riches were getting in the way of his eternity with God. But apparently, the first disciples were as thick-headed, slow-hearted, and faithless as I am much of the time!
In any case, our Gospel lesson for today finds a disciple, Jesus' words extolling the faithfulness of the poor widow still ringing in his ears, commenting on the beauty of the large stones and large buildings of the temple. (Maybe he was trying to change the subject.) “Look, Teacher," he says, "what large stones and what large buildings!”
The temple complex in first century Judea was enormous. It was also visually stunning. Many world travelers of the day saw it and declared it to be the most beautiful building they’d ever seen.
Setting at the top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the one-time site of a threshing floor purchased by King David one-thousand years before, this particular temple had been built more recently by King Herod as a symbol of his dubious claim to the throne of David.
The temple was the center of Jewish worship, the place where the dispersed Jewish population from throughout the Mediterranean basin came for festivals like the Passover.
For first-century Judeans like Jesus’ first followers, the temple was not just the place where they believed the presence of God lived in the holy of holies. It was also a focal point of national pride. The Romans may have conquered them, they felt, but in the cavernous temple, the God of all creation met them.
“Just look at this place,” the disciple tells Jesus. Jesus doesn't miss a beat. He asks all of the disciples to do some looking themselves.
“Do you see all these great buildings?” Jesus asks. “Some day, they will all be thrown down. Not one stone will be left.”
Jesus is right, of course. In 70AD, thirty plus years after His death and resurrection, the Romans would destroy the temple. Today, it’s the site of the third holiest mosque of Islam. All that’s left of the temple is the Western Wall, which you see pictured in books and movies, a place where pious Jews and others pray and also leave written prayer requests in the crevices between the ancient stones.
Bigger isn’t better.
What we think to be holy and inviolable may not be what it seems.
By the time Jesus was born and conducting His ministry in Judea, God’s people had walked far from God. So far from God, in fact, that when the real presence of God Himself showed up on the earth in the person of Jesus Christ, they joined with the rest of the world in a conspiracy to kill Him on a cross.
In His flesh, Jesus was the real holy of holies and Jews and Gentiles saw in Him the chance to get rid of God and to be their own bosses. They put more stock in the things of this world that can be seen—buildings, mortar, personal strength, power, money, military might—than they did in God, Who when they finally caught a glimpse of Him—was a carpenter from Nazareth they thought they could easily kill off.
But as Jesus speaks with the disciples in today’s lesson, all of that lay a few days ahead. Right now, they’re frightened by His words. They want Jesus to tell them more about the future. “When will the temple be destroyed?” they wonder. “What signs will point out that it’s about to happen?” For them, these questions were more than queries about the future of a building. For them, the end of the temple was tantamount to the end of the world.
People have always wanted to get special insight into the future. There's a whole cottage industry built around people's interest in knowing when the world will end and how it will come about. The Left Behind books are in that category. So is the new film evidently based on ancient Mayan mythology, 2012.
But whenever Jesus was asked for insights into cataclysmic events like the destruction of the ancient temple or the end of the world, He gave no inside information. He didn’t tell us to hide in caves, commandeer a nuclear weapon, or drink a steady diet of spring water and Tofu.
And in today’s lesson, in talking about the signs associated with the demise of the temple, Jesus simply gives a series of signs that had already happened repeatedly in history before He speaks and which have happened repeatedly since. He says that counterfeit preachers will come along claiming to speak for Him even though their words have nothing to do with God’s revealed Word in the Bible. He says that there will be wars and rumors of wars, enmity among nations, earthquakes, and famines. Those things were prevalent then; they’re prevalent today.
So, what is Jesus telling us? Just this, I think: We live in an imperfect world; but don’t let it take you in.
Your faith cannot be built on the fleeting things of this world, even those made of granite, stone, or marble.
We need to build on the God Who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
True story of two young preachers, friends, each regarded as among the best at their trade: They specialized in reaching out to young people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. They spoke to teenagers and university students across the country. Thousands came to faith or experienced a deepened faith through their preaching.
Each though, early in their careers, went through crises in their faith. They each began to question the authority of Scripture, dogged by things they couldn’t fully understand or explain in the Bible. One renounced his faith, becoming an atheist.
The other, in California, where he was on a preaching and missionary tour, took a walk through a field. He agonized in prayer over his doubts. He came to a large rock. He set his Bible on the rock and kneeled in submission to God. Pointing to his Bible, Billy Graham told God, “I don’t understand everything in this book. But I intend to trust in You and in this book.” Through the access he gave to God, God built up Billy Graham’s faith. And through his ministry, millions of people have come to faith in Jesus or had their faith in Jesus strengthened.
Every day, you and I confront the same issues that confronted Billy Graham as he took that walk some sixty years ago and that confronted the disciples as they walked through the imposing temple grounds in Jerusalem.
Who and what will you trust?
Who or what will you live for?
No matter when cataclysm or the end of this world may come, we each need to know how we’re going to live. What will be most important to us?
What will be our highest priority? Will it be the paychecks, the safe life, the best house, the nicest car, the greatest applause, the most power?
These things fade, die, crumble, or pass away as surely as the temple in Jerusalem did.
In Mark 13:13, after telling His followers all that they were likely to endure just for being His followers—persecution, trial, betrayal, death—the very things He would endure just a few days after He speaks these words--Jesus says this, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
The one whose heart is fixed on Christ rather than on the rewards of this dying world, will live with God forever.
As a younger man, I had absolutely outsized ambitions. I wanted to be a best-selling author. I wanted to be President. I wanted to be a big shot.
But I can honestly say today that when I see the love and grace of God given to me in Christ despite my sinfulness and when I see that God has, thankfully, never given me the punishment I deserve, I have finally arrived at only one ambition in life.
All I want is to endure in faithfulness.
I just want to live each day to the glory of God, no matter what God asks me to do.*
I’m comforted by the fact that, even though I fail and sin each day, those who turn to God in repentance and make faithfulness to Christ their aim--those who endure, will be saved from sin and death and hopelessness by the God Who went to a cross for all who trust in Jesus.
Endure in trusting in Jesus.
Build your life on Him.
That’s the way of salvation.
As we prepare for Consecration Sunday next week, don’t worry about the future. Make following Christ today—each day, one day at a time--your one and only aim in life.
That’s all that matters.
*I should say that most of the time this is what I want. Or better yet, it's what I want to want. But I am a selfish sinner and there are times when I want to glorify myself--or at least be comfortable--more than I want to glorify Christ.