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“All Will Be Thrown Down”
Sermon on Luke 21: 5-19
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
There is no better reminder of the impermanence of human structures and the rise and fall of empires than a visit to a very old city. My favorite old city is Paris – I was a French major in college and spent my senior year in France, so a walk through Paris streets and squares is like brushing up on my French history, with the voices of kings and queens and revolutionaries echoing through my mind. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I took an anniversary trip to Paris. I remember standing with him on a platform of the Eiffel Tower under a cold night sky, gazing down at the vast city spread out below us. We were dazzled by the grandeur, beauty and achievement represented by the city, a repository of some of the glories of Western civilization in politics, literature, art, philosophy and theology. I was also reminded of the city’s violent history, of the monarchies and empires and republics that had perished there.
On the plane back home I read an essay by a French-born American writer who recalled her family’s chaotic, panicked flight from Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940. She described how the great, proud city completely unraveled. This catastrophe happened, she said, for a number of reasons, including obsolete military strategy and technology, but mostly because France had a sense of itself as a nation impervious to the kinds of disasters that happened to other countries. (You could call it French exceptionalism.) They were living on the illusion of their indestructibility and the permanence of their institutions.
I thought of all this as I read Jesus’s words to his disciples on the Temple Mount: “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.” The crowds around the Temple of Jerusalem are awestruck by it, and if we could see it, we would be, too. The Second Temple of Jerusalem, built under King Herod, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The enclosed area was four times as large as the Acropolis of Athens, twice as large as the Roman Forum. There was so much gold on the outside of the buildings, we’re told, that those approaching the Temple in the sunlight were almost blinded by it. (Josephus, Jewish War, V, v, 6)
But the sight of the Temple did not excite awe for its aesthetic qualities alone. The Temple was understood to be the permanent residence of God. For the people of Israel, the Temple represented God’s abiding presence with them, their assurance that no harm could come to them, that with God in their midst an invading army would be repulsed over and over again. The presence of the Temple, they believed, made them invincible. Its destruction was simply unthinkable, and yet that is exactly what happened in 70 AD as Vespasian’s army marched into Jerusalem and burned the temple to the ground.
Jesus uses the vivid, shocking language of apocalypse – earthquakes, famines, plagues, “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” – to awaken his disciples to reality. He’s telling them to keep their eyes open and their ears tuned to what is really going on around them. By the time Luke recounts Jesus’s words in his Gospel, the Temple has already been destroyed. Luke uses the event of the Temple’s destruction to make a
statement about the impermanence of human achievement, the fragility of all human arrangements. History, after all, has not been a slow, steady march of progress toward greater peace, understanding and harmony among and within nations; it is just as possible to move backward as to move forward.
On November 9 the Washington Post published a 2017 essay by the late Charles Krauthammer, in which Krauthammer recalled November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union was about to disintegrate. “It was possible in that dawn,” Krauthammer wrote, “to believe that we had reached the pinnacle of mankind’s political development. The romantics among us called it the end of History…a democratic future [of universal suffrage, the rule of law, guaranteed rights and the peaceful, regular transfer of power], gradually expanding throughout the globe, seemed assured.”[i]
Three decades later, such a future seems far from assured. From the vantage point of 2017, Krauthammer noted first the failure of democracy to take root and endure in countries like Turkey and Venezuela; but then he noted what was, and is, far more distressing: the surge of ethnocentric nationalism, xenophobia, and an attraction to authoritarian rule in the mature democracies of the West. In a time of “profound civilizational self-doubt,” Westerners, including Americans, are increasingly attracted to authoritarian models of governance and “strongman” political figures.
It is a real question whether Western democracies will endure. We could be at another “hinge point” in history, on the cusp of a frightening new age. In such a time, apocalyptic language and symbols begin to make a bit of sense.
“All will be thrown down,” Jesus said. It is important to remember that the purpose of apocalyptic speech in the Bible is not to scare people. The purpose is to give them courage and hope and to strengthen them to face what lies ahead. Apocalyptic speech, especially by Jesus, is a means of “assuring the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing…challenging…circumstances.”[ii] [Ruiz, 2]
Jesus’s speech to his disciples on the Temple Mount is meant to remind them, and us, that beyond all the upheavals of history and politics, God endures, and that ultimately, God is in charge. “All will be thrown down,” Jesus says, but God will prevail. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
John Leith was an eminent theologian and historian of the Reformed church tradition who died some years ago. I am told by someone who knew him that as he lay on his deathbed, his physical strength ebbing away, he managed to say these words of trust and confidence: “The sovereign God is in his heaven.” For thousands of years, in all the shocks of life, the diminishments of illness, and the certainty of death, people of faith have found peace in simply contemplating the transcendent reality of God, the God who endures beyond individual lives, beyond history, beyond the rise and fall of political fortunes.
We, too, can find a measure of peace in that knowledge, but we are not on our deathbeds and we are not writing history 100 years later, with the privilege of hindsight – and so we have work to do here and now. Now more than ever, the church is called to stand up for human dignity and to stand with the outsider – religious minorities, immigrants, refugees. We are called as well to listen to the minority voices among us. We are called to be the face of Christ to the poor and the stranger, to reach out to the ones Jesus called “the least of my brothers [and sisters],” which is to say the most vulnerable.
What do we see when all the stones are thrown down? What remains? What endures? Can we perceive the activity of God and engage with it even when it looks like ruthlessness, cruelty, and ignorance are getting the upper hand?
Two Sundays ago I talked about how our pledges are an investment in the future, an expression of our confidence that God will take what we offer and use it in new and surprising ways for the building up of the church and its mission to the world.
The church has endured for 2000 years, through all the twists and turns and ups and downs of history, by not being afraid and by not giving up. We’ve dealt with being too comfortable in the world and not comfortable enough. We’ve done this one congregation at a time, recognizing that we are part of something much larger but still ministering where we are placed, in the concrete, particular situations of the communities around us.
Each time a congregation feeds a hungry person, tutors a child, helps a struggling parent, sends mission workers to a border town like Reynosa, walks with those who are sick or grieving or frightened, it is an expression of hope, a refusal to be defeated by circumstances, an act of confidence that God is present in the world.
God endures. The church of Jesus Christ will endure. Manassas Presbyterian Church has a long future ahead of it; and by your endurance – and your generosity, your faith, your commitment, and your vision of God's way in the world – you will gain your souls.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 17, 2019
[i] “The authoritarian temptation,” The Washington Post, November 9, 2019, A17.
[ii] Gilberto Ruiz, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016, at www.textweek.com/mtlk21a.html