In the Dappled Light of Providence (sermon detritus #82)

It is not far from the hill on which Herod’s temple sat, the temple Jesus and his followers knew, to the hill cloaked in olive trees. To call either a mountain, as they are sometimes designated, is a stretch. photo 9That being the case, the distance between the two and the short climb required to reach the top of the ‘Mount’ of Olives is enough to make one want to rest. Jesus and his disciples did so under the shade of the trees. The temple was still within their view. In fact, it was hard to miss.

The second temple, the one the group would have been looking at, was constructed of white limestone and trimmed with gold. It was among the most significant of Herod’s many architectural accomplishments. Herod had also built the port of Caesarea Maritima, the fortified desert palace of Masada and a host of other impressive structures. But it was the temple in view from the olive groves that triggered the question we find in Mark 13 verse 4. Peter, James, John and Andrew sat with Jesus; the others had scattered, napping maybe or searching for a snack.

Now, one of the things I appreciate about the lectionary is the way it encourages us to spend time with passages of Scripture we would otherwise ignore. The lectionary works a bit like one of those fitness bands that delivers a shock if you don’t exercise enough. It keeps us on task. Many of us would not otherwise give much attention to passages like the ones assigned last Sunday, Mark 13:1-8 and Daniel 12:1-3. These future-oriented, or ‘eschatological’, passages don’t seem to connect directly to our lives, at least not when we feel relatively secure and empowered. Scholars have been aware for quite some time that these kinds of passages receive more attention in marginalized or threatened communities. When you don’t have much power you spend more time wondering about how God is going to make things right in the age to come. So it’s good that we have been directed to these passages. Why come to church if you always get what you want?

The question the four disciples bring up with Jesus on the hill across from the temple was related to a comment the rabbit made earlier. temple stoneJesus and his students were leaving the temple when one of them made an offhanded remark about the impressive size of the stone blocks and the grandeur of the temple complex itself. The stones were massive, taller than a person in some places, and more than twice as long. Many weighed in at fifty tones. One recently discovered is estimated to weigh about 600 tones.

Under Herod’s orders the stones had been hacked out of bedrock. The workman would have chiseled out the huge stone’s sides and then placed dry timbers in the cracks. When the timbers were soaked with water the pressure cracked the massive blocks from the bedrock. They were then finished smooth and stacked like children’s building blocks to form both a retaining wall and the temple itself. In some places the temple edifice soared 180 feet. On the way out the disciple had just mentioned that the stones were pretty big, the buildings too. Maybe the implication was that such a huge structure would surely stand for a long, long time and even shape the flow of history.

There are things in our world that seem this way, events too. The same is true of our personal lives. There are things in our own stories we don’t think we can get beyond or live without—huge blocks of stone.

It seems that Jesus’ response surprised some of those in the group. He had said,

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

And Jesus was right: Titus son of the Roman emperor Vespasian re-conquered Jerusalem in the year seventy. Titus himself led two legions from the north and was joined by two additional Roman legions stationed nearby. His army broke through the two-layered wall in May and cordoned off the city two months later. In early August the Antonia fortress, Jerusalem’s great internal stronghold, was overtaken. On the eighth of August the temple rituals ceased. On the twenty-eight the temple was set afire and later torn apart—block from block. Its treasures were carried off as the loot of war. Fighting continued from one house to another for another month: primitive steel clashed and human blood ran in the streets. The last rebels held out for another three years at fortresses in the desert, including the now famous Masada.

But something like forty years before, across the valley in the olive grove Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Jesus about his cryptic prophesy:“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Quite naturally they wanted a heads-up. In the dappled light of providence Jesus explained: there would be the claims of false messiahs, there would be wars and rumors of others, nations would take up arms against each other, there would be famines and earthquakes. But these things wouldn’t herald the temple’s ruin, not immediately at least. They would only be the early contractions of history: destruction would be born later.

Jesus and his disciples talked further, there on the hill. His explanation of what to expect runs through verse 23 of Mark 13. In verse 24 he looks through a telescope of time further into the future and talks about his own return. The specifics of this conversation would have surprised the disciples but, as students of the Hebrew Scriptures including Daniel, they would have been familiar with the prophetic tone and the idea that a new age would one-day dawn. But what, I wonder, would we make of such an exchange with Jesus.

What would we take away from such a conversation? Say we were sitting in a forest looking out over the valley containing our own city: perhaps we would marvel at the power of our nation or at the industriousness of our economy. Maybe we would comment on the seriousness of our religious institutions. “Look, Teacher,” we might way, “at our schools and churches and international service organizations.” Surely these things will last, we might think, surely these will keep us and our legacy from being swept into history’s dustbin.

Or perhaps our thoughts would be more sober. Maybe we would bring up the recent violence in Paris or Ankara or Beirut. Maybe we would tell Jesus how vulnerable and week we feel, how incapable we seem of even keeping ourselves or those we love safe. Maybe we would tell Jesus that it seems we have already been forgotten.

Perhaps Jesus would give us a window into the future: “Not one stone will be left here upon another.” There is some comfort in knowing what is to come: pop quizzes are more stressful than scheduled ones, a surprise death is generally more traumatic than the one we expect. There is also some relief that comes with knowing that not even the unpredictability of war is beyond God’s knowledge.

But Jesus’ prophetic words in Mark aren’t just about future events. More important is what they imply about Jesus: he becomes the temple’s replacement. At the heart of the Christian faith, then, is not a building, a city, or an institution. At the heart of our faith stands wounded and victorious Jesus. He alludes to this in the thirty-first verse of Mark 13:“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

At a time when our own church network is under a great deal of stress, there is a lesson for us here. Places and institutions are important, but they are not the center. We hammer and build with stone and org charts but eventually it comes down: the divine word remains. neverthelessAnd so, we obey Jesus’ call to love our enemies—yes, Jesus assumes we have enemies—not because we can point out clearly how it will make the world perfect, but because we aren’t expected to make everything come out right. That job belongs to the Lord of history. This is the difference between the optimistic pacifism that flourished before the First World War and a messianic peace ethic. The first is full of modern hubris and utopianism, the second is grounded in the humility of Christian worship.[1]

Here must be clear, to admit that we can’t control how history unfolds is not the same thing as saying it doesn’t matter. To maintain our commitment to loving our enemies is not the same as denying natural passions, damning all desire or rejecting the importance of the material world. Those are the wrong lessons to take from eschatological passages like Mark 13 or Daniel 12. Friedrich Nietzsche, that great mustachioed worldly prophet, believed the Christian faith taught that the natural world was an illusion. He believed the church sought to uproot natural passions and instincts and didn’t care about the real world or its history. The church’s “’therapy’ is castration,” he wrote. NietzscheNietzsche was convinced that [R]ipping out the passions by the root means ripping out life by the root; the practice of the Church is hostile to life” (Twilight of the Idols). But Jesus is a prophet of life and not of death. That is why he heals, why he is raised from the dead, why he offers life abundant and why he sends the Spirit of life itself.

History, our lives with it, does matter. That is why Scripture describes Jesus as history’s judge.

The world has more than enough people claiming to know precisely how to fix our most vexing problems. They stand in judgment over it all, claiming grand solutions and demanding power. In more optimistic times various intellectuals, Francis Fukuyama being the most recent, have suggested that we are nearing the end of political strife and with it the end of history. That is to say, they believe we late moderns have things pretty much figured out. But as the events of this past week in Paris have reminded us, such accomplishments lay beyond the reach our outstretched hands. Our fingers slip from the edges of peace. And so Christians remain committed to loving our enemies, seeking justice and welcoming the strange—even though we doubt our ability engineer the world. We remain committed as well to welcoming children as a sign of the hope we have in God’s providential care. We remain committed to the awkwardness and absurdity of worship.

Peter, James, John and Andrew sat there, I expect, intimidated by what was to come. How could they not be? I imagine they picked at sticks and fingered the rocky Judean soil, the filtered light playing on their puzzled faces. “Keep alert,” Jesus would tell them, “you do not know when the time will come.” He compared them to stewards of an estate. They had been put in charge but didn’t know when the owner would come home. Yet to the disciples the rabbi’s words of warning would prove immeasurably comforting. The destruction of the temple would be a sign for them. It would be a shocking sign, hard to imagine as they looked across the valley, but it would be a sign that they were not alone in time and space. And following them, many people in tragic circumstances have found the conviction that Jesus stands at the end of history as judge and as the embodiment of love to be a source of comfort.

We are speaking, of course, in veiled terms of the weather-beaten word ‘providence’. When we speak of providence we speak of the belief that God is somehow, in some way in charge of things. To affirm divine providence doesn’t necessarily mean we believe God actively wills everything that takes place (that we find the right parking space or don’t). It’s pretty dangerous to think we can read the work of God’s hand in current events. I imagine that when Herod’s temple was built some saw God’s hand at work—probably too when Constantine and his successors Christianized the two halves of the waning Roman Empire. Maybe we have too with changes in government or maybe in life’s dark corners: God’s hand is obvious we think—or obviously not. Yet both judgments are too quick. Jesus’ words attune us to a more mysterious, shadowy providence. A providence less obvious: glory in the shadow of a cross.

God’s provision and rule, in this age at least, occur within and under human decisions and worldly functions. And so Jesus speaks of signs within history, rather than of the playback of a pre-recorded and foreordained series of events. These signs point to God’s ongoing presence, but rarely in blindly obvious ways. The light of providence is filtered by history’s branches, and those are moved by the shifting winds of perspective. The ancients described God as ‘spirit’ precisely because the divine presence in the world wasn’t like that of an old man in the sky, or someone who wound up a watch and let it go. To say that God is spirit is to say that God is of other ‘stuff’ than the world we know. It is to say too that divine action moves on another plane. God is with us as one who suffers and with us in patience as history unfurls.

Mark suggests that Jesus will greet us at history’s end. The author of Hebrews says that Jesus will never leave us and never forget about us (13:5). The gospel of Matthew ends quite beautifully on the same note, with the King James Versions rendering it this way:

“and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

–Lord of history, be with us. Be the center of our faith. Be our hope and our refuge in times of fear. Amen.

[1] I have in mind here some of the distinctions made by Yoder in his short book Nevertheless.

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