Smart Sailing Through Rough Waters

[audio]The house where I grew up no longer exists. My parents bought it as a simple, ranch-style, one-story home. As our family expanded, though, they added a second story onto it, and changed the look to a more modern style – natural-looking wood siding outside, skylights letting the light in. There were all these cool little nooks and crannies. Playing sardines was particularly amazing: closets within closets might as well have been secret passageways to other worlds. I even remember the wallpaper in the master bath: it looked like a maze, and I could run my finger along its trails for hours on end.

When I was in high school, we moved to another home. That old house changed hands several times. Then, one day, as I was passing through the old neighborhood, I saw that the house was no longer there. It was a vacant lot, and it was up for sale. Several more years passed before the property was sold and a new house was built. It looks nothing like the house I grew up in. That one is long gone.

When I was a kid, if you had told me that all of this would happen one day, I would not have believed you. That house was as permanent and eternal as anything I knew. And the night after we moved, I cried myself to sleep, so greatly did I mourn the loss of that home and the memories it contained.

The difficult truth is that things we think will last forever are usually subject to the same vagaries of time that we are. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty, it seems.

Jesus says as much in our lesson. He stands in front of the Temple, while his disciples gape in awe at the amazing edifice and its wondrous decoration. Jesus, instead of joining in with them, predicts its collapse. “The days will come when not one stone will be left on another; all will be thrown down.” And within forty years, this suggestion of his comes to pass. In the year 70, following what was called the Great Jewish Revolt, the Roman Emperor Titus punished the rebellion by leveling the Temple to the ground. Not one stone was left on another.

For some, this historical event is proof that the gospel accounts must have been put down to paper after the year 70. How else could Jesus have known this would happen? Personally, I’m not so sure that’s proof of anything. Even if you remove any notion of Jesus’ embodiment of the divine, it would not have been so hard to predict such destruction. What the disciples were marveling at was the Second Temple. The first one, built by King Solomon, had been destroyed in 586 BC when the Babylonians defeated the ancient Israelite kingdom and took the people into captivity. Around 516 BC, the Temple was rebuilt.

When the Romans annexed that part of the world into their Empire, periodic revolts had sprung up against Roman rule, a rule which could be quite cruel and arbitrary. To say that this Temple would not stand forever was a pretty safe bet, I think.

I thought about all this as I stood in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem last week. Nothing remains of the Temple. The Western Wall, now some 60 feet tall, includes the foundations of a wall that King Herod built in the year 19 as part of the Temple compound. And even then, only one or two rows of that wall are visible. The rest of what is seen was added in the 7th and then in the 19th centuries.

The Western Wall is the holiest site in all of Judaism. It has become a huge open-air synagogue. The rocking motion of prayers of the faithful is a reminder of the years wandering in the wilderness. And the prayers are both ones of mourning and ones of a hope; mourning for what was lost nearly 2000 years ago, and hope for a return to the ancient glories and liturgical practices of Biblical Israel through a Third Temple built in the same location. Pragmatically speaking, the building of a Third Temple would mean the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, a situation that would make recent unrest in the Middle East look like a romantic comedy, so none but the most radical schemes to make this a reality. And thus, prayers of mourning and hope continue without any clear sense of what the future might hold.

It is hard not to get caught up in the ancient stones of the Holy Land. I love walking along the paving stones and touching the walls, smoothed down with time and with the touch of pilgrims through the centuries. For people who live there, such faith is about much more than a piece of real estate. It can be an embodiment of religious hope; and it can veer very quickly into a religious zeal which excludes any others. It can be very easy to dismiss such zeal and fanaticism as a cultural factor of that part of the world and not our own.

But are we really any different in the way that we express our faith? Is our zeal visible in other, perhaps more subtle, ways? Where are our wailing walls? What are our scenes of pilgrimage, of yearning and weeping for former glories? What is it that has come crashing down that causes us to mourn? Where do we, as a church, put our hope in things that are subject to the vagaries of time? Is it in a denomination, a building? Is it in a particular style of worship or preaching? Is it in a bygone era where church membership was the default setting? Have we put our hope in things that are not meant to last?

As Jesus stands there in front of the Temple, predicting its demise, he also seems to warn of putting our trust in the temporary. War is certain. Kingdoms and nations will rise and fall. Natural disasters, earthquakes, famines, plagues, will come and go. Buildings will be toppled. Even we ourselves will be subject to persecution and betrayal. But all of these things will pass away; and so our hope must be placed in that which is eternal.

Notice what Jesus doesn’t promise: he doesn’t say that we’ll have “smooth sailing” ahead; instead, Jesus practically guarantees troubled waters. And yet, he also promises us to have the wisdom in navigating those storms. “Do not prepare your defense in advance,” he says, “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand.” These are meant as words of comfort for the disciples who will certainly face persecution for their faith in Christ. And so for us, nearly 2000 years removed, it is not smooth sailing, but faithful sailing, which ought to be our point of departure.

I’m afraid I’ve jumped metaphors here in order to squeeze the title in. But whether we are talking about sailing or building, we must be certain that we are doing so anchored in Christ himself. It is Jesus who is the chief cornerstone, after all, the one that other builders rejected as unsteady. Our calling as the church, as a spiritual home for God, is to be builders of the kingdom of God, people who want to shape the world according to God’s desires, not our own.

I don’t think it’s any accident that this lesson comes up in the midst of OPC's stewardship campaign for the coming year. We might choose to hear it as a kind of warning. If we’re not careful, our stewardship conversations can get so focused on numbers and financial matters that we can trick ourselves into thinking that what our community is all about is the temporary: buildings, budgets, salaries, programming, worship attendance, you name it, we can get caught up in it.

And when we do, we not only miss the point; we even run the risk of draining the life right out of the whole enterprise. We ourselves become dead stones, stacked on top of one another, trying to see how high we can build this sucker. It is these kinds of stones that Jesus rightly predicted will come crashing down.

Instead, my hope, my prayer, is that we would be living stones, knit together for the sake of God’s desires. And when our relationship with God is sure, then our relationships with others are built on that solid foundation. If that’s the case, then we can begin to see what it is that God desires for us, for our community, and for this world.

These things that we talk about – money, time, ability – we want not for their own sake, but for what they can help build in this uncertain world. Sunday School isn’t for its own sake; it molds disciples, young and mature alike. Worship isn’t performance; it’s our vehicle to give praise to God. And we don’t invite people to this community because we want to have the biggest place, or even because we want to balance a budget; we do so because we are foolish enough to believe that Christ has anchored our lives and can do so for others.

What are we building at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow Way? Is it our own version of the Third Temple, a place that people can come and awe over its interior design and marvelous decoration? Or is it a house not made with human hands, an eternal community, one that is continually being shaped into the very image of God?