The disciples were focused on the wrong thing: the grandeur of the Temple. The Temple, as expanded and decorated by King Herod, was indeed an impressive sight. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that it was covered with gold plates on the outside. And where there wasn’t gold, you could see blocks of pure white marble. But Jesus had been trying to teach the disciples a different message about wealth and its relative value in the kingdom. Just prior to today’s lesson, he had lifted up as an example of true wealth and generosity a poor widow who contributed all she had to the Temple treasury, even though it was only one small coin. If the disciples were impressed by the lavish splendor of the Temple, Jesus would have told them they were focused on the wrong thing.
The disciples were also focused on the wrong thing when they remarked upon the sheer size of the stones in Herod’s Temple. Herod greatly expanded the footprint of the Temple – imagine 20 football fields. Still today, tourists can see some of the stones of the retaining wall – some 50 feet long, 25 feet high, and 15 feet deep. And that’s just the retaining wall stones. The stones the disciples were looking at must have been huge. It would have been easy to assume that, because of its immense size, this Temple would last forever. And yet Jesus says that not one stone would be left upon another, which was exactly what happened when the Temple was destroyed shortly after the time of Christ. If the disciples were in awe of the size of the Temple, they were focused on the wrong thing.
But more than anything, it struck me as I read this text once again, that the disciples, by marveling at the Temple building itself, were focused on the wrong thing because they were looking into the past. They, as all the people of Israel, were caught up in the history of their people, a history in which the Temple, albeit it three different iterations, had stood for 1000 years as the center of their life. Those glory days, Jesus noted, would come to an end.
Their future would become unrecognizable to them.
That’s an especially hard message, I think, for us 21st century Christians to hear: that the glory days of the church, as our elders remember them, have come to an end – the days of Sunday school classrooms filled to capacity, the days of holiday services so crowded that extra chairs needed to be brought in, the days when most people spent their Sunday mornings in church. Those days are gone . . . and they’re not coming back. I’d love to blame it on COVID, but actually, it’s been happening for quite a long time now. COVID has just accelerated the process. And these cultural shifts have shaken us to our very foundations, causing many to wonder if the end of the church is near, if not the end of all things.
But though the church as have known it is changing, it’s not dying. Jesus reframes our fears, telling us that, though the very structures from which we have found our meaning seem to be disappearing, in spite of the loss of the church’s authority in the culture, regardless of the chaos of uncertainty surrounding our future, this is not the end. The stress we are feeling in the church is just the birth pangs, the labor pains, of something new that God is bringing to birth. What the church of tomorrow will look like . . . no one can say. But the church, as God’s people gathered by the Holy Spirit, fed by Word and Sacrament, and sent back into the world in service isn’t going away.
Let us learn from the disciples’ mistakes. We, as individuals and as the church, are not called to worry about wealth. We, as individuals and as the church, are not called to worry about the size or permanence of our congregation. We, who are individual members of the body of Christ and communally members of it, are not called to live in the past. We are called to be faithful, to follow Jesus with confidence, trusting that even though we can’t see into the future, nevertheless we know that God the Father is still in control, Jesus is still present with us, and the Spirit is still calling us – calling us to be midwives in ministry: helping in the birthing of God’s new reality.
Friends, next Sunday is Commitment Sunday. You should have already received your pledge cards in the mail. If you haven’t already, please be thinking and praying about your response, and come to worship next week prepared to make your financial commitment to continue and grow the work of Christ in this neighborhood and around the world. Come ready to help us to become more and more what God has created us to be – whatever that looks like. Now, I know these are uncertain times. And in uncertain times, it is hard to see beyond the present reality, and harder still to commit to anything other than our own well-being, our own survival. But as a church, we have the opportunity to focus on the right things, to partner with God in bringing the kingdom to birth in new and exciting ways. And we can do so without fear, because we know that if we are answering the Spirit’s call, God will absolutely provide us – you and me and the church – God will provide us with what we need.