I confess there are Sundays when I leave church discouraged. I put a lot of time, thought, prayer, and effort into preparing a spiritual worship experience. Most weeks I’m excited about leading us in worship. And, so, when only a handful of people show up I can sometimes feel deflated.
Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind. Isaiah 65:17 CEB
Imagine what it was like for our ancient kindred who’d been exiled from their land for more than a generation. Imagine Saul’s story:
I was still a kid when we the soldiers came. I remember when we were thrown out of Jerusalem. I remember the long trip on foot to Babylon. Most of my growing up years were in a foreign land but my folks did what they could to protect me from their alien religions.
I am no spring chicken, as you can tell by my grey hairs and wrinkles, but the day we heard that Cyrus was letting us go home, well, I danced in the streets.
It was a long journey back but we were full of anticipation about how happy we would all be. That was before reality set in. Our city — God’s city — was little more than a pile of rubble. Our temple on God’s mountain was only a few stones, having been ransacked by our enemies.
Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” Luke 21:5-6 CEB
In our two focus scriptures today, from Isaiah and from Luke, we are talking about two different temples.Both were built on the same spot. In Isaiah, the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem after more than a generation of exile. They were discouraged by the job before them.
Their temple had been leveled.
As the story goes, because they had abandoned God, they themselves were abandoned and sent into exile. Now, they were finally home but home was not the same anymore. It was a wasteland. And so, the prophet Isaiah brings them a good word from God.
Be glad and rejoice forever
in what I’m creating,
because I’m creating Jerusalem as joy
and her people as a source of gladness. Isaiah 65:18 CEB
In Luke, the elaborate temple commissioned by Herod — is remarkable in its magnificence. Aspects, that is details of the temple are not yet even completed in Jesus’ time. Though Herod was an all around despicable man, he was also a builder and he spared little expense in building the temple.
Yet we know that less than four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection the temple would again be leveled, this time by Roman troops. Writes Vernon Robbins, “After its destruction, people knew about its magnificence all the way to Rome, as a result of the exhibition of the plundered furnishings and the large paintings of the events of the Roman siege and burning of Jerusalem that were paraded on wagons in a triumphal procession in Rome.” (FOTW, loc. 11650)
Recall that most scholars suggest that Luke was writing between the years 85 and 90. And, so, those who first heard Luke’s gospel, lived after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. This was a traumatic experience for Jews and the early Christians.
In his retelling of the life of Jesus, the writer of Luke seeks to reassure the early church, that the temple is no longer necessary. According to Luke, Jesus had foretold its destruction. The destruction of the temple is a pivotal historical event and Jesus characterizes it as the start to a time of change that will end for the better. He reassures those admiring the temple that,
When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.” Luke 21:9 CEB
Jesus lists and describes horrible things that will happen but reassures,
Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives. Luke 21:18-19 CEB
It’s gonna be really terrible for awhile — really bad — but it will get better. Jesus, through Luke, is reassuring the early Christians that bad things will not last forever just as God through the prophet Isaiah reassures the post-exile Jews that,
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and be glad about my people.
No one will ever hear the sound
of weeping or crying in it again.
No more will babies live only a few days,
or the old fail to live out their days.
The one who dies at a hundred will be
like a young person,
and the one falling short of a hundred
will seem cursed.
They won’t labor in vain,
nor bear children to a world of horrors,
because they will be people
blessed by the LORD,
they along with their descendants. Isaiah 65: 19-20, 23 CEB
The basic premise of our scriptures today, Isaiah and Luke’s gospel is: God is creating a new heaven and earth. In Isaiah, times are bad and will get better. In Luke, times will get worse but then get better.
And, so, I look out at this beautiful sanctuary built at a time when churches were bursting at the seams. I look at the empty pews. We live in a world where church, where faith in a God seems to take a back seat to sports, or shopping, or sleeping in, or just about anything else. We live in a world in which the very thing, the very One who gives my life meaning seems to have been pushed to the margins.
And, so, some Sundays I feel discouraged. But much of the time I’m excited about the coming transformation of the church.
Though the churches are empty, there is a deep craving for the One who binds us together. There is a yearning for the extravagant love that accepts us and challenges us to be better people.
I sense a spiritual awakening in our world. God is active in the world encouraging and guiding humanity in new directions. We live in a time of significant change in the Christian faith. We’ve been living in this era all of my adult life, it’s just become irrefutable in recent decades that the church as we know it is dying.
This has happened before. Phyllis Tickle says it happens about every 500 years. That is every half a millennium the church transforms itself under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. The last time was the Reformation.
God is a creating god. God is a god of resurrections that follow death. Hard times always end. New life comes after death.
We see this in creation. The dying of fall becomes the death of winter only to be followed by the emergence of new life in the spring and summer. But throughout it all the One remains with us.
Consider our Bible stories from today. In much of the Old Testament our forebears perceived that God existed in one place. Think ark of the covenant. Literally it was a box where God was believed to reside. This is why the temple was built and rebuilt over and over again even when destroyed by foreigners. Always it was rebuilt on the mount in Jerusalem.
In their eyes, the eyes if our ancient kindred, God needed a place to be. God’s box needed a whole temple in which to reside. And then when attitudes and perceptions and understanding of God changed, changed enough…temples ceased being rebuilt.
When Rome destroyed the temple, that was the final death knell to a way of thinking about God in which God is often place-bound. You see, God is everywhere and in everything.
Like the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, four decades after Jesus’ time on earth, the slow death of what we think of as church is all around us.
I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth:
past events won’t be remembered;
they won’t come to mind. Isaiah 65:17 CEB
And though I sometimes get discouraged by our numbers, I know that this is just part of the process of the transformation of our faith. A living God like ours is clever enough and creative enough to guide us to new perceptions of what it is to be church, to be the people of God.
I suggest that just as our ancient forebears changed their perceptions of the divine One from existing in one place to existing everywhere, we too are in the midst of a perception-change. We are moving from thinking of Christ’s church as an organization to recognizing that just as God is everywhere, the church is everywhere.
Just as we no longer think of God as bound by place, as our ancient forebears did, the Spirit is whispering in our ears, encouraging us to rethink and broaden our perceptions. The church as we knew it, is indeed dying but… BUT being made anew all around is a church that is everywhere. It is a church that isn’t restricted to place. It is a church that is flexible and lets go of buildings for the sake of the Good News of God’s expansive love.
Though we can’t quite make out the details yet, God is creating a new heaven and a new earth, a new kind of church that responds to the spiritual yearnings and the justice cravings all around us. God is creating a church that is no longer place-bound, that no longer needs a box in which to reside, and in that way reflects the very nature of God, who is everywhere.
And throughout this transformation, though it may feel rocky at times, though you and I may feel discouraged by empty pews, or grieve for what once was, this is an opportunity for us to trust and embrace God. In the words of Jesus, “This will provide [us] with an opportunity to testify” and be God’s extravagant love in the world.
This is indeed Good News! Amen.
This sermon was preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on November 18, 2013.