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The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 18, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 13: 1-8
Sermon: "Solid Rock"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs."
Mark 13: 1-8
Your eyes can't help but be drawn upward. Towering 555 feet over Washington, D.C., the Washington Monument demands a bit of jaw-dropping, neck-craning attention. It is the world's tallest all-stone structure, constructed of a mix of more than 36,000 marble, granite and gneiss blocks. The obelisk stands guard over the capital city in honor of its namesake, George Washington. It is also a testimony to human engineering prowess, and symbolizes the strength of the nation bold enough to design and build it.
But just last year, following that earthquake we all felt in nearby Virginia, that towering symbol of strength began showing signs of weakness. A large crack was discovered near the top. A stone block was dislodged, allowing light to creep in. Mortar and stone were strewn around its base forming a field of disconcerting debris. A team of engineers and architects was brought in to assess the damage, and public access was indefinitely shut down.
Now you may hear this and be thinking to yourself, "Earthquakes happen and monuments crack. So, what?" You may very well, and quite understandably, think nothing of this. However, there is for followers of Jesus Christ, if we choose to see it, a great truth revealed in the cracks of this incredible structure. It's the truth that every man-made thing will ultimately crack and crumble. Even the best of what we build as permanent structures in this life, be it a monument to a president, the house of our dreams, or a successful portfolio, is susceptible to the elements. It is all, ultimately, temporary.
But don't let some cracks in a national landmark serve as the only reminder of this truth. In our lesson from the Gospel according to Mark this morning, Jesus speaks to this very truth. While site-seeing in Jerusalem, the Disciples take in the city's growing grandeur. They especially note the magnificent new temple that pierces the holy city's skyline. As the Disciples stare like tourists at Herod and his descendants’ incredible accomplishment, Jesus says this: "Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Mark 13:2 ESV).
Now there was a good reason why the Disciples were gawking. By all accounts, the temple was an amazing piece of architecture. At the time of Jesus' ministry, it had been under construction for almost 50 years and was finally nearing completion. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes, "The exterior of the building wanted for nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white." Some of the largest stones were 40 feet long, 12 feet high, 18 feet wide and bright white in their appearance. This was more than a temple in which to worship God; it was an incredible human accomplishment.
Yet, our Lord makes it clear to his disciples that there would come a day when even this awe-inspiring work of Herod's hands, and all it represented, would be toppled. Therefore as God's people we are not link our hope or peace, or happiness to the man-made wonders of this world. Our treasure is not to be focused solely on the works of our hands, so that when those works crumble, as they will do, our hope and happiness do not topple along with them.
This does seem to raise a bit of a problem, though. As human beings, it is in our very DNA to have to build, construct, earn a living, aspire to greatness, create, design, erect, develop, tame, sow and reap, put a roof over our heads, build roads, schools, hospitals and to be pleased with doing so. And there is a reason that it’s in our DNA; we were created with the imago dei, in the image of God; and God is the very one, you will remember, who created the creation and was so pleased that he called it good.
So what are we to do then? On the one hand, we are not to be overwhelmed with wonder over our own works; while on the other hand, we are driven to accomplish them and enjoy them by the very DNA God has planted in us. The question, really, is how might we rightly marvel at the wonders of our own accomplishments without our hope and peace, our faith and happiness, being dependant on them.
The even deeper question is: what will ultimately make us happy? Putting our happiness in the objects of our creativity, the work of our own hands, and then forgetting our Creator, Jesus is saying, will not make us happy. We are a blessed and incredible people. But if, in the end, rather than simply enjoying the work of our hands and the "blessings" in our lives, we make them the center of our lives, and not God, then our hope and happiness will fall and fail. Remember the words of Jesus when he was specifically talking about what makes for happiness in the Sermon on the Mount? "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21 ESV).
So, again, what then are we to do? How do we fulfill the creative, building, awe inspiring urge that God has placed in our very nature, without also placing our hope and happiness there as well? Let me suggest two ways this morning.
The first way is this: Redirect our praise. We make it a habit, that every time our jaw drops in awe at something made by human hands, including our own, we redirected our thinking; we take that as an opportunity to also give praise to God. After all, our ability to create, be it buildings in the skyline of Dubai, monuments in D.C., or even a project in our backyard or craft room, is an expression of our having been made in the image of God. God is the ultimate builder and Creator. Therefore, every time we get impressed with ourselves, it's also an opportunity to praise God for the creative impulse God has given us. It lets us redeem every moment of awe as a chance to redirect our hearts to the one who holds our hope and happiness, and who will not crumble. That’s the first way; redirect our praise.
Here’s a second way: Repurpose our stuff. If we want to wrest our hearts from undue allegiance to the works of our hands, then at some point, we will begin realigning our treasure, repurposing our stuff, with the purposes of God. Perhaps one of the reasons our hearts so easily buy this idea that our hope and joy hang on the accomplishments of our hands is because we've invested so much of our stuff in the works of our hands.
But Jesus' point is this: How we handle our stuff depends largely on where we think our hope is. Suppose for a moment that you go to live overseas for awhile. Your real home is still here, and you’re only overseas on business, living in a hotel. You're told that you can't bring anything back here, but you can invest what you gain there in your account here, in things that will matter here. If this were true, then how would you choose to invest the fruit of your labors? Would you fill your hotel with extra, expensive stuff, or would you spend only what you needed to be comfortable and to be creative, and to do good there, while investing as much as possible in your real home? You'd invest in your permanent place. You'd invest in your hope, and real happiness.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have the benefit of knowing how this whole story ends. We know that one day, the way this world works will come to an end, and an eternity will be established where blessings abound and all needs are met. We know that what we pile up here won't matter there, which means it's pointless to overly invest in stuff that will crumble. A wise person strategically invests in the things our real homeland, things and purposes that matter to God. Jesus says that when we manage created things according to the hope we have in him, we're stockpiling for eternity; setting our hearts upon what truly matters most and what God tells us will endure.
Herod's temple did eventually come crumbling down. In 70 A.D. the Roman army toppled the temple and most of the city as it struck down a Jewish rebellion. The glorious, man-made structure, that stood some 15 stories high, and which was laden with gold and served as the symbol of power, strength and a chosen status for so many people of that day, came crashing to the ground. This is what happens to the works of our hands. Temples topple. Titanics sink. Monuments crack. Our own creations crumble to dust. Even the best of what we "build" in this life is susceptible to the elements and, in time, proves to be temporary.
So, upon what will we set our hopes? Where will we look for happiness? In what will we invest our treasure? Are we focused more on the awe-inspiring, but fleeting accomplishments and monuments of humanity; the works and pursuits of our own hands? If our answers tend toward yes, then it's time to confess the fact that we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. It's time to redeem our moments of awe as opportunities to praise. It is time to repurpose our stuff; investing here in what we need, and for at least some comfort, and beauty, and in our own creativity; all blessings that can lead us to praise; but not to stockpile purposelessly for what will ultimately fall.
Now, I want to be clear; I am not attempting to make us feel guilty for having good things in this life. After all, this is the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day. This is a time to count our blessings, give thanks, and enjoy the good things of life that we have been given. Scripture tells us that God intends that we enjoy the “fruits of our labors.” But as we do so, and as we give thanks to our maker who has made the feast and the joy possible, let us also be wise and set our hearts more deeply upon that which lasts; giving our time and treasure to that which is eternal. May we do so that when the cracks of life emerge, our hope and happiness are unshaken, because they set upon the solid rock of Christ.