Do you ever wonder what on earth Jesus is playing at? Because I do when I read this passage. Just before this story, Jesus and his disciples have been inside the Jerusalem Temple. They have witnessed the flamboyant giving of the rich, and the sacrificial giving of the widow with her mite. Jesus, you remember, commends the widow who gives all she has to live on. But now, having praised her contribution to the Temple, he announces its destruction. What exactly is the point?
Jesus is using graphic language about cataclysmic events to make his followers face important issues about faith and discipleship. He poses them some challenging questions. By inference, he challenges us, too, to get our priorities of faith right.
Firstly, he challenges their priorities about the Temple. The disciples sound so much like typical Methodists to me, when they say, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (verse 1). They sound exactly like church members welcoming a prospective minister who is considering a possible invitation to their circuit. (I can’t think why that is on my mind … ) They make a show of the building.
But Jesus asks, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ (verse 2). Better not worship the buildings: that’s idolatry. Yet it’s a common temptation for many of us. It’s not that we can do without buildings: any gathering of a certain size will need a building, whether owned or rented. But the problem is one of false worship.
For me, this became clearer this week in my studies for today which made me reflect on the fact that there are two New Testament Greek words used for ‘temple’. One means the buildings and surrounding area of the Temple, the other refers to the inner sanctuary, where God was believed to dwell. In this passage, Jesus uses the first word. He says the buildings will be destroyed, not the presence of God.
What about the second word, the word for the place of God’s presence? Jesus uses that elsewhere, to apply to himself. You may recall the time he said, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days’ (see Mark 14:58), meaning his own body in death and resurrection.
So what’s the crux of this point? Jesus tells his disciples – and us – that buildings may come and go (even beautiful religious ones) but the presence of God cannot be destroyed. Jesus, not a church building, is our temple, because the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, dwells in him. Which is also why Paul would refer to groups of disciples as the temple of the Holy Spirit, because God’s Spirit was present in their midst.
And if that’s the case, then it’s the gathering that matters more than the gathering place. The building needs to be suitable, we should take appropriate care of it, and so on, but what drives everything is the core issue of gathering to meet the risen Christ. That is our non-negotiable: meeting Jesus. Everything else may be nice, but is secondary and serves the main purpose of worshipping at the Temple which is the presence of Christ. It means we hold all other accoutrements lightly, including as our buildings.
But this isn’t just some reason to scold people who idolise church buildings. It’s also good news. How many Christian congregations are weighed down with the burden of maintaining a building when it has got beyond their capabilities? How many churches become obsessed with property and finance issues rather than the Gospel? Jesus reorders our priorities. However important it seems to us that we expend all our energies and finances on buildings, there are times when a proper concentration on Jesus relieves us of that pressure. So hear the good news: Jesus, not the fabric, is our Temple.
Secondly, Jesus challenges their priorities about Time. They get obsessed about the future:
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?’ (Verses 3-4)
You might think they are like the kinds of Christians who go on endlessly about the end of the world, predicting the date of the Second Coming and terrifying people with visions of fire and brimstone. It rather sounds like one of those ‘The end is nigh’ routines, complete with statutory sandwich boards and tracts.
And if that’s the case, you might wonder what on earth they have to do with people in churches like ours. When we hear Jesus’ rebuke to them, we might think, “Good on you, Jesus, go for it!”
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty to be self-righteous and comfortable. For it might just be that we fall into an opposite temptation. One preacher described the danger we face in these words:
I think that a more common “wrong” view in our day is an understanding that there is no end. Rather than living our lives today guided by the future Jesus has promised, we are guided by today or the past, e.g., “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Congregations (and individuals?) should be pulled ahead by a vision of the future rather than be pushed by the past — or worse, seeking to return to the past that no longer exists.
How easy that would be for us, whether we are worrying about whether our church has a long-term future, or whether we are planning for a centenary in two years’ time. Both could be reasons for looking back and living in the past. We could retreat to the cosy warmth of our memories.
But Jesus won’t let us live like that. He won’t let us slip into the habit of detailed predictions about the end of the world, but he does call us to look forward. As the hymn puts it,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
Some of us find it easy to praise him for the past, but harder to trust him for what is to come. Our future vision for the church is filled with images of struggle, decline and closure.
What are we to do? Just as our view of the Temple must be Jesus-centred, so our view of Time must be focussed on Christ. For Christians, the ultimate future is filled with one vision: the kingdom of God. It is a conviction that the final victory belongs already to Jesus. He has conquered sin and death. The last enemy will fall.
Every time we take Holy Communion, we allow this vision to fill our sight. For we are not only remembering the past with gratitude, we are enjoying ‘a foretaste of the banquet prepared for all the world’. We celebrate the Last Supper, and we anticipate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Let us allow the Scriptures and the worship of the Church give us a proper perspective on Time in the economy of God. And let that give us a proper, proportionate sense of hope.
All of this implies a third and final challenge. Jesus challenges their priorities about Truth. For his response, which leads to all the talk about ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’ (verses 7-8), starts with the words,
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. (Verses 5-6)
What kind of leading astray is going on here? Leading people astray from Jesus himself. This is about a host of temptations to divert from the Truth himself. At a simple level, it’s about those who peddle false Christs, as in cults and heretical sects. So the image of Jesus in the Jehovah’s Witnesses that makes him less than fully divine is a leading astray from the Truth. The image of Jesus who blesses married people more than singles as in Mormonism is another deviation from the Truth. Or the Christian Scientists who say that illness is an illusion cannot match up with the Jesus who healed the sick of very real diseases.
So far, so easy, so smug. But I believe we have to recognise that we have similar problems even within the boundaries of the Christian Church, among those whose basic beliefs about Jesus are thoroughly orthodox, consistent with Scripture and the affirmations of the ancient Creeds. We go in for a ‘leading astray’ from Jesus the Truth, too.
What we do is we conjure a picture of Jesus according to our own preferences. One give-away is when someone says, “I like to think of Jesus as like …”. What follows might be helpful, but more often is simply an image of Jesus conditioned by the preferences of the speaker.
Another example would be something that happened to me after a service once. I had expounded a Gospel passage where Jesus said some difficult, if not tough words. I tried to explain what those words might mean. Afterwards, a man told me Jesus couldn’t possibly have said those words. Why not? Because they didn’t fit his preconceived ideas of what Jesus was about. On that basis, the witness of those who were closer to him was dismissed. If the Jesus presented in the Gospels doesn’t fit what we want, we leave those bits out.
And so we become very selective about Jesus, even in the Church. We take the bits we like and pretend the other parts aren’t there. For some, Jesus is a politician or social worker. For others, he is an evangelist who calls people to a code of personal morality. For others he is a teacher or a healer. Yet in the Scriptures he is an evangelist, a pastor, a healer and a proponent of social justice.
Above all, he is Lord, and he will not submit to the way we miniaturise him in order to fit what we religious consumers will buy. It is not for him to fit into our vision; it is for us to fit into his vision. Anything else is to be led astray, often willingly.
The great Christian leader John Stott used to begin his sermon preparation for Sunday the preceding Monday by reading the Bible passage he was to preach about on his knees. It wasn’t that he worshipped the Bible; rather, he recognised that the text conveyed to him the will of the sovereign Lord to whom he must submit. That is the example we need to cultivate: one that rejects the picking and choosing of what suits us.
In conclusion, then, every single priority of faith and discipleship to which Jesus calls us turns out to be a focussing on him. Our ‘Temple’ priority is to see him as the location of God’s presence, rather than a building. Our ‘Time’ priority is to let his perspective of the future determine our attitudes to the past, present and future. And our ‘Truth’ priority is to stop being selective about Jesus or making him in our own image. Instead, we bow the knee to him as Lord.
After all, wasn’t ‘Jesus is Lord’ the earliest Christian confession?