Sunday, November 15, 2009
Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 15, 2009)
“Stones Torn Down…Stones Built Up” (Mark 13:1-13)
I'll never forget my visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Forbidden City was the residence of the Chinese emperor from 1420 until 1924. The complex covers 7.8 million square feet and consists of 980 surviving buildings and 8,707 bays of rooms.
Our group first walked through the expansive and infamous Tiananmen Square. On the north side of the square was the Gate of Heavenly Peace, with its towering red walls, its red tile roof, and the huge portrait of Mao Tse Tung looking down upon the crowds. Upon entering the complex, you are greeted by another huge courtyard and another towering wall and gate just ahead. This goes on until you finally reach the center where the emperor's throne room stands, the “Palace of Heavenly Purity.” To a certain degree, the emperor was endowed with divine characteristics. He was called the “Son of Heaven,” the representative of heaven on earth. Although the Chinese empire may not have ruled over the entire world, yet he was said to be the “sole and supreme overlord of the entire civilized world.” His words were sacred declarations. To be near the Forbidden City was to be near the divine, as far as the Chinese were concerned.
That's the way it was in fact for the residents of Jerusalem as they approached the temple. The Jerusalem temple complex was quite a sight to see. Moreover, it was the place where Yahweh had promised that his very presence would dwell in the Holy of Holies. Set upon Mount Zion, pilgrims would ascend and marvel at the huge stones that Herod had used when he remodeled the temple, some weighing up to 600 tons apiece. Herod also faced the temple complex with white marble, causing it to gleam in the sunlight.
The disciples looked at the stones in the temple and said, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” It was hard for them to imagine that this gigantic edifice could ever be destroyed. But it would. Those stones would be torn down. Jesus said, “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The disciples then asked Jesus two questions: “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” Jesus answers their question, and he uses the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as a picture and a foreshadowing of the end of all things and the final judgment.
Until that time, there are other stones that will be torn down as signs that the end of all things is certainly coming and that Jesus’ words are true. But we can also rejoice that even though stones will be torn down, you and I as living stones in God’s holy church will be built up and by God’s grace will stand firm until the end.
These other stones that will be torn down until the Last Day are the things in this life that seem so permanent. Just like those massive stones in the temple that seemed so permanent, so immovable, there are things in this life that seem permanent and immovable, but will be torn down.
The “stones” of human lives will be torn down by wars, as Jesus says that we will “hear of wars and rumors of war.” Some people try to deny the reality of death. Everyone is looking for some remedy to stay youthful. But life is not permanent. And wars most definitely tear life down. This past week we honored all the military veterans in our country. But Veterans Day often becomes another Memorial Day for us, too. As we thank those veterans who are still alive, it's hard not to think of all the veterans who, at such young ages, lost their lives in battle and conflict.
The “stones” of kings and kingdoms will be torn down. Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Wars do not only cause the death of people. It causes the death of nations. Consider how many times our maps have been changed over the centuries because of empires rising and falling, kingdoms conquering other kingdoms. As an example, think about how the former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war in the 1990’s. Ethnic, religious, and nationalistic fervor caused that nation to break apart into smaller nations such as Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Macedonia, among others. This is just a small example of what has happened throughout history. Our maps and our atlases have short lives.
The “stones” of our possessions, not to mention our lives, will be torn down by natural disasters. Jesus said, “There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.” Living on the west coast, we are familiar with the results of earthquakes. The presumed permanence of our possessions doesn't seem so permanent when the earth beneath your feet starts to move and the walls around you begin to shake. Although you and I may lose a few prized possessions that fall from our shelves, people in lands with less strict building codes are not so fortunate. They lose everything when the ground grumbles and houses crumble. Our nation has known famine, too, like in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930's … although that was nothing like the famines that occur in places like Africa.
All of these “stones” seem so permanent … our lives, our nation, our possessions … but all of these may be torn down at any moment. When we see it happening to others, and if, in God’s permissive will it happens to us, we know that these are just signs that the end that Jesus promised will come. But it’s not the end yet. Jesus says it's like the signs that a woman has as she begins to go into labor. There's some pain now, that's for sure. But there's more to come.
What else will be torn down as signs of the end that is to come? People will try to tear down God’s Word. Jesus warned the disciples, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” That was true in the days immediately following Jesus’ ascension. It’s true for us today, too. There are false teachings, false prophets, and false messiahs all around. Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and other cult leaders have claimed to be prophets. Sun-Myung Moon, Jim Jones, and David Koresh claimed to be Messiahs. Every so often, other people pop up, claiming to be the messiah or modern-day prophets and apostles. Jesus’ words are for you and I today, too: “See that no one leads you astray.” The only way we can do this is by being rooted in the Word, knowing God’s Word and the truth so well so that we will easily recognize the counterfeits when they come our way.
Jesus also warned the disciples about the persecution they will face. “They will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues.” Those who are opposed to Christ and His Word will attempt to tear down those who are the “living stones” in Christ’s building, the Church. In addition, because of opposition to Christ and His Word, relationships will be torn down. “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” This really happened among the early Christians. Family members handed over their own relatives to the authorities simply because they of their confession of faith. That's not the case today in our nation, of course. It is in other parts of the world. But our family relationships are often strained and torn apart because of one’s confession of faith.
In all of this, Jesus says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” Those who stand firm are those who are not torn down, torn out, torn off of Christ’s temple, the Church. That’s a tall order. How can we stand firm when there are so many forces outside of us … and inside of us, our own sinful nature … that are trying to tear us down?
Even though stones will be torn down, you and I as living stones in God’s holy church will be built up and by God’s grace will stand firm until the end. Jesus is our living stone, as 1 Peter 2:4 calls him, “the living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious.” Our Lord Jesus was rejected by man as he was sentenced to die and was crucified. But our Lord Jesus was chosen by God the Father. He is God’s One and Only Son, chosen before time and eternity and sent to be the Savior of the world.
In Holy Baptism and by faith, you have been made to be a living stone in Christ. 1 Peter 2:5 says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.” United to Christ Jesus, and as part of His building, the Church, you will be rejected by the world, just as Christ was rejected. But more importantly, you have been chosen by God in Christ, adopted into His precious family. And so you can stand firm, because you have been placed into this building by the Master Craftsman, God Himself. You can stand firm, because it is God who does the building, the saving, the guarding, the protecting.
You also have been given the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christ. Jesus told the disciples, “you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” Moreover, they were not to worry about what to say, because, as our Lord said, “it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” They were given that special gift of inspiration to boldly preach the Gospel.
You and I don’t have exactly the same promise that was given to the apostles, that we would be divinely inspired. However, we do have the same Holy Spirit dwelling within us. And we have the Spirit-inspired word of the Apostles in the Holy Scriptures. It is God’s Word. And so, we learn, study, and speak God’s Holy Word, and the Holy Spirit will speak when we speak God’s Word. And in this way, Christ’s words are true for us, today: “it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.”
By God’s grace, you can stand firm as a living stone in God’s temple.
Jesus stood firm to the end for you. He stood firm as he faced the devil’s temptations. He stood firm as he walked towards his appointment with the cross. He stood firm with nails in his hands and feet, willingly suffering and dying for your sins. And thanks be to God that the stone in front of His tomb did not stand firm.
United to Christ, your Savior, you can stand firm to the end. You can endure. Stand firm in your forgiveness. Stand firm in your righteous status before God. Stand firm in the new, restored relationship you have with God. Stand firm in his unfailing love.
And do as the writer of Hebrews told us: Hold on to the hope you profess. Spur one another on to love and good deeds. And don’t give up meeting together, but “[encourage] one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb. 10:25)
“What wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” the disciples exclaimed as they looked at the temple. But that temple crumbled and fell. Not one stone was left upon another.
You are God’s Church, living stones, placed into God’s building in Holy Baptism, built to be an enduring structure. And because you belong to God, you are forgiven, perfect in his eyes, and through Christ your Savior, God looks at you with love and says, “What a wondeful stone you are! What a wonderful building you are!”