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Stones

A sermon delivered by Randy  Hyde, Pastor , Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 14, 2010.                     

Isaiah 12:1-6; Luke 21:5-19

When Janet and I visited Scotland in 2003, we toured many a ruined castle or church. Perhaps the largest cathedral ruin was in St. Andrews where you could walk and walk and walk along an expansive grassy lawn which had once, centuries before, been under roof. In its day it was absolutely massive, large enough that you could have probably put twenty of our worship buildings in it. But it was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, and now serves solely as a place for tourists to walk around and gawk at how big it used to be. We were told that, back in the day, it took so long to build such an edifice that workers and artisans could spend their entire lives building just that one structure and never see it completed.

That’s the way it was with the temple in Jerusalem. Those of you who were here last week, you remember that we talked about the temple the prophet Haggai told the city leaders to rebuild after their return from the Babylonian exile? Well, in the year 20 B.C. Herod tore that structure down to begin construction of a new temple. Now, some forty years later, while it is a fully-functioning facility, it is still under construction.

According to Luke, Jesus has been spending some time there. In fact, he’s been quite busy. He’s been teaching, of course, but it’s not as if he’s signed a contract with Temple University to offer classes in the kingdom of God. He’s simply set up shop in different areas of the temple (it was certainly big enough to do that) and finds himself drawing interested people to him who instinctively recognize in him the ability to tell others about God.

But it hasn’t just been his teaching that attracts folks. The very first thing he did, offended by the all the commerce he saw going on, was drive out the sellers and money changers. After that, not surprisingly, he was confronted by the religious authorities, and responded to their accusations largely by means of telling parables.

Jesus was good – very good – at deflecting those who stood in his way, simply by telling stories that were so powerful, not to mention shrewd, and so simple that those who opposed him had no recourse but to walk away. You can just see them, can’t you, shaking their heads and wondering where this simple Nazarene managed to obtain such wisdom.

They sent spies, Luke tells us, they being the religious authorities whose responsibility it was to make sure nothing unusual or disruptive occurred during the temple proceedings. A bit too late for that, wasn’t it? These spies pretended to be honest seekers, asking him questions. The questions, of course, were designed to trap him, so they could get rid of him. They’re the ones who asked him the question about whether they ought to pay their taxes to Caesar, and when he asked them to produce a coin one of them reached into his pocket and pulled out a denarius.

Now, if they don’t want to have anything to do with Caesar, why are they carrying around coins with Caesar’s image on them? “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They were amazed by his answer, we are told, so they became silent.

Wave after wave of confrontations, much like this one, came at Jesus. The Sadducees were next with their question about whose wife will the woman be in heaven, the one who was married to all the different brothers. Of course, the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection or heaven, so their riddle was bogus to begin with. Jesus knew it, and trapped them in their own game.

Right after this encounter is the story of the poor widow who gave the two small coins to the temple’s treasury. Jesus made note of it and exclaimed that she was the most faith-filled person in the whole place because she gave to the temple all she had.

The temple, the temple. The disciples of Jesus – small-town boys, they were – have seen nothing like it before. They are, to put it mildly, impressed by the temple’s size and magnificence. You got to give Herod credit for one thing: he sure knew how to build. He might be a self-serving, paranoid tyrant, but the man knew how to build. Why, you can still hear the sounds of hammers in the background. There’s always some portion of the temple under construction, like over at UAMS or the Broyles complex in Fayetteville. It will be about three decades yet before the temple is finally completed.

Just in time for it to be destroyed.

The temple construction was finally completed in 63 A.D. Herod wasn’t around anymore, but his successors were. Long forgotten, or so they thought, were the shenanigans of the young carpenter-prophet from a few decades before. All the city dignitaries were there for the ribbon-cutting and the fine speeches. Yes, the temple had been in use for many years, but now it was finally completed. What a beautiful and large edifice, done in the modern Graeco-Roman style. What a wonderful monument to the leadership of Herod!

And seven years later – count ’em – seven years later, it would be destroyed when the Romans finally got tired of the recalcitrant Jews who were constantly nipping at their heels and causing disruption. Showing their might and power, the Roman troops invaded the city, confronted the zealots who had brought the political situation to a head, and destroyed everything in sight… including Herod’s wonderful temple.

Jesus called it, didn’t he? When the disciples began gawking at the temple and talking about what a great and wonderful edifice it was, Jesus said, “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

You would think the temple in Jerusalem would have been very important to Jesus. As we mentioned, he certainly spent a lot of his time there, not just as an adult but also when he was a boy. Luke is the only gospel writer who tells us that story. Now that he comes there again as an adult, he sees what it has become – a place of commerce and deception – and he is incensed. He says it is to be a house of prayer, not a place of profit. Would he have said that if he hated the place?

And don’t forget that the minute he got to Jerusalem he headed straight for the temple. The temple is where the action is, and the temple is where Jesus evidently wants to be. Like shoppers drawn to the mall at Christmas time, Jesus heads straight for the temple.

But the building, of course, is a means to a greater end, and the end for Jesus is honoring God with one’s worship, with one’s sacrifice, with one’s devotion. The temple is to be the means of serving God. Unfortunately, in Jesus’ day, the temple had become an end unto itself. After all, Herod didn’t build the temple for God; Herod built it as a monument to himself.

Luke, in recording all this, is looking back in hindsight. He’s writing maybe a decade or two after Jerusalem was destroyed, so he is reflecting upon Jesus’ prophecy and considering how right Jesus truly was. The days had come when not one stone was left upon another. All of the gold-covered stones had been thrown down. The temple lay in ruins.

And he knew about the other difficulties Jesus described… of how his followers would be persecuted, and before it is all over things are going to be bad. He’s seen it with his own eyes; in fact, it’s going on right now. And he knows the only way the faithful are going to get through all this is with the Risen Christ by their side. What good does a building do you if you are being persecuted for your faith?

And so, he recalls the words Jesus gave to his followers… “This will give you an opportunity…” A what? An opportunity. An opportunity? Maybe Jesus was one of those who saw the glass half full rather than half empty, but this is ridiculous! What kind of opportunity is Jesus talking about? “This will give you an opportunity to testify,” he says. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Have you thought lately about your testimony, how it is that you embody the presence of Christ? Every morning, when I pray for this church, I pray that wherever you will be during the day, and whatever you will be doing, you will be the presence of Christ. Sometimes, especially for those of you who I know are going through tough times, I ask that you endure them with faith. If I am aware of the challenges that confront some of you, I ask God to walk beside you so that you will be strong.

You see, everything you do serves as a testimony of who you are. Perhaps more importantly, everything you do serves as a testimony of whose you are.

I mentioned that Herod built the temple. When you hear the name Herod you might think there was just one. But actually there were several. There was Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa (and there were two of them), Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, and on and on. In the New Testament period alone there are fifteen Herods! But you know what, they were all cut from the same piece of cloth. You cut one, they all bled. And they were all egomaniacs.

I am told that the word ego is an acronym. E = Edging, G = God, and O = Out… Edging God Out. All the Herods were really good at doing just that.

But you don’t have to be a Herod to do that, do you? Any time you fail to offer your testimony, either by word or deed, you are edging God out of your life.

Roberta Bondi says, “…Considering the enormity of the world’s problems, all the injustice, callousness and greed and the suffering and pain that follow them, I am tempted to lie down and not get up again. How can I testify to the gospel… when I am only one person, and an insignificant one at that?”1

Do you eve feel that way?

A parable, if you please. Jesus didn’t tell it, but it’s pretty good just the same. A man had a plot of land that had become a wilderness of thistles and thorns. He decided to cultivate it and said to his son, “Go and clear that ground.” But when the son went to clear it, he saw that the thistles and thorns had multiplied. He thought, “How much time shall I need to clear and weed all this?” So, he lay on the ground instead, and went to sleep. He did this day after day.

When the father eventually found him doing nothing, the son explained his discouragement. The father replied, “Son, if you had cleared each day just the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly, to be sure, but you would not have lost heart.” So, the son did what the father said, and in time the plot was cultivated.2

I have sat beside the sickbed of those who are faced with the prospect of a long and difficult recovery. Maybe I’ve sat beside your bed. Sometimes I offer counsel, which is not terribly profound. I just encourage them to take it a day at a time, a day at a time.

That goes for one’s testimony as well. A day at a time… faithful to your calling as servants, seeing difficulties as opportunities for service and testimony rather than as obstacles, trusting that Christ is beside you, believing that he is your guide, knowing that this your church family will be praying for you… a day at a time. You see, when the opportunity (and remember, that is Jesus’ word, not mine) comes to give testimony of your faith, this building will do you no good. But the prayers of the people who gather and worship here will. A day at a time, looking for opportunities to share with others what Christ has done for us.

Another thing I often do when I pray is to pray for the day, knowing that this particular day will never occur again. Think about it: this is the only November 14, 2010 we will ever know. What will we do with this day the Lord has given us? Why not use it to look for opportunities to share our testimony through what we say and what we do?

It is the best way – actually, it is the only way – I know of giving testimony to your faith. Believe that Jesus will give you words and wisdom, and know that the rest of us will hold you in our prayers… a day at a time.

Lord, go with us. And as much as we enjoy these facilities in which we worship and study your word, help us to understand that even when these stones are gone, our testimony remains. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

 

Notes

1Roberta Bondi, “One Plot at a Time,” The Christian Century, November 2, 2004, p. 17.

2Ibid, adapted.