Why do the people ask these questions? If we know what they want to know, that can help us understand Jesus’ answers. Jesus says, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” The people, who had been admiring the temple, ask, “When will this be, and what will be the sign that it is about to take place?” Do the people believe God literally built the temple? No. We know from other sources that in Jesus’ day the Temple has been under construction for sixty years. You can see the workers, right now. Do they think that it cannot crumble? No, they’ve seen buildings decay. They know that the Temple can fall. This question arises because the crowd thinks Jesus may have some insider information. It’s gonna come down? Like, soon? Should I leave? If I want to get rid of my in-laws, I should send them by the Temple what day? Or, they’re wondering if there is a point in going on with religious life, or even going on with life. If the Temple is going to be destroyed soon, maybe we just quit life.
If that’s why they’re asking, Jesus’ response makes sense. The Temple is not permanent, but the End is not upon us. You’ll hear of wars and live through wars. Check. Nations will fight, often for ridiculous reasons. Check. Famine. Check. Plague. Check. Still not The End. And, meanwhile? Life will happen. God is God of all of it. Luke more than the other gospels pushes these Last Things into the future. We won’t necessarily live to see the end of the world. We will live in our present, and God is God of the present as much as God was God of the past and will be God of the future. Is life overwhelming? Pulled too many directions? God is God, you’re not alone. Conversely, are good things happening? God is God. Rejoice, share the good. Jesus ate and drank with his friends and Jesus suffered on a cross. He was God in all of it. So, no, we will not be waiting for any portents. We will be living life, and God will be God.
The question about the Temple falling is not just about a building. The Temple is a complex symbol. The Hebrews are proud of their Temple, but it is also a sign of power backed by the Roman Empire. It was a big deal when Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem. Before that, God had lived in a Tabernacle (which is a fancy way of saying God had a tent that some priests dragged around with them). Now, God had a building. When Babylon knocked it down, it hurt every Hebrew. When Hebrews returned from Exile and rebuilt the temple, it wasn’t, ah, nice. It was serviceable. But it was theirs. It’s like where the White Sox play—whatever it’s called this week. Is it a great ballpark? No. But it’s theirs. Herod the Great began massive renovations, and turned the Temple into something dazzling, the sort of structure visitors would gawk at while Jesus walked by. They’re proud of Herod’s Temple. But…Herod was Rome’s man. He ruled because Rome wanted him to rule. He was long dead, now, but his children were still around and Rome was still around. And, let’s be honest, the High Priest is a Roman puppet, and also a jerk. So, if I’m a First Century Jew, I don’t want my pride and joy to collapse, but I want the empire and the high priest to collapse, and, maybe the temple is the price I pay.
The question, “When will this be,” could be, “Will we finally see the empire fall?” Jesus’ responds: all empires fall. The Empire is not permanent, but the End of Time is not necessarily upon us. Life happens. God was God before the Empire. God will be God after this Empire falls and the next one rises. Don’t lose sight of the fact that God is God now. Life happens. God is God of all of it. Don’t like things about the Empire? Well, sitting and waiting for it to fall won’t help. Maybe God’s got something you can do, now. God gave the early Christians things to do. They fed people. They created a community where outside distinctions like class and gender did not matter. They loved their enemies. And what they could not change, the prayed for. They did these things in their now, knowing that eventually not a stone would be left on stone.
When will this happen? Sometimes we today ask that of a building’s collapse. The facility at Trinity is noticeably old. There are shingles missing from the roof over the nave. Carpet and flooring are worn. Every summer we wonder if the air conditioning has had its day. Every rainstorm we look for leaks. We know God didn’t drop the place prefab onto the lot. Some of us knew the builders. Some of us know the repairers. And we want the building to be here for good. So, we’re putting money into a well-planned building project. (The work of the education wing roof has been delayed until spring. This is through no fault of our own. The roofer was very apologetic, couldn’t make the time they agreed. We are first in line in spring. The work is planned.) Money is being raised. We’re not waiting for the world to end so we can get out of repairs (though that is tempting).
And we don’t have to wait for God to show up. God is God of the Special Projects campaign. That’s maybe not terribly exciting. I think if I was going for God of something, I’d aim for something cooler. But, of course, I’m not God. God is God, and God is, now, God of our Special Projects. Funding that is a way we live our faith. It’s not spending money waiting for God. It’s living the faith now. God is God of the Special Projects. God is God of everything else we do here, too. Whether we’re talking a recovery group, scouts, a support group, education, staff in fancy clothes who get to talk at you in worship or staff in normal clothes who sit at a desk on weekdays, God is God of all of them. Supporting that work is not spending money until God shows up. It’s living the faith, now.
The church can be a congregation and its building, just as the temple can be the literal building. In the same manner, as the temple can be a complex symbol, so can the church be a complex symbol. The Church has carried the Word of God for 2,000 years. The Church roots itself in the very life and work of Jesus Christ. I would not believe in Jesus Christ without the Church. I could not say “the righteous shall live by faith” without my childhood congregation teaching me about Luther, who got it from Saint Paul, who got it from Habakkuk. There’s a lot of good history in the Church.
The Church also has a rotten history. The Church has a racist history. It imposed Euro-centric values on the world. Some churches fought against slavery, but some fought for it, and then for segregation. The Church has a sexist history. The first witnesses of the resurrection were women, women led early congregations. By the mid second century you’ve got some guy claiming to be Paul, writing that God commands women to shut up. We’ve got a classist history. Lutheranism grew up in the towns and cities of northern Europe among the middle class. So, we’ve focused the faith on middle class concerns, but not necessarily on those of other groups. The Church in almost every nation has propped up national interests to the detriment of Christians elsewhere. We are marked as forgiven people, but we specialize in guilt. We are marked as freed from sin, but we specialize in shame (and usually shaming about bodies, sexuality, or clothing).
So, yeah, I do not want to see the Church fall, but there is an awful lot I would like to see fall. When will this happen, Jesus? And his answer is, life is going to happen. God was God through all that history, yes, the bad stuff. While Churches were silencing women and enslaving blacks and beating the drums of war, God was still God and Christians were working for peace and justice. And God will be God when this is all over, however our story ends. Don’t lose sight of God being God now.
Because the work is happening, now. The work of being Church without the racist/sexist/classist/guilty/shaming baggage is happening, now. The work of removing the rotten parts—of “burning the stubble” as Malachi calls it in the First Reading—is happening, now. Maybe through you. We do not need to wait for The End. Waiting for a sign that The End is near, well, it’s like that line in the Second Reading: “We hear some of you are busybodies.” I love this. The Greek word is a compound of “around” and “working.” They’re “around working.” In the vicinity of working. Not doing anything. We’ve all known someone like that. Some of us have been that person. Well, that person exists in each of us in the faith life. We’re tempted to around-work the faith. We’re tempted: “Don’t actually do anything. Just watch for signs that it’s all about to end.” Don’t watch for the signs. Be them. Jesus says, “This is an opportunity to testify.” Show God burning the stubble. Church has been sexist. Lift up women. Church has been racist. Fight racism. Church has shamed sexuality. Celebrate sexuality. Be the sign that God is burning the stubble. We’re not just running out the clock until The End, here. We’re doing God’s work.