I remember walking into the St. Louis cathedral in New Orleans. I was on a candidacy retreat during my internship year in seminary. I know there are probably other cathedrals and other churches that are larger and more ornate, but this is probably the largest one I have ever been in. And I can remember being awestruck by the facility. I can remember being awestruck by its beauty. I can remember looking up in wonder and awe at the architecture and decorations. It is one of those buildings that just make you stop and stare–which I did for several minutes. Perhaps you have encountered a building that made you do such a thing. Perhaps it is a church or religious shrine. Perhaps it was a giant sky scraper in the middle of a city. Most of us, at some period in time have felt such a thing with such human constructions.
I want you to take the remembrance of that feeling, and multiply it 100 fold. Take that awe and wonder and push it almost to its limits, and then you may get some of the feeling that is behind that anonymous disciples’ comment about the temple in Jerusalem. The temple in Jerusalem was a massive complex. From what we can gather from historical sources, it fully consumed 1/6 of the city of Jerusalem at the time–imagine a church building taking up 1/6 of an entire city!!! It consisted of 35 acres of land roughly a mile in circumference, and it could easily accommodate 12 football fields. The stones that made up the temple were absolutely huge!! Mark Edwards in his commentary says this, “At least a few stones measured 42 feet long, eleven feet high, fourteen feet deep and weighed over a million pounds.” Imagine putting that kind of structure together with no heavy equipment!! And it wasn’t just the size that made the temple structure impressive. According to ancient sources, it was extremely beautiful. The stones and decorations literally made the temple light up in the sun. There were ornate columns, gold overlays, and precious stones included in the decor. Arguably, it was the most impressive place of religious worship in the known world.
It is little wonder that as Jesus and His disciples sat on the Mount of Olives looking over this complex, one of the disciples remarked, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” We often are impressed by the work of our own hands. And when we combine that work with the idea that God lives in this building–we can start to believe things that are completely wrong.
I think that’s what is behind Jesus’ remark back to this disciple. For Jesus does not see what this disciple sees. He does not see the beauty. He does not see the immensity. He does not see the grandeur. Jesus sees something very, very different. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I can imagine the intake of breath amongst all the disciples at that moment. I can imagine them becoming bewildered. Destroyed? Torn down? This immense thing of beauty? No one would ever do that, would they? Surely they would respect the beauty. Surely they would respect our belief that God was there? Surely God Himself would protect such a place dedicated to Him.
But God does not see as mortals see. For we must remember that in the two previous chapters, Jesus has exposed the fact that what was going on INSIDE the temple was not honoring God. Jesus has exposed the fact that the temple was actually a robbers’ den. Jesus has exposed the fact that the temple authorities were more concerned with the worship of money instead of the worship of the living God. Jesus has exposed that the temple authorities are keeping the Gentiles from worship, and they are devouring widows homes instead of taking care of them as prescribed by God’s law. The facade of the temple might be an absolute thing of beauty, but inside, it is as rotten as it comes.
Oh how often does this take place in our congregations these days? Oh how often do people become impressed with church facilities? I mean, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people talk about church campuses that are huge in size–those mega-churches that have giant sanctuaries, book stores, coffee shops, gymnasiums, and immense classrooms. There is a sense of awe at such size. And I have also heard countless comments about the beauty of churches–from the simple white frame country churches to the ornate cathedrals, I have heard people remark about how beautiful church buildings are. I have had numerous experiences of people standing in the midst of a sanctuary for several moments in complete awe of how well things are taken care of.
But here is an interesting thing of note: despite the beauty of our churches and the immensity of our buildings, there has been a steady decline in church membership and attendance in our nation. Despite the millions of dollars we spend on our facilities to keep them maintained and beautiful, people are walking away from the church! Why? Do we suffer from the same thing that the Temple suffered from? Are we beautiful on the outside, but corrupted on the inside? Will our buildings be torn down to the point where one stone will not be upon another or one board nailed to another?
Let’s put that question on hold for just a moment as we continue on through the text.
The disciples as a whole were rattled by Jesus’ comment, and they ask Him about it. “When are these things going to take place and what kind of sign will we see?”
Jesus begins with these words, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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 birth pangs.”
Of note here are these things: there will be people who falsely claim to be God. There will be war and rumors of war. There will be earthquakes. There will be famines. Good intentioned Christians oftentimes point to these things happening and say, “Are we living in the end times?” Look carefully at what Jesus says about these things. Look at how He describes them, “These are but the BEGINNINGS of the birth pangs.” These signs and portents are not the end times, they are the beginnings. There is still a long way to go.
And Jesus explains further, “‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Let’s now return to my question before we entered the text. I asked, “Why is it that our buildings make people awestruck, but we are declining in membership and in worship attendance? Are we, like the Temple, beautiful on the outside but corrupt on the inside?”
Jesus gives us some of the marks of discipleship here. And they are not pretty marks. Disciples are dragged before councils and synagogues to be beaten. They stand before governors and kings and proclaim their faith. They are put on trial, and do not prepare speeches–they rely upon the Holy Spirit for guidance. They face division in their families. They are killed. They are hated because of Jesus’ name.”
Let me stop right there and ask you: how many people do you know who bear these marks of discipleship? How many people do you know who face such division and derision? How many people have you ever come across who were persecuted because of their faith and their relationship with Jesus? Personally, I don’t know of a single person who bears these marks. And I wonder what that says about us? I wonder what that says about the church?
Maybe it is a sign that we aren’t as good as we thing we are. Maybe it’s a sign that we put too much stock in the external things instead of the transformation of our hearts. Maybe it’s because we are caught up in worldly goods and worldly measures of worth. I mean, think about what kind of houses and buildings we admire. Think about who Hollywood parades on movie and television screens. Oh sure, every once in a while, you get a show like “Honey Boo Boo,” but let me ask you this, for those of you who watch the show: Is Momma June held up as an example or as something to deride? The world gets caught up in beauty, in power, in wealth, on all things superficial.
And there are many in the church who are extremely influenced by such things as well. I mean, contrast Jesus’ words this morning with the words of those preachers who proclaim, “God wants you to have victory in all your relationships; with your bank account; with your job; and with your health. Believe in Jesus and have enough faith in Jesus, and these things will be yours. You only need to believe that they are yours, and it will come.” Really? How does that square with, “You will be beaten, betrayed, and killed.”?
Let’s face the facts, my brothers and sisters. Society does not glorify a man who is beaten, bloodied, naked, and hanging on a cross. Society does not glorify a man who is betrayed by one of his closest friends, denied by his closest friend, and abandoned by the rest. Society does not like the crucified Christ. Boy do they like the resurrected one, but they do not like Him when He hangs on the cross, and the church doesn’t like it when it is persecuted. The church doesn’t like it when society turns against it, but when the church looks exactly like society, when those who are inside our church buildings look exactly like those outside the church buildings, then it is much more entertaining to devote yourself to sports, your job, traveling, and other such things instead of worship.
Which is why I think Jesus isn’t impressed with the facade of the Temple. Jesus isn’t impressed with the facades of our church buildings. The outer trappings are not what He looks upon. He looks upon what is on the inside. He looks at how we have failed to implement His teachings. He looks at how we demean one another and tear each other down. He looks upon how we fail to welcome the stranger; take care of the widow and orphan; and worry more about keeping the lights on instead of how we love one another.
In our lesson, Jesus condemns the Temple and reveals God’s judgement upon it–a judgement that would come to pass in 70 A.D. What does Jesus do when He looks at us? Here is the amazing thing. He doesn’t call down judgement upon us even though we deserve it. He does not call down God’s wrath upon us. Instead, He seeks to transform us. He seeks to make us as beautiful on the inside as we are on the outside. He seeks to change our hearts so that we no longer worry about the superficial things in life, but instead we concentrate on our relationship with God and loving one another as Christ loved us. And how did Christ love us? How does He change our hearts?
The writer of 1 John says it this way, “10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Jesus changes us by dying for us. Jesus changes us by pouring His love into our hearts when we least deserved it. Jesus becomes the Temple that is broken and shattered so that we do not become broken and shattered. He becomes this because He loves us so dearly. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”
And when this news hits your heart and brings transformation, there becomes a marked difference between you and others. There becomes a marked difference in how you live. You judge less. You love more. You become humble. And you are not liked because of this. You don’t fit into the categories that the world wants to place you into. You receive anger and hatred, but you endure. You do not worry. You know your place is secure with the one who died for you. You endure to the end, and you are saved. Amen.