This Sunday's readings: 2nd Sunday before Advent

by
15 November 2007

by John Pridmore

NOW THE outward face of the Temple wanted nothing that was likely to surprise either men's minds or their eyes; for it was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendour, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays.

Such, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was the glory of the mightiest of the building projects of Herod the Great. But Josephus also tells us what the High Priest of the Temple wore when he went to work.

When he officiated, he had on a pair of breeches that reached beneath his privy parts to his thighs, and had on an inner garment of linen, together with a blue garment, round, without seam, with fringe work, and reaching to the feet. There were also golden bells that hung upon the fringes, and pomegranates intermixed among them. The bells signified thunder and the pomegranates lightning.

Why did the Temple have to go? It was, after all, a Grade I-listed building of outstanding architectural importance. No Diocesan Advisory Committee would have tolerated the relocation of one of its candlesticks, let alone its demolition.

For Jesus of Nazareth - his mind on these matters later to be reflected in the letter to the Hebrews - the reason the Temple had to go was that it hallowed and perpetuated a way of relating to God that required both elaborate ceremonial and a hierarchy of intermediaries, including the officiant whose mandatory accessories included the underwear fringed with golden bells and pomegranates.

Jesus spoke witheringly of those who went about "wearing broad phylacteries and with large tassels on their robes" (Matthew 23.5). He had in mind the scribes and Pharisees, who, in our terms, were laymen. The staff of the Temple - those "ordained", if you like - were even more pernickety about the proper ordering of the liturgy and the correct seasonal vestments.

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The Temple institutionalised an infinitely complicated and burdensome system of what was required to approach one's maker. The Temple made religion the way to God. No wonder Jesus turned up there one day with a whip.

The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple are seen by Jesus as a prelude to the end of history, the end that will be both history's conclusion and its consummation. When Luke's Gospel was being studied by its first readers, those portentous events had already taken place. Jesus had shown himself a prophet to be trusted.

We live in the same period of "salvation history". The first of the "last things" has already taken place. The Temple is no more, even if, sadly, many of our subsequent church structures can be seen as pathetic attempts to rebuild it. Now we live in the interval between the first and the final of those last things.

This is the era on which the second half of our Gospel reading focuses. It is the age when believers are betrayed by family and friends, when they are arrested and persecuted, when they are put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Jesus's predictions are literally fulfilled in the events Luke records in the second of his two volumes about the beginnings of Christianity, in the book known to us as the Acts of the Apostles. Again, his first readers will have registered, as we do, how clearly Jesus saw what was coming.

Betrayal, arrest, imprisonment, and execution: the writer of these notes confesses that such trials have not overtaken him since removing to Hove. Nor will they be the experience of most who read these comments. We are not Filipino Christians working in Saudi Arabia, nor are we among the tens of thousands of believers reportedly enduring torture and starvation in North Korean labour camps, nor are we Pentecostal pastors locked in shipping containers in Eritrea, nor do we run Christian bookshops in Gaza.

Nor does Jesus speak of the times when Christians have been the perpetrators rather than the victims of persecution - even if some of the horrors they have inflicted have been on each other. But whether the Church is persecuted or persecuting, it is always the Church at the cross. There we are either sharing Christ's sufferings or inflicting them. We carry his cross, or nail him to it.

The first of the last things was the destruction of the Temple. No longer do those golden walls blaze with the light of the rising sun. Now we must wait and pray for grace to bear what may be required of us. If the days are dark, it is the darkness before dawn.

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As George Macdonald used to say: "The light is only the other side of the hill." That promised light is greater than the light that touched the Temple with fire. Our Old Testament reading tells us to look east. There - soon - "The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings."

 

Text of Readings

Malachi 4.1-2a

1See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

2 Thessalonians 3.6-13

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busy-bodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

Luke 21.5-19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

7They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And Jesus said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

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9When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.’

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