2nd Sunday before Advent
Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18], 19-25; Mark
Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy
the works of the devil and to make us the children of God and heirs
of eternal life: grant that we, having this hope, may purify
ourselves even as he is pure; that when he shall appear in power
and great glory we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious
kingdom; where he is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
IN WHAT or in whom do we trust? The pre-Advent readings nudge us
nearer and nearer to its sobering themes of coming judgement and
salvation. Daniel's sombre vision of anguish and deliverance,
possibly recorded during the violent Maccabean period, encapsulates
this. Amid alarm, there is hope of vindication.
The collect, too, steers our thoughts resolutely towards
cataclysmic events preceding the coming of God's Kingdom, to which
Mark's Gospel has pointed from its opening verses. A natural
response is to seek security.
As Jesus left the Temple, someone commented about its large
stones and expansive buildings. We sense awe and approval; for
Herod's Temple was indeed big and beautiful, representing God's
presence among the people. Jesus did not condemn its scale, but
simply stated that it would be demolished - something as
unthinkable as predicting the destruction of the Twin Towers.
The disciples wanted to know more, but Jesus neither explained
nor answered their questions. Instead, he warned them not to be led
astray by others, or to despair at alarming events. His agenda was
different: essentially, whatever happened, they should continue to
live by Peter's recognition of him as Messiah (Mark 8.29).
Buildings such as the Temple carry meaning. Recently, I visited
the world's second-largest building, the People's Palace in
Bucharest. Its massive bulk looms oppressively over the city,
speaking in stone not of God, but of tyranny.
The homes of 40,000 people, hospitals, schools, churches, the
national archive, a stadium, and a monastery were destroyed to
satisfy Ceausescu's megalomania; 20,000 people, including
conscripts and prisoners, laboured on it. Although disturbingly
beautiful inside, thanks to the diversion of the life-blood of the
Romanian economy, and of raw materials and craftsmanship to its
construction, it is eerily empty and grotesque in its hubris.
Knowing that I would be writing this column, as I walked around
the tiny (but enormous) part open to the public, I pondered Jesus's
seeming non sequitur about large buildings and not being led astray
towards false messiahs. After the revolution in Romania in 1989,
demolition was indeed proposed, but, ironically, proved too costly.
Instead, it remains as a monstrous postscript to a toppled dictator
who built it to enforce his cult of personality.
Large buildings face us with theological questions such as those
about where we should place our trust. The Temple was destroyed. On
the other hand, St Cuthbert supposedly raised a mist to save Durham
Cathedral from Nazi bombing, a story that makes the question "What
about Coventry Cathedral?" difficult to answer. Mercifully, with
God's grace, the people of Coventry were not led astray when their
cathedral was blitzed.
The Temple, where God's glory dwelt (Isaiah 6.1-4), was the very
meeting-place of God and humanity, the focus of their identity as
God's people. But now, as Jesus's interaction with the Temple
mounted to its climax, he, the Messiah whom the Temple's religion
looked towards, was present opposite it.
Having looked around it, cleansed it in a way that symbolised
the end of its sacrificial functions (Mark 11.15-16), condemned it
as a den of robbers, sat "opposite" its treasury boxes watching
people put in large sums of money to maintain its large buildings
(Mark 12.41), now Jesus sat "opposite" it on the Mount of Olives,
from where he had first entered Jerusalem a few days earlier.
Jesus confronted the Temple geographically and in his fulfilment
of all it represented. The references to posture are significant:
in the Temple, the priest stood (Hebrews 10.11) to make repeated
offerings; both inside (Mark 12.41) and outside (Mark 13.3), Jesus
sat, a sign of work complete. All that remained was for its
curtain, demarcating the Holy of Holies, to be shredded at the
moment of his death (Mark 15.38).
At the end of the church year, we hear how Jesus opened a new
and living way through his flesh for us to enter the sanctuary at
the heart of the Temple. This is where Mark's Gospel has been
leading us all year; it is the foundation of our hope as we look
towards another Advent. As the disciples were charged, let us not
be led astray, but hold fast the confession of our hope without