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Readings: 16 November 2012 - 2nd Sunday before Advent

09 November 2012


2nd Sunday before Advent

Daniel 12.1-3; Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18], 19-25; Mark 13.1-8

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 wavering.

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