Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke
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.
LIVING and working at Durham Cathedral, I find it hard to
envisage a situation where the building is destroyed, no stone left
upon another, and all thrown down. The cathedral has stood for
nearly a millennium to the glory of God. Countless visitors
describe it as a prayed-in place, in which they feel (sometimes
surprisingly, even involuntarily) drawn closer to God.
We hear endless stories of people who did not expect to
encounter God here, but do so, and leave with their lives
transformed in some way. Were it to be destroyed, all that would
end, and many of us would face serious questions about God's
presence and power to save, as well as our vocation to serve God
through the ministry and mission of the cathedral. How would we add
it all up?
Herod began building his temple a few years before Jesus's
birth, creating a fantastic edifice that was still being added to
when Jesus was there. Although Jesus spoke before the fall of
Jerusalem and its destruction in AD 70, Luke wrote about 20 years
later, and his readers heard his words in the light of those
terrible events, when something built to be impregnable lay in
ruins, and the city at the heart of their relationship with God was
razed to the ground.
Faced with such faith-shattering events, being reminded that
Jesus looked ahead to them would help people keep faith through the
confusion. These words, astonishing and bewildering at the time,
were, with hindsight, words to sustain the faithful in times of
It was the comment on the beauty of the temple's stones and
gifts dedicated to God which gave Jesus the cue to undermine any
confidence in the buildings. These are hard words for people who
love church buildings that have faithfully borne witness to the
gospel over the centuries.
Malachi's call for reverence of God is always the appropriate
response, and his judgement on the arrogant challenges any
over-confidence in the works of our own hands. Buildings can be
profound bearers of the gospel, and the underlying question is not
about buildings per se, but about where our trust is placed: in the
splendour of the buildings, or in the God whom we worship in
Significantly, these hard words followed immediately from
Jesus's drawing attention to a widow who offered two small copper
coins to the treasury of that same temple; he commended her for
giving everything, more than all the people who gave some of their
spare cash put together. Her small, sacrificial giving for the
temple's upkeep indicated the orientation of her heart.
Jesus's words are a challenge to be faithful to God through
thick and thin, to be wise and not misled: in Malachi's words, to
revere God's name in times of burning trial; in Paul's words, not
to be weary in doing what is right. Then we need not fear the
fallout from desolating destruction such as that which Luke's
readers recalled when they heard Jesus's words read to them.
Cataclysm is not finality in God's hands: persevering faith is
still needed. Jesus said that, paradoxically, troubles would
provide opportunities to testify in all kinds of unlikely places,
for which meticulous preparation was unnecessary, since they could
not guess where they would find themselves. If they had radical,
persevering trust in God, he would provide the needed words. This
is illustrated by Paul's experiences in front of people he never
expected to meet, and his eloquence as the need arose: a tent-maker
instructed a king (Acts 24-25; Philippians 1.12-30).
All this should influence our prayers for Christians in Egypt,
Pakistan, Nigeria, and other places of persecution where church
buildings are destroyed. The contrast between the violent
destruction of the temple and Jesus's reassurance that not even a
hair of their heads would perish, hairs that were counted by God
(Luke 12.7), is stunning. The widow knew that. Therein lies our
confidence in God, and the basis for the exhortation not to be
terrified when trouble strikes. As we approach Advent, this is a
big challenge about our hope and our commitment.