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Readings: 2nd Sunday before Advent

08 November 2013

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Malachi 4.1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19

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 trial.

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 them.

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.

 

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