Mark 13:1-8 | Hebrews 10:19-25
The Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus day was far, far more than a building. It was the religious centre Jewish life, the place that every Jew would try to visit, on pilgrimage, at least once a year for one of the great festivals, if they possibly could. It was one of the four pillars of the whole Jewish identity: One God, One People, One Law, One Temple.
But by the time of Jesus the status of the Temple had become more complicated, more ambiguous. It was known by this time as “Herod’s Temple” – for Herod the Great had invested considerable resources in expanding the Temple. Now Herod was a convert to Judaism, but had been installed as king of Israel by the Roman empire, so his loyalty to the people was never truly trusted, and the large stones and great buildings that the disciples speak of in Mark 13 were laid through oppressive leadership and ruinous taxation.
So while the Temple was a religious centre, at the same time, to many, it was a symbol of the realpolitik of collaboration with Rome; a centre of power for the Priests and Sadducees, who were prepared to work with Rome, but not for the Essene, the Pharisees, or the Zealots, all of whom saw compromise with Rome as a betrayal of their faith, their identity, their God.
So to praise the buildings was not an architectural observation: it was a political position. And to declare that they would be thrown down, even more so. To admire the construction of the Temple was to give tacit approval to Herod, and to the uneasy partnership between the Temple leaders and the Roman occupiers: to speak of these things being destroyed was to declare that relationship void. But at the same time to imagine the Temple being destroyed was to reject a central pillar of the Jewish faith.
And of course, it’s a simple fact of history that, within an couple of decades of the life of Jesus, the great stones of the Temple were indeed thrown down. The uneasy relationship between Jerusalem and Rome had given way to outright rebellion, and the Roman legions had sacked the city, destroyed the Temple, and shattered the heart of the Jewish nation.
For when the destruction of Jerusalem occurred – it was a cataclysmic event. For those willing to accept compromise with Rome it was a betrayal by an ally – a reminder that they were nothing more than an irritation to their imperial masters. And for those who rejected Rome, it was a salutary lesson in the destructive power of the empire. It was a story of Roman power, a story of the triumph of military might, a story of the rejection of faith.
But the words of Jesus, remembered and passed down by those who were there, allowed the early Church to tell a different story. A story that proclaimed “this is not the end”, “this too will pass”.
The early Church lived with the reality of rejection by their community and persecution by Rome. They had a habit of getting the short end of the stick: when the Jews were persecuted in the first century, the Christians were lumped in with them; but at other times they were singled out for persecution – emperor Nero lighting Rome with human torches being perhaps the most gruesome example.
But in all these times, there was a refrain within the faith, captured in the words of the letter to the Hebrews we heard read:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another
The response of the people of Jesus to persecution: hold on. Don’t give up. Don’t stop meeting, for you need one another. Don’t pull back into your shell, and pretend to be no different from anyone else – hold fast to your confession. And rather than getting defensive or negative, and rather than fighting back or standing on your right – encourage each other. Provoke one another to love and good deeds.
I just love that phrase – provoke one another to love and good deeds. Our translation today, “help one another” really doesn’t do it justice – the word in Greek, paroxuno, literally means to jab someone, to poke them, spur them on.
It’s as if the author is saying – when things look bad, when you want to hide, when no one is listening, hold on to your faith, keep meeting together, and when you meet, nag one another into doing what is right, what is good, what is loving.
That’s the calling of the gospel – bug one another into doing what is good.
Now there’s a caveat here, of course – for the Christian Church, in its institutional form at least, doesn’t always
have a great history with giving people authority to tell others what they ought to do in order to properly love and serve God. While a Godly leader or mentor can provide great help and assistance and encouragement, especially to one younger in the faith; and while parents, in particular, have a crucial role to play in leading their children into a well lived life, the history of authority in the Church has often served to illustrate the truism that power corrupts.
So in the light of that, I’d like to offer three simple tips for how to prod others into love and good deeds.
The first is right there in the words of the reading: “provoke one another”. This isn’t a one-way street. If it’s my job to prod you into doing what’s right, it’s also your job to prod me. Even when the relationship has a natural power imbalance, as with a parent and a child, the provocation to goodness goes both ways. After all, is there anywhere that those of us who are parents learn more about our own failings – or anywhere where we more strongly desire to be better people – than with our children?
The second suggestion is this: that we do not seek to provoke one another into doing the good we would do if we were them, but the good that they would do if they were true to themselves and their faith. Hold others, as it were, not to your standards, but to theirs. In the mutual mentoring of a mature Christian friendship this is about asking others how they are seeking to live out their faith, and then gently poking them to stay true to their goals. It’s a principal of alcoholics anonymous; once, and only once, someone has decided they want to stay dry, others can hold them to their word. Accountability, not control.
But I’d like to give the last word to Jeyanth, my son. On Friday night I was talking with him about the service today (I really was that desperate about the fact that I hadn’t even begun to write this sermon), and I asked him how he could, encourage Maya, his younger sister, to, for instance, be generous, or kind. Without a moment of thought he replied “by being generous and kind to her”.
We love, because we are first loved.