Tower and temple fall to dust
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
8 May 2016, 15:15 (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)This past week has seen some extraordinary images in our news reports:
- a bombed refugee tented encampment on the Syrian-Turkish border
- 90,000 Canadians fleeing the burning city of Fort McMurray engulfed by forest wildfires and
- members of the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra from St Petersburg playing Bach and Prokofiev conducted by Valery Gergiev in the Roman Theatre of the ruined city of Palmyra in Syria.
When our buildings are threatened, ruined or destroyed society and our individual lives are displaced and thrown into primeval chaos.
I have never been homeless nor have I been in an earthquake or experienced bombing or shellfire. Neither I would I hazard have many of you here today.
Nevertheless we know that building is part of our civilised living and our structures are evidence of the values, behaviour and order of human societies and culture.
For the nomadic people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our Jewish forefathers, there was no permanence in life – yet God spoke to them of a land and a place where they would belong and build a permanent home.
When Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, God’s law and the sign of his presence and promises was housed in the Ark of the Covenant, in a tent, the Tent of Meeting.
This was the portable place of worship that David and his successor Solomon promised to replace in the form of the Temple.
The significance of the Temple is still incalculable today in shaping human history and the world as we know it today.
Successive buildings and the destruction of the last Temple in 70AD (or Common Era if you are politically correct) have not diminished its power, and moral and mystical magnetism.
For those of you who are Freemasons, not only were your origins born in the craft of those who fashioned stone but the spiritual significance of God’s dwelling place as symbolised and realised in the Temple is very much part of your inheritance and practice.
In our first reading, Solomon asks:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
Yet he ends that God promised that his name shall be there:
Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.
In Jerusalem today, Jews, Christians and Moslems are all drawn to the Temple Mount and its significance through the passing years as a focus of faith, pilgrimage and prayer.
Sadly, Solomon’s last words have not tempered our battles and behaviour: heed and forgive.
Jesus spoke words like this throughout his earthly life, even whilst dying on the cross.
And his words in our second reading remind us that everything we build is but dust: the material world is in constant change, a change that erases even the seemingly most permanent of objects in our human experience.
It is something we generally don’t want to think about – the decay and destruction of the world and our physical end. Recently, Stephen Hawking has hypothesised that even in the almost unknown realm of dark matter and dark energy, black holes evaporate and lose their extraordinary power.
I am beginning to sound bleak but Jesus must have sounded like that to his disciples outside the temple:
Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.
Within 40 years, the Romans drove a plough across Jerusalem including the Temple site to signify the utter destruction of the city.
It would be reminiscent of the horrific with which I began this sermon.
And Jesus sees this as the beginning of ‘end time’ when wars and rumours, earthquakes and famines, even betrayal within the sacred intimacy of families would mark the birth pangs of the ages waiting for the return of Christ in glory.
The passage ends: you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endured to the end will be saved.
Today is the Sunday after the Ascension of Christ, an event that challenges 21st century people who read everything off the page in a literal and anthropocentric way.
If the world and all that is revolves around me and us, if we are the centre of all this is, then the story of the Ascension is indeed ludicrous and incredible.
In this fourth anniversary year of William Shakespeare’s death it is well worth hearing Prospero’s words towards the end of The Tempest when the finitude of the created order and the mortality of humankind is expressed in the soaring beauty of these lines:
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest Act IV, Scene 1
But if we are not the beginning and end of everything, and there is so much that we do not know and in one sense cannot know, then the revelation of God in Jesus demands of us to see ourselves in a completely different way.
Past generations have found this easier – perhaps because we today are more powerful, comfortable and confident than ever before.
It is hard to accept and indeed to learn that there are completely different ways of seeing and interpreting and understanding the world around us and the ages that have passed.
Freemasonry has acknowledged this in its language and rituals which unite divided faiths and creeds in a common brotherhood.
Above all though, there must be an awareness of the other, the holy, the divine.
We are not gods. We are dust.
We assume too much and ignore the inconvenient and self-denying truth that God is all and I am nothing.
It is quite simply what Jesus tells us: we have to die and be born again.
And that rebirth challenges the fortresses of our own importance and power.
And the Ascension of Jesus Christ is radical and revolutionary beyond measure in that the departure of Jesus’ physical form doesn’t signify his absence but his sovereignty and his claim to be lord over all times and places.
No one on this planet is abandoned and alone: Jesus Christ is brother, friend, lord and saviour.
Whatever happens, that bond and friendship is paramount because it is eternal, divine and love beyond measure.
This relationship though is not merely personal but it also social and political.
With God there are no ‘no-go areas’.
President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, Robert Mugabe and all other tyrants take note.
The ascended Christ is with all those who endure suffering for righteousness’ sake and love: all who are the victims of our godless and loveless inhumanity.
Petru Dumitriu the Romanian-born novelist wrote: Jesus Christ is always on the side of the crucified, and I believe he changes sides in the twinkling of an eye. He is not loyal to the person, or even less to the group; he is loyal to suffering.
Those are hard and challenging words but they resonate with what Jesus said at the end of our reading from St Mark: But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
And that is how God dwells on earth today: in Jesus Christ’s love that shows solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the suffering and the exploited. Freemasonry has practised this generously in its care, philanthropy and charity.
In Jesus Christ we become brothers and sisters beyond blood and natural affection: we are his body and are purpose is to serve him in the needs of our neighbour.
All else will fail: he is the true temple, he is our tower.
Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God's power,
Hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.
Robert Bridges (after Joachim Neander)