Hebrews 10:11‑14, 19-25
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple and checked it out, and then he left town walking east briefly down into the Kidron Valley before ascending up the Mount of Olives. He continued east to Bethany, a little village, just a couple miles from Jerusalem. Bethany was his base for Holy Week. The name ‘Bethany’ may mean “house of misery” or “house of the poor.” I’m sure that’s an association you make when you visit Bethany Beach.
On Monday, Jesus came back to Jerusalem and challenged the religious establishment, the priests and rulers by disrupting the Temple worship, activity ordained by God. Jesus drove out people who were buying and selling, overturned the tables of the moneychangers and sacrificial animal sellers, and prevented people from carrying anything through the Temple. He denied the validity of Temple worship and called the Temple “a den of thieves.” This so-called ‘cleansing of the Temple’ symbolized the destruction of the Temple, the imminent arrival of the end and judgment, and a coming restoration, a new and perfect Temple.[i]
Jesus had guts. On Tuesday, he came back to the Temple and taught. That’s the setting for today’s gospel. Jews considered the Temple to be the closest point of contact between God and his people, at its center the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwelt, where he was present on earth. The Temple complex, the meeting point of heaven and earth, reflected this prominence. It was an enormous structure, a breath-taking architectural and engineering achievement, built to shock and awe. Some of the stones were as long as thirty feet. It seemed as permanent as anything.[ii]
As they were leaving the Temple that evening, one of Jesus’ disciples, remember they’re a bunch of bumpkins, gasped and expressed his astonishment about the place, and Jesus responded, “There’s not a stone in the place that’s not going to be in a heap of rubble.”
Jesus said this as he was leaving the Temple for the last time. Again, he headed east toward Bethany, walking up the Mount of Olives. He stopped on the Mount of Olives and looked back over Jerusalem. It’s a magnificent view. Now there’s a fancy hotel at the top of the Mount of Olives, offering a dazzling view of the Old City.
Jesus stopped and sat down. The disciples were anxious, stunned by the prediction of the end of the Temple, the heart of Israel. They could not imagine their spiritual, cultural, or national life without the Temple. It was almost inconceivable that God would desire such devastation. The Temple was his glory, wasn’t it?
Take a moment and think of things you know, and rely upon, and love, and how you feel when things important and dear to you pass away: the shock, the uncertainty and fear, the sadness, the anger, the confusion. It’s a normal part of every life, but it’s a deep challenge.
The jittery disciples asked Jesus, “When is this going to happen? What are the signs that things are coming to a head?” They were getting agitated, enthusiastic, seeking signs of the end of time. To them, the destruction of the Temple meant the end of the age, the final reckoning, the judgment. We make the same association between the end of time and judgment.
Jesus tried to calm them down by making a couple of points. First, he said, “Beware of people claiming my authority. They will lead you astray. Don’t be distracted. Keep the main thing the main thing.” Israel had a long history of false prophets and deceivers. The church has a similar history as well, with even more variety and more insanity because there are more Christians than Jews.
Second, as in every age, there will be all kinds of difficulties: war, international strife, earthquakes, famine. These are a constant in human history. Don’t be surprised about the prevalence of evil and suffering in the world. Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Don’t focus your attention on trying to know when the end will arrive. That distracts from the main thing.
Jesus concluded this part of his speech saying that these calamities were like birth-pangs for the coming of the Son of Man, birth-pangs as the Kingdom of God, the rule of love, breaks into the world and becomes established. Think about that in terms of your own experience. Often our own suffering, our own experience of evil, may be what turns us toward God. It can make us understand our need for God, and we may become more open to God and God’s rule, his love.
Jesus gave this speech to his disciples Tuesday evening. Two nights later, on Thursday, he gathered with his disciples and celebrated his last supper, and he commanded them to “do this in remembrance of me” and to love one another as he had loved them. The Eucharist became our primary religious way to have access to God, to be one with him and each other. No more Temple. Now we have even more intimate access to God – he lives in us and we in him.
In a way, Holy Week was the end of the age. A new age dawned as Jesus rose from the grave, Jesus the perfected, restored Temple. The destruction of the Temple may have been a kind of end of the age, but it came with a kind of judgment the disciples didn’t expect. The good news: the judgment was not of condemnation, not of separating people from God, not of consigning them to Hell, alienation and suffering. Instead the judgment was to expand access to God, to make his presence more immediate, less restricted, to help humanity be closer to God.
But still today, when we think about the end times, when folks speculate about the Second Coming – a ridiculous phrase because Jesus is coming to us all the time, we typically associate the end with judgment that punishes, instead of judgment that expands and deepens our life with and in God. Jesus message to us: Look beyond our experiences of loss and suffering, look beyond evil running rampant now, and trust God. Have hope, confidence. As we heard the writer of Hebrews says, “Provoke each other to love and do good deeds, come together and encourage each other.” That’s our focus, our purpose, the main thing.
Of course, we can’t know the details of when the end will come or what awaits us at the end of time or our own end. But we can trust God and encourage and support each other, and we can choose to see judgment and the end not as darkness and separation and punishment, not as something to fear, but as movement to a new fullness and unity.
Perhaps it’s refreshing to know that 40 percent of people who have been near death have reported a common pattern: a sense of journeying through a tunnel, a burst of light, a sense of being in the presence of a loving reality and of being out of one’s body.[iii] Those who’ve come closest to death don’t report judgment and punishment, but love and unity.
I’m not usually much for stories of near death experiences, but last month, Newsweek ran as a cover story a piece by Eben Alexander called “Heaven is Real,” and it attracted me because it suggests we don’t have to the end with dread and horror.[iv]
Dr. Alexander considered himself a faithful Christian, but a Christian more in name than in actual belief. As a scientist and neurosurgeon, he knew better than to believe that there was a God who loves us unconditionally. About four years ago, he had a near death experience when a rare bacterial meningitis began eating at his brain. He fell into a deep coma for seven days during which his entire cortex, the part of the brain that controls thoughts and emotions, the part he says that “makes us human,” shut down. Current brain medicine holds that the cortex generates our consciousness.
Although Dr. Alexander’s cortex stopped working, turned off, he says that he had hyper-vivid consciousness during his coma, and there is no explanation for how his conscious was functioning and active during that period. He says that he journeyed to another dimension, “a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.”
His experience in that dimension, one that has been described by countless near death patients, showed him a world “where death is not the end of consciousness but rather a chapter in a vast, and incalculably positive, journey.” Yet according to current medical understanding of the mind and brain, there is no way he could have experienced what he did during his coma.
In the article, and also in his book about this, he describes being surrounded by super vivid aliveness and receiving a message with three parts: 1) you are loved and cherished, dearly, forever; 2) you have nothing to fear; and, 3) there is nothing you can do wrong. His near death experience revealed to him an ever-evolving, mysterious, and complex universe yet a universe defined by unity and love and “known down to its every last atom by a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child.”
He recognizes how extraordinary and frankly unbelievable, even delusional, this sounds. He mentions the looks of polite disbelief he encounters. But then says, “One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.”
The core of what Dr. Alexander reports is the heart of the gospel: God who loves us without condition, without reservation, without limit; God who holds each of us as a precious child; God in whom all is well. When we think of judgment, when we think of the end, our first associations need not be of harshness and separation but rather we can trust in love and intimacy with God.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.