Systems Failing

alan_lee_-_riddles_in_the_dark

This sermon was delivered on November 13, 2016.

Luke 21:5-19

I begin today’s homily with a riddle:

This thing all things devours:

Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;

Gnaws iron, bites steel;

Grinds hard stones to meal;

Slays king, ruins town,

And beats high mountain down.

It comes from a famous riddle dual in English literature; more specifically, from the fifth chapter of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins and Gollum meet for the first time, and square off.

They pose riddles to each other, in turn, until one of them gets the wrong answer.  If Bilbo wins, why, Gollum will show him the way out of the cave in which he is now lost.  But if Gollum wins, he will eat Bilbo—or so he threatens.

Now it’s Gollum’s turn; and he poses this riddle.  (Repeat.)

What is this thing?

Is it an army?  I suppose an army slays kings, ruins towns, and even beats high mountains down.  The Roman army, for sure, was a force to be reckoned with.  Still, can you say that armies devour birds, beasts, trees, and flowers?  What about gnawing iron, or grinding stones to sand?

Maybe it’s a natural disaster.  Yeah.  Disasters have been known to turn stones to sand, especially tsunamis and hurricanes.  And a hurricane certainly ruins towns and devours birds and beasts.  But gnawing iron?  Ruining kings?

Hmm.

Well, why don’t we set that aside for the time being? We’ll come back to it later, I promise.  But for now I want to engage in a different kind of mental exercise.  Now, let’s imagine ourselves taking a tour of Washington, DC; and let’s imagine that our tour guide is Bishop Mathes.

And there we are, taking it all in.  The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument—all in its intimidating beauty.  This is stability.  This is security.  Just looking at all this solid, changeless architecture is enough to tell us our country is solid and unchanging.  It’s built to endure, to stand the test of time.  This visit is enough to say, “Our country and especially the freedom for which it stands is permanent.”

But then the bishop says something like this: “Do you see all this beauty, all these magnificent buildings?  What if I were to tell you that they would all be destroyed within a generation?  I had a vision last night.  Within a generation, leaders of our own army will come in, take over, and destroy everything you see right here before our eyes.  All will be razed.  Nothing will be left standing.”

What would you think?

Now, admittedly, this isn’t so hard to imagine.  Prophets of doom stand on street corners all the time, holding or shouting out messages of death, doom, and destruction.  In fact, I am willing to wager that this very morning just such prophets were standing on street corners preaching their doom and gloom in DC.

But the bishop?  He’s a little more sensible, isn’t he?

So, to tax our brains a little more, now let’s imagine that it’s several years later and it actually happens.  Just as the bishop said, our own army comes in, takes over, and destroys everything.  All the buildings are razed.  And we realize that it’s just as the bishop said, down to the last, fine detail.

Would this be at all disconcerting?

When some people were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The Temple Mount in Jesus’ day was a lot like Washington, DC in our day.

It wasn’t just a Jewish thing, you know, for them, those people, to worship as they do with all their animal sacrifices and other peculiarities.  No!  The temple, the Temple, Herod’s Temple, was a building of incredible significance, sanctioned by the Emperor, an architectural wonder of the ancient world, a source of Roman pride, as well as Jewish.

Herod began its construction in 19 BCE.  During his building campaign, he more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount.

The temple itself was wonderful, completed in about eighteen months, and, yes, was the principal place of worship for the Jews.  But Herod’s building plan included colonnades around the temple, a lot like an outdoor mall, where activities like buying, selling, teaching, and speech-making occurred daily.

In fact, so extensive was this project that it was not completed until the reign of Nero, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, some eighty years after construction had begun.

The Temple Mount was solid, immovable, built to endure, to stand the test of time.  It represented the Roman and Hellenistic ideology of solidarity in diversity.

And like a prophet of doom and gloom on a street corner, Jesus looks at it and says, “Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Was this at all disconcerting?

How about a few years later?  Was it disconcerting in 70 CE, less than a decade after Nero completed Herod’s magnificent building project, when the Temple Mount was completely destroyed?  Was it disconcerting that, in some serendipitous fit of cosmic irony, it was in fact destroyed by the Roman army, the army of the same empire that had just completed building it?  Was it disconcerting that it happened just as Jesus had said?

Yes!  Especially if your faith was in government.

So: I think now’s a good time to return to Gollum’s riddle.

The answer is time.  Time is the thing that devours all other things, whether birds, beasts, trees, flowers, steel, iron, hard stones, kings, cities, high mountains, or even Temple Mounts and White Houses.

Look, we live in a tremendous country.  We experience wonderful freedoms.  We have a government that is vitally concerned about protecting these freedoms.  We have a military that is unlike any other in the world.  I for one am extremely grateful to be an American citizen.

But I don’t have to remind you that every great civilization in the history of the world rises and falls.  In our history books we read about the Medes and Persians; the Greeks; the Romans; the Ottomans; the Turks; the Plantagenets; the Tudors; the Huns; even the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  Yet all of these are no more.  Time has a way of putting an end to all things.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, our great nation will one day cease to be great too, just like all the others.

Is this disconcerting?

Are you frightened as you look around?  Do the changing world events terrify you?  Do wars and rumors of wars; reports of ISIS; another headline of another senseless shooting; nuclear tests in North Korea—do these kinds of things send jolts of fear down your spine?  Do you ever wonder if we might actually witness something as significant as the destruction of the Temple Mount in our own lifetimes?

We have good reason to fear.  Just like the disciples in the time of Jesus, we have a lot to be afraid of.   There will be wars, insurrections, natural disasters, and false leaders.  Nation will rise up against nation—in other words, race against race.  There will be earthquakes and other destructive natural disasters; and maybe even dreadful portents in the heavens.  These things will happen.  Jesus doesn’t try to skirt around it.  And this is scary stuff!

But there’s another side to it.

It’s all disconcerting, yes, if we place our faith in government.  We know this.  Luke knew it too.

And we can add to the picture a little bit: it’s not just government.  We can talk about any established system—the church, the company you work for, relationships.  Regardless of how solid and stable any system appears, there’s always the possibility of instability, erosion, and failure.

And this is disconcerting!

But here’s maybe something we don’t know, something maybe we can learn from Luke today.

Luke wrote his biography of the life of Jesus looking backwards.  That is, when we hear today’s account of Jesus foretelling the future—looking at all the parts of the Temple that will be destroyed—by the time Luke actually wrote it all down, the Temple already was destroyed—the future Jesus was foretelling was actually already in the past.

You know why he did this?  He did this in order to tell his readers—in order to tell us—yes, it is all disconcerting; but there is something in which we can put our faith—someone—who is stable where everything else is not; someone who endures, who stands the test of time; who is the one thing Gollum’s wicked riddle cannot destroy.

And that someone is Jesus.

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