Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Architecture of Faith: A Sermon

The following is a sermon. I am not usually inclined to publish sermons on our blog, but because the jumping off point of the sermon was the architecture of the temple, I couldn't resist. Hopefully, it reads similarly to our essays. The text is Mark 13:1-8.

Architecture has as much to do with religious buildings as any other sort of building. While we might think that architecture is the province of industry or residence, designing skyscrapers and houses, churches also see the need to consult with architects from time to time. They help provide insight on what kind of space engenders worship, how to best use natural light, and how to ensure that Word and Sacrament are at the center of our life together. Indeed, architects are vital cogs in a design wheel that have great influence on where we live, what our neighborhoods look like, how we feel when we’re at work, and of course, how our faith is represented in our houses of worship. 

Because worship of our Lord is among our highest priorities as a civilization (or at least it used to be), our worship spaces are often ornate, decked out with stained glass, elaborate pipe organs, perhaps even statues or inscribed stonework. The spaces are often large with vaulted ceilings, full of religious symbols like crosses, and of course home to the altar and the font. Some of the greatest tourist destinations in Europe are churches: Notre Dame or Sacre Coure in Paris, the cathedral in Milan, or Saint Peter’s Basilica. Those buildings may have taken a century to build, and often the best architectural minds in the world lent their considerable talents to get the job done. These days, in a world of scarce resources and the automobile, architects consult with congregations to plan and produce less glorious buildings, but buildings that continue to bear witness to the transcendence and majesty of our God. Lord willing, the result will be a beautiful space that draws people into reverence and awe before the prelude is ever keyed by the organist.

With all of that said, does Jesus tell us we are not to be impressed with such glorious buildings? In the 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus is teaching in the last week of his life inside the great temple of Jerusalem. This was truly one of the wonders of the ancient world, as early historians tell us that people traveled from many miles away to catch a glimpse of it. As detailed in 2 Samuel, Solomon built a temple fitting for our God, using the finest wood, stone, gold and jewels.

Since the disciples lived primarily in northern Israel and were poor Galilean fisherman, it is quite possible this was the first time they had seen the temple. And like kids in a candy store, they stood there with their mouths hanging open, thinking to themselves, “Golly, this sure is a nice building, huh Jesus?” Like Little Red Riding Hood standing before the wolf saying, “What big teeth you have”, the disciples stood before Jesus in the temple and proclaimed, “What big stones this temple has!”

“The better to impress you with,” Jesus replied. Jesus saw where the disciples were going, and he didn’t like it. It likely wasn’t just the building itself that the disciples were impressed with. It was the power the building represented; for the Jewish people, nothing epitomized power more than the temple in Jerusalem. It was the site of the holy of holies, where God himself resided. This is why Jesus taught here in the last week of his life, this is why he turned over the tables, this is why he saved his harshest rebukes for the Pharisees until he was in the temple. The temple was the seat of power in the Jewish world, and the disciples were probably thinking to themselves, “Hey, we’re hanging around with the Messiah, so all of this is about to be ours.”
We do the same in our own ways. Jesus becomes our way out, our ally in our salvation. We are set to inherit the earth because we have Jesus. That is true to an extent, but it is not exactly accurate. We are saved by the radical grace of God. But Jesus isn’t exactly our ally, because it takes two parties with a shared worldview to be considered allies. We are, more often than not, enemies to the cause of goodness, and only by grace are we saved, not the inherent goodness within us, as the disciples hoped. Did we get a promotion at work? “It must be because God loves me,” we say. Did we get the new house we wanted? “Must be because God loves me!” we say. Did you get into the college you wanted? “Must be because God loves you!” we say.

Maybe it is! God is the source of all good things! But our blessings are not rewards for our goodness, and the temple was not to be a reward for the disciples, even though they were licking their chops over that piece of real estate. We would do well not to emulate the disciples walking around in the glorious temple, thinking we are about to inherit it because of our friendship with Jesus. In fact, Jesus tells them just the opposite.

Following Jesus not only means for the disciples that they won’t inherit the temple that stood before them, it means a life of cross-bearing. For so long, the disciples thought they were following Jesus because he was the way to glory. But they were only half right. He is the way to eternal glory, there’s no disputing that. But he is not the way to worldly glory. The architecture of their faith was wrongly built on the gilded tabernacle, Lebanon cedars and heavy stones of the temple; the architecture of faith in Christ is built on two wooden beams, suitable only for supporting a human body.

It’s not just the disciples’ ill-conceived notions of power and self-glorification that Jesus addresses: it’s also the end times. This portion of Mark is often called the “Little Apocalypse.” But just because bad things happen, Jesus says, doesn’t mean it’s the second coming. You may have seen the previews for one of the worst movies of the year, the disaster film of all disaster films, 2012. Supposedly, this work of fiction is based on the truth that the world really will end on December 21, 2012. This is based on the Mayan calendar, which supposedly ends on that date. Jesus warns us about such movies, er, predictions. He tells us that many will come in his name, and predict the end of the world. But the actual end times won’t look like much of anything compared to the second coming of Christ.

In fact, wars and rumors of wars, buildings crumbling, and famines are just a fact of life for us, Jesus says. Some lousy pastor or conspiracy theorist will always try to capitalize on the human fear of catastrophe by saying that this war or that famine is proof of the second coming of Christ. Cult leaders have been doing it for centuries. That is a narrow view of God, though. Even the images of this new movie 2012, where aircraft carriers pile drive into the White House with a rising sea, and downtown Los Angeles collapses into a heap of burning rubble do not to justice to what the second coming of Christ will be.

See the disciples wanted control, which is why four of them asked Jesus in private what he meant by buildings tumbling down. They wanted the inside scoop so they could live without the fear of God’s invisible action. But Jesus doesn’t give in, and pastors would do well to do the same. We are not in control; we are not the seat of power. The architecture of Christian faith is not built on the ability to predict the future; it is built on the sure and certain hope that God loves us so much he gave his only son to earn a very costly salvation for us. That is about all we can count on for sure, and we don’t even have control of that. It is completely in God’s hands, thanks be to God.
For both of these reasons, because the power of this world does not impress God and because many will falsely come in the name of Jesus, we are called to a faith in Jesus Christ, and Christ alone. In our worship, we express that faith and experience that grace in Word and Sacrament. Far from a false or superficial veneer of faith, we have the scriptures, some water, some bread and some wine as the ultimate expression of our faith. We confess that these things are means of grace, that they are out of our control, and they are not crystal balls we use to look into the future. They are bearers of the promises of God, that even though we do experience difficulties, even though our relationships are broken, even though the job market is bleak, God has not forgotten us.

Sometimes, it’s hard to end a text like this, where the disasters of this world are written off as merely “birth pangs,” by saying, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But it is the gospel. How? Because Jesus is saying that the problems we experience in this life, the wars that we witness and the famines that we mourn are nothing compared to the separation from God the unbeliever will experience. Even though we are like the disciples and we long for powerful buildings and knowledge of the end times, Christ still loves us enough to die for us, to forgive us of our sin and to offer us a life of peace. We won’t ever solve the problems of this world; our sin prohibits it. But we can delight in knowing that our God has divine plans for those who partake in a life of Word and Sacrament, a life in which we give full honor and credit to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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