Sermon: the Bible–More than literal?–November 18, 2018


26 Pentecost—Proper 28-B/November 18, 2018

William Bradbury

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25, Mark 13:1-8

A few days before his crucifixion Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He is speaking about the destruction of the Temple which would happen 40 years later as Roman Legions put down a Jewish revolt. The Temple is the place where heaven and earth were joined together. The place God’s saving presence resides. And in the central sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would enter once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to receive the sure Word that God forgives the people. Today, though, on the temple mount is the stunning Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam—where Muslims believe Abraham ascended into heaven. All that’s left of the Temple is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which is better known as the Wailing Wall, where people from around the world offer prayers.

This is the literal meaning of Jesus’ prophecy. But since the earliest days Christians know the Bible has other meanings we need to pay attention to if we are to truly “Read, Mark, learn, and especially, inwardly digest them.” So in addition to the literal meaning, which is what fundamentalists get stuck on, there is also the ethical meaning of scripture.

Jesus knows the sacrificial system has become corrupt and he knows that the instinct to rebel against Rome will bring destruction of Jerusalem, therefore, he teaches his followers to practice non-violence as they seek to welcome the Kingdom of God. He says, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus knows the love of God cannot be proclaimed by the hatred and violence of people.

There is also an allegorical way of reading the Bible, in which we see the ancient events connecting us to events in our time. One my favorite novels by Nelson DeMille called Night Fall, is a fictional account of detective John Corey trying to uncover what really caused TWA Flight 800 which left JFK airport the night of July 17, 1996 and exploded and plunged into the sea 12 minutes later. At the end of the book, the answer has been found and the videotape proof is being delivered at a 9 am breakfast meeting at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center—on September 11, 2001. Our hero is running late for the meeting, but his evidence and the other players are there in the restaurant when the first plane hits the north tower and all is lost. We all lost something that day and we still feel it. Those towers were a secular Temple, a symbol of our nation as the superpower, and then they were dust, and, ashes, and twisted beams.

Jesus was not just predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but the destruction of all the temples that we worship.

There is also a psychological way of reading the Bible: in the first half of life we build a persona with which we make our way in the world. We feel invisible until in late adolescence we begin to paste on ourselves our achievements: So I build my persona by pasting on my college degree—I majored in religion—then my seminary degree, then I add ordination to the diaconate, ordination to the priesthood, vicar of a new mission, associate rector of a big parish, rector of three parishes since. I add to my persona the labels husband, father, homeowner and kid’s soccer coach. I even added the label Moose, when I and a couple of neighbors joined the Moose club so our kids could swim in the Moose pool.

I was building my Temple so the world could not only see me, but see me as someone significant. At various times, people would comment, like the disciples, on how nice the stones of my temple look. My persona was a public success. There is nothing wrong and much that is good about building  a persona as a necessary step in becoming a whole person. The problem comes, however, when we worship the building and think this temple is who we really are.

But Jesus says to our personal temples: “Do you see this great building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When will this happen we, like the disciples, want to know? Jesus replies, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” The ones who lead us astray are those who tell us how lovely our personal temple is and how successful we really are, thus leading us away from the necessary journey to the True Self, the inner Temple, where Christ abides.

When our temple is damaged, or found to be badly leaking, the temptation is to listen to false messiahs who tell us to build it back stronger than ever and thus we end up avoiding the Way of the cross into God, which Jesus calls us to follow.

Carl Jung, the great Swiss Psychiatrist, tells us the truth we need to hear: He says: “The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half is going inward and letting go of it.”

Franciscan priest and provocateur, Richard Rohr, in his book on this subject titled, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, says, “Sooner or later some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower. Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, lead to the edge of your own private resources.” Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

On one of his CDs Rohr says that during his 50 years of counseling parishioners he knows that when someone comes in and talks about how successful they’ve been in following all the rules for work, family, and church then the session won’t go anywhere useful. They simply want to be confirmed in how nice their Temple looks. But he says those times the person talks about some problem in their life that they don’t know how to face, then he knows it’s going to be a rich session indeed.

He gives the example of the devout Roman Catholic mother who has done everything right and believes everything right in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Then one day her adult daughter tells her that she is a lesbian and the mother doesn’t know what to do. There are no resources from her persona on how to talk about her daughter, who she loves with her whole heart, to people at church who will judge her and her daughter as failures and sinners. Her temple is crumbling and Rohr thinks to himself, “This is going to be a good session!”

Jesus says when the life we know begins to crumble: “This is the beginning of the birth pangs.” The birth pangs of New Creation, of the True Self, the awareness that we abide in Christ, just as Christ abides in us. The arising of the True Self that is not diminished when our persona is destroyed, as it most certainly will be,  by failure, sickness, old age, and finally by death.

Saint Ambrose in the 5th century says, “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Jesus.” So we are encouraged to read the Bible in all its fullness, so we might know Christ and grow up into Christ, who is the Eternal Temple where heaven and earth are joined together.

Therefore, please join with me in praying again the collect for the day, found on the first page of your bulletin: Let us pray: Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.