Matthew 24: 1-3 – After sounding regret at Jerusalem’s unwillingness to take shelter under him, Jesus turns and walks away from the temple. His disciples catch up to him and want him to comment on this or that feature of that magnificent edifice, built 500 years ago by returning exiles and lately vastly improved by Herod. But Jesus, to say the least, doesn’t go along with their enthusiasm. Look at it. For a few seconds don’t let your eyes wander anywhere else. Is the scene fastened in your mind? Good, don’t forget what you see today, because it’s all going to come crashing down. I imagine the disciples fell silent after that.
For years, we’ve driven by an unused, delapidated swimming pool at the junction where Nonantum Roads becomes Soldiers Field Road. Well, last week I had to blink my eyes a couple of times because now that old building is G-A-W-N; in its place is a pile of stones.
I looked on the debris with some perturbation. Though I never cared much for that ugly building, a little melancholy stole over me at the loss of a familiar landmark. For at least a little while, I suspect I’ll feel a little disoriented at seeing the void where the building once stood.
Now let’s ratchet up that disorientation and melancholy quite a lot: imagine that you’re passing by the place where the National Capitol used to stand, and now there’s only a pile of rubble. How your heart would fall out of your chest! Because then, what would have been taken away isn’t simply a familiar landmark, but a place right next to your memory and heart and identity.
There are buildings and there are buildings. Capitols and temples (and especially capitol-temples) are loaded with significance. A building symbolizing ideas that are permanent and precious to you; architecture permeated with meaning derived from a hundred books and history lessons going back to your childhood; a place redolent of great moments and patriotic heroes and the whole national order. As long as that building stands (the abiding feeling too vague to articulate is), things are as they should be. “God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world.”
And when such a building is destroyed, all that it symbolizes – the tradition, way of life, order – comes crashing down too. And too, then goes away security and self-assurance.
With that in mind, now try to appreciate the range and weight of Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s fall. Certainly this isn’t a morbid or petulant retort triggered by the disciples’ admiration of something other than him. Rather, Jesus takes advantage of the disciples’ heightened awareness of the temple to launch into one of his longest sermons about the future.
The point of the sermon isn’t simply that a familiar building will unexpectedly come crashing down. Jesus is foretelling that the society soon (24:34!) will be completely upended. The way of approach to God, the pilgrimages, the festivals, the sacrifices, the familiar political hierarchy connected to the temple, the current comfortable and safe relationship to Rome: G-A-W-N. Yes, the usual rhythms, and order, and culture, and concrete depiction that the Creator is here and for us, and many more things beside: G-A-W-N.
So when the disciples ask “when will these things be [that is, the temple demolished], and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” – one suspects that in their mind these three phenomena were all presentations around one earth-shattering event – the fall of the temple. But our Lord will distinguish these three.