Massive Walls, Barren Wombs
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Massive Walls, Barren Wombs
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today let us consider how the signs of God’s activity in the world are sometimes different from what we expect them to be. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus leaves the temple at Jerusalem. One of his accompanying disciples bursts out in amazement at the size of the temple buildings and the stones from which they are built. And truly they are an astonishing sight!
The temple sits atop a mountain and reaches up to the height of a modern fifteen-story building. Its surrounding walls run for a quarter mile
on each side. Some of the stones from which the temple is built exceed five hundred tons in weight.
Its exterior surface, white marble adorned with gold, shines blindingly in the Middle Eastern sun. The interior is decorated with gold and silver, crimson and purple fabric, and cedar wood finely polished. Its high ceiling rests upon great columns. No wonder visitors to the temple stare at what they see!
Jesus, however, says that soon enough this magnificent complex will be reduced to ruin. Not a single stone will be left on another.
Crowds of people fill the city streets and the temple courts, but Jesus recognizes that in time the temple mount will be left desolate. Magnificence cannot guarantee divine presence. Solidity does not mean permanence.
The disciples fail in their efforts to commit Jesus to a time table for the temple’s destruction. There will be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines– as there always are. But these don’t signal anything immediate.
A generation after Jesus, imperial patience finally expires and a Roman army burns Jerusalem to the ground. Where is God in this disaster?
With his people as always.
Judaism is transformed through this catastrophe. No longer is it centered on the temple in Jerusalem and the sacrifices offered there. The local synagogue is now the center; the rabbi replaces the priest. Here God is at work.
Christianity is also transformed. Its break with Judaism becomes complete. Rather than remaining an eccentric sect, the Church moves toward becoming a great world religion. Christians know themselves to be a new temple, the Body of Christ, his living presence in the world. Here also God is at work.
The Jerusalem temple appears built for the ages, but Jesus announces that its days are numbered. The old order is soon to die. What will come forth from this death will be new and unexpected life: both the Christian Church and Rabbinic Judaism. God remains active in the world.
Hannah suffers due to her infertility. Her husband’s other wife produces plenty of babies and constantly throws this in her face. Hannah’s husband loves her, but seems unable to fathom the depth of her sorrow.
Hannah ends up at the shrine in Shiloh. She’s crying, weeping bitterly, and talking aloud to God. Hannah’s a bit of a wreck, but she keeps praying. She wants a baby boy, and promises that if she has one, she will dedicate him to the Lord’s service.
She’s so distraught that the elderly priest Eli thinks she is drunk and confronts her about it. She explains her dilemma, however, and the old man sends her off with his blessing.
Hannah becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a boy and dedicates him at a tender age to the service of the Lord. So her prayer is answered in the way she hoped. That sounds like the end of the story. But it turns out to be the beginning.
The established order in Israel has become corrupt. Hannah’s son Samuel grows up obedient to the Lord, and through him God’s people enjoy a new start.
Samuel serves the nation by declaring God’s will and awakening their consciences to the need for obedience. He also discerns and anoints those called by God to leadership.
Hannah’s son Samuel is a marginal figure, a holy man who does not belong to any social, political, or economic class, and thus remains free from partiality as he challenges and consoles the people. Through this charismatic, prophetic spokesman, God remains active in the world.
A magnificent temple soon to be no more.
A barren woman desperate to become a mother.
God works in ways such as these. Out of unpromising situations new life emerges.
Signs of divine activity are often not what we expect them to be or even want them to be.
Our line of sight stops at the horizon, but God is already further down the road, busy with nobody knows what.
We expect the Holy One to work in splendid temples that impress the eye, through splendid events everybody hears about.
But God can work mightily through a single sorrowful heart in order to end unfruitfulness. God can secretly usher in the future by disrupting what we thought would remain forever solid.
“Beware that no one leads you astray,” Jesus says. “Beware.” Those who have it figured out, figured out about life, about politics and religion and relationships and anything else that matters– those who have it all figured out turn out to be without a clue. They damage their own lives and those of others.
What can we count on? The Holy One surprising us time and again. This is how we are kept from becoming stuck and remaining stuck. God insists on surprising us. Great is his faithfulness.
Such surprises include massive walls burnt to the ground and barren wombs that birth unexpected beginnings.
This is how God acted long ago in Jerusalem and in Shiloh, ending what had to end and bestowing new life in surprising abundance.
What is the Holy One ending among us? How is God renewing us, bringing to birth what we do not expect?
The God who answered Hannah’s prayer and outlived the destruction of Jerusalem, the One we worship in a historic yet contemporary place– this eternal God persists in doing unprecedented things and is far from finished with us his people.
We can accept that for what it is– both challenge and consolation.
Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.