Advent Sunday 2012 by Judith Smith

Luke 21: 25-36 – Judgement.

Today is Advent Sunday – the start of the time when we think of Jesus’ coming into the world, firstly of course at Christmas as a baby, and secondly at the end of time as we presently know it.

At this time of year we all know Christmas is coming – it’s hard to miss. The first time Jesus came to this earth is an event that has already taken place, and in one way or another, much of the world knows about and remembers the day, even if it does not appreciate its significance.

But Jesus has promised that he will return – today’s reading says, “…At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (v27). The date of this coming is completely unknown, but it is an event that will most certainly take place one day.

Near the start of chapter 21 you’ll see the heading ‘Signs of the end of the age’, but today I’d like to go back over nearly two chapters to put our reading into a rather wider context.  We’re going to think about judgement rather than the end of the world, although of course the two are closely linked.

All this section of Luke’s gospel is set in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. This was one of the most splendid buildings of the ancient world, constructed of white marble and covered in gold, but its real importance was not so much as a magnificent piece of architecture as in the position it held at the centre of Israel’s belief system.

And the Temple had a deeper significance than being merely the symbol of Judaism – for the Jews it represented the place where God actually met with man, in its innermost room – the Holy of Holies.

Luke wrote for a non-Jewish audience, who might not really have appreciated this, but he also explained that God is encountered in many places besides the Temple in Jerusalem. As Paul said when he was in Athens, “God …is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” (Acts 17: 24). 

In fact the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem came to an end with the coming of Jesus. The place where God is now encountered is within and among those who believe. 

Each individual is God’s temple – each of us has our innermost place where we meet him. The ‘temple’ now stands for our relationship with God. It may not be a very good relationship but it is our faith, our way of life – the ‘me and God’ as it were in each of us.

So, to return to Luke – At the end of chapter 19 Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem – the place that represented the meeting place of God and man in the religion the Jews of Jesus’ day had inherited.

 In view of what happened next, you could understand this visit in terms of an inspection by Jesus to see what the Jews had made of their special relationship with God.

 His judgement was that things were far from perfect, and that much needed to change. He threw out the moneychangers and those selling animals, but this was only the very visible aspect of all the accumulation of tradition, and the distortion of belief, that needed to be looked at, and then cleared away. 

Of course such an accumulation is not peculiar to the Temple in Jerusalem. We might all also find, as Jesus enters and looks round our own ‘temple’, that inner place where we each encounter God, that a good spring clean would be a good idea.

 So, as we look briefly through Luke’s account of Jesus’ inspection and judgement of the faith of his day, let’s also see how the same principles might apply to us and to our faith. 

The Jewish leaders demanded to know who gave Jesus the authority to suggest that anything needed to be changed in the way the Temple operated (20:2). Jesus told them the parable of the tenant farmers in the vineyard who mistreated the servants that the owner sent, and finally killed the owner’s son.

The Jewish leaders understood immediately what the story meant, … “they knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them”, and they “looked for a way to arrest him” (20:19). They didn’t like to be challenged like this.

It’s a common attitude in which we all like to have the last word – ‘I can believe this; I will obey that; but the other thing I am just not prepared to accept’.

 In other words we each like to decide for ourselves what we will believe and what we will reject, and that kind of pride could constitute a dangerous challenge to God’s authority. 

The owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ story said, “What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him”. They didn’t – their self-interest came first, and we too must beware of allowing our beliefs to become ‘me-centred’ rather than God centred.

The next verses (20:19-26) exposed another problem at the Temple.

 The Jews set a trap question for Jesus concerning whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They assumed that if you were loyal to your faith, then you could not be loyal to the state as well. 

Jesus’ answer told them that they must find ways of including every part of life in their relationship with God. God was not to be confined to some parts of life and kept out of the rest. Proper belief in God spills over into every part of life, and enables each part to relate to every other.

Next the Jews asked Jesus a question about resurrection, quoting scripture to prove their point. Jesus quickly told them that their argument was simply wrong because they did not know what scripture really said. 

How many times do people say, ‘The Bible says…’? Half-baked ideas of what the Bible says will not pass muster any more than ‘me-centred’ belief, or belief that operates only in some parts of life. Nor, as the next verses imply, will belief that has not been properly thought through (20:41-44), nor belief that is really all for outward show (20: 45-21: 4) be alright.

 All these flaws in the way belief should be come under the inspection and judgement of Jesus – each needs to be ‘cleared out’ of the temple of our lives, just as Jesus cleared the Temple in Jerusalem. The moneychangers and those who sold animals there were symptomatic of many other wrong and misplaced attitudes and ideas that needed to be cleared out of the place where God was trying to meet mankind. 

It soon became clear that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were not prepared to let their cherished way of faith and life be changed in any way, whatever Jesus said. From then on he and they were locked in a battle to the death. 

When some of Jesus’ disciples commented on the beauty of the Temple building (21: 5) as they walked around the area, he told them… “The time will come when not one stone will be left on another” (20: 6). The Temple and all that it stood for would be destroyed, and indeed about forty years later in 70AD, the Romans fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.

But by then some more of Jesus’ words had come to pass. In the battle between the authorities and Jesus it appeared to begin with that the Jews had won when Jesus was crucified. But in John’s version of Jesus cleansing the Temple he had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2: 19, 21). The physical body of Jesus was raised, and with it his new body, the church, came into being. 

There was then no further need of the old Temple as the place to meet with God – A dark room in an ancient building in one middle-eastern city was beginning to expand into the whole world, and to include many, many individuals, each being able to meet directly with God.

When Jesus returns all our beliefs and ideas about God and the world and life and ourselves will come under Jesus’ inspecting eyes. He will judge how worthy we are  - whether our ways and our beliefs are fit  “to stand before the Son of Man”, as the final verse of today’s reading puts it, or whether they will need to be swept away. We still have time to do our own inspection, and if necessary to carry out some spring-cleaning.

© St Bartholomew's PCC 2011