As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Mark 13:1
When I was just a girl, way back in the last century, before I had been to school and learned my letters or started writing essays, I went to Sunday School. There were lots of toys in my Sunday School. I liked the blocks the best. We had two kinds: there were the wooden blocks shaped like squares, rectangles, tubes, arches, and the occasional triangle; but my favorite blocks were the cardboard blocks shaped like giant bricks. If I was careful, I could stack those blocks over my head, or build a wall big enough to hide behind. I did not especially like for the other children to play with these blocks as I considered them to be my own, and for the most part, they left me alone with my favorite toy. There was this one boy, though. You may already know how this story is going to end. His name was Toby Zapalak, and while my favorite part of Sunday School was building brick walls, his favorite part of Sunday School was tearing them down. When Toby came over, not even one block would be left on top of another.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing my cardboard wall to Herod’s Temple. I am saying that I know something about destruction. My guess is that you do too.
I did not stop building things when I grew up and left my toys behind. I have continued building one thing or another: a relationship, a career, a future, boundries. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not. And sometimes a mean boy comes along and knocks down my great creation. Yet, I keep building. “Just look, Jesus,” I sometimes say. “Look how magnificent it is!” And, you know what? There is nothing wrong with building something magnificent. Whether it’s a great temple or cathedral, or a business, a family, or a future. It’s part of our nature to create and make things. It is this work of building, in fact, where we learn to care for one another, to dream together, to sacrifice for the greater good. It’s a laboratory for love, basically.
The things we build, though, no matter how magnificent, fall down. It is heartbreaking when the thing we have poured our hopes and energy into is gone, but sometimes we face a life where the stones which once stood so sure and strong are toppled over. The question we have to ask ourselves is how to rebuild.
The temple in today’s reading is not the first temple. There was one before this one which was built by Solomon. It was destroyed in 587 BC by Nebuchadnezzar, and it was a long time before it was rebuilt. The new temple, the one in today’s reading, was built by Herod who wanted an even grander temple. For all his building, though, and building went on for 80 years on the outer buildings, it was destroyed too.
When Jesus spoke about the destruction of this temple, he may have intended to speak about the physical stones. Certainly, they were toppled. The gold melted, you see, and it seeped between the stones. People pried the stones up so they could pilfer the gold. But, Jesus may have intended to point out some different things. For example, the Holy of Holies was empty, the office of high priest was a joke, and the once-solid stones of Torah and mitzvot had already crumbled to the ground. The reason that this temple remains in ruins is because it was never worth re-building.
The life force of the Israelites, the ark of the covenant, was never part of this temple. The spirit of God was not among the people, the way it was in Solomon’s temple. Nobody knows for sure where the ark of the covenant is today, though there is no shortage of speculation. There’s a story in the Talmud about it, though. The story is that a man found a loose stone on the temple mount. After he worked the stone for awhile and began poking around he realized that it was where the ark of the covenant was hidden. He immediately went off to tell the others and he died on the way. It is, therefore, thought that the time for the rediscovery of the ark has not come. Judaism doesn’t mind telling us not to bother thinking about things which are none of our business, and this would seem to be one of them. But, a dull, forced religious life, devoid of spirit, is one of the stones that came crashing down that day in 70 AD.
The whole business of the priesthood wasn’t working out very well in Herod’s temple either. During the four-hundred plus years of Solomon’s temple there were only 18 high priests. During the four-hundred plus years of Herod’s temple, though, there were over 300! This is sometimes attributed to the fact that it had become a political post. That may be part of it. But, if we follow the story, we know that the high priest had to go into the Holy of Holies every year on Yom Kippur and be in the presence of Yahweh. The thing is, only the pure in heart would be able to live through such an experience and so a lot of them died. In fact, during the second temple period, they started tying a rope around the high priest before he went in, in case they had to pull his body out of the Holy of Holies. Why would anybody want a job that would kill them? Well, maybe like some of us, they really believed they were that pure. Belief in one’s own purity is one of the stones that came toppling down when the temple was destroyed.
The other thing that made this temple not worth rebuilding is that it had never sustained the general spiritual health of the people. The evidence of this is that there were no more prophets. Lately a lot of Christians have taken to reducing prophecy to truth-telling, but they are actually different things. An individual can stand up and speak truth to power, and in our culture where individual achievement is so prized, it happens quite a lot, and thank God it does. You can call those people prophets if you want to, but they are not. That’s a different thing, and one of the main differences is that prophecy depends on the spiritual strength of the whole community. You can not become a prophet by yourself. The Talmud says that there were some people during this time who might have been prophets, but they were unable to reach that level because the general spiritual level of the community was so low. That’s not all, of course, but I do think it’s the most important distinction. The spiritual death spiral of a community is the last stone that came down with the temple. In destruction, Israel was saved from a system that wasn’t working and it was set on a new path.
Today we remember two temples. One was worth rebuilding, and the other was not. Not yet, anyway. We can revel in the historicity of these great buildings or we can turn our attention to the things that we build, the things in our lives which have been destroyed, and whether or not we want to rebuild.
I don’t know about you, of course; but I’ve got things I’m building. You probably do too. Maybe you built something and it got knocked down, or the sure and strong ideas which once held things together for you are lying on the ground. there are some things which you should rebuild, they are worth it. There are other things you should walk away from, let yourself be free to go a different direction. But, whatever you put your love and your energy into, you should remember that it is the work of learning to care for one another, to dream together, to sacrifice for the greater good that make it worth doing. If it’s not about the love, it’s just a pile of rocks.