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Time Will Tell

September 16, 2012

Bible Reading

In the year that the commander-in-chief, who was sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought against it and took it—at that time the Lord had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and the Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be dismayed and confounded because of Ethiopia their hope and of Egypt their boast. In that day the inhabitants of this coastland will say, ‘See, this is what has happened to those in whom we hoped and to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?’”

(Isaiah 20)


When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

(Mark 11:1-11)

Reading from Swedenborg

“And I did not see a temple in it because the Lord God almighty is its temple, and the Lamb” means that in that church there will be nothing on the surface that is separated from what is within because the only Lord himself, in his divine-human nature, who is the source of everything that makes the church, will be approached, worshiped, and revered.

“I did not see a temple in it” does not mean that there will be no temples in the new church that is the new Jerusalem, but that there will be nothing on the surface that is separated from what is within. This is because “a temple” means the church with a focus on its worship and in the highest sense the Lord himself in his divine-human nature as the one who is to be worshiped. Further, since everything in the church comes from the Lord, it says that the Lord God almighty is its temple, and the Lamb, meaning the Lord in his divine-human nature. “The Lord God almighty” means the Lord from eternity who is Jehovah himself.

(Revelation Unveiled 918)

Sermon

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Mark 11:11

If we read all four gospels, it is hard to combine their accounts of Holy Week into one coherent story. They agree concerning the basic sequence of triumphal entry, last supper, betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection, but they differ considerably in detail. It is striking, for example, that Mark and John make no mention of the cleansing of the temple, which has such a prominent place in Matthew and Luke.

Part of the difficulty, though, is surely due to some of our own assumptions. I suspect that most of us have a picture of Jesus constantly followed by all twelve disciples, which is not all that likely. Did all of them go with him into the temple? We are not told that they did. However, what we are told is no more than bits and pieces from what must have been a very full day, with crowds of people milling around and buttonholing the disciples, for example. Was the triumphal entry in the morning? If so, where did they have lunch? We are told of some teaching that Jesus did, perhaps enough to account for about half an hour of that day, but not much more than that. Just imagine being commissioned to do a movie of that day and being told that it had to be at least ten hours long.

Let us focus for a bit on this matter of the scene in the temple, then. The picture of Jesus overturning tables and lashing out with a scourge of cords is a dramatic one, but we need to see it in its proper context. This was a time when people knew that prophets were people taken over by the spirit, and the spirit could lead a prophet to do some quite unorthodox things. Hosea married a prostitute (Hosea 1:1). Jeremiah wore a loincloth for a while, hid it in a cleft in some rocks, and found it beyond repair when he unearthed it (Jeremiah 13:1-11). He shattered a potter’s vessel as a symbol of what was going to happen to Judah (Jeremiah 19) and wore a yoke for the same purpose (Jeremiah 27-28). Ezekiel took a brick and used it as a model of a city under siege, then lay on his left side for three hundred and ninety days and on his right side for forty days to symbolize the years of exile (Ezekiel 4). He shaved his head and beard with a sword, burned some of the hair, and scattered some to the wind (Ezekiel 5). Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years as a prophecy of what lay ahead for Judah (Isaiah 20). In a way, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, he simply presented his credentials as a prophet. Everyone knew that prophets and their prophecies were enigmatic.

If all this sounds confusing, that is probably appropriate. After the entry and the temple scene, rumors would have been flying, and we can be fairly sure that they would have been no more accurate than the rumors of our own times. Jesus did not help matters with his follow-up, either. He did not gather the core conspirators together to plan a campaign, or commission them to enlist the troops. He did not mount a soapbox and urge some plan of action. He just went quietly back to Bethany for a good night’s sleep, letting the turmoil take its own course.

That turmoil centered on a central tension in Judean popular opinion: the tension between the dream of restoration and the fact of Roman power. This is the age-old tension between the ivory tower and the boots on the ground, between theory and practice. The theory was proclaimed by the prophets in the dream of the return of the age of Israelite glory, the kingship of David. The boots on the ground were the boots of the soldiers of the greatest empire the world had ever known. The theory could point to the fact that the tiny kingdom of Israel had outlasted the empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Greece—quite a list. The boots on the ground just said, “That was then. This is now.”

We need ideals. We need down-to-earth experience. They will usually be at variance with each other, and they need to be in dialogue with each other for the simple reason that neither perspective sees the whole picture. Karl Marx spun a theory of class struggle that inspired thousands and led to immense changes, that overthrew a deeply entrenched, unjust, and seemingly omnipotent tyranny. The result, though, was far from the worker’s paradise that the theory foretold. More recently, perestroika promised a new era of freedom to the shambles left by the collapse of Marx’s dream, and once again, the promise has not been realized. The list of reforms and revolutions that have fallen short could go on and on.

The same story can be found on the individual level, as well. We have our personal dreams, whether of worldly success, of true love, or simply of security. We need those dreams, and we do what we think is needed to make them come true. Both personal experience and current research, though, show quite clearly that we are not very good judges of what will work. We have more than our parents had, much more than our grandparents had, but our happiness does not seem to have followed suit. We reach midlife, and things are not as they should be. Is something wrong with our dream?

Not necessarily. We might think of the story of the three little pigs. There was nothing wrong with their dream of security, of building a wolf-proof house. It was quick and easy to build a house out of straw, but straw was far to flimsy to bear the burden of the dream, and the first little pig found that out the hard way. The second little pig learned from the failure of the first. Sticks were stronger. They were not strong enough, though, as the second little pig learned. The third little pig learned from the failures of the first two and found the means that the dream actually required, which he would not have done had he not kept the dream alive.

All too often, though, we fail to follow this script. The story we tell has the second little pig look at what happened to the first and say to himself, “He didn’t use enough straw,” and the third little pig say, “That second pig didn’t get the message. He still didn’t use enough straw.” We keep using more of the means that have failed, not realizing that the problem is not one of quantity but of quality. What is needed is not more of the same but something that is not the same.

We are closer to our Palm Sunday message than it might seem. The Lord came to show us how to live in peace and prosperity. That was the essence of the promises of the prophets. Think of that as the wolf-proof house. Think of the first little pig as trying to build it out of money. That does not work. It is vulnerable to the wolf of greed and envy, and the more we focus on it, the more greed and envy it breeds. Think of the second little pig as trying to build it out of military supremacy. That does not work. It breeds fear and makes enemies, and the more we focus on it, the more enemies we have. Think of the third little pig as actually learning the lessons implicit in those failures and building his house out of mutual affection and understanding—not the kingdom of Israel, but the kingdom of heaven.

Put that way, it is absurdly obvious. It is hard to understand why we keep trying to build with straw and sticks, time after time after time, century after century after century. In the words of a hymn, “Age after age, their tragic empires rise.” It would be more accurate, though, to say that it is hard for us to understand when the message itself is so simple; and until we find out why it is so hard for us, we remain benighted.

One major cause of the difficulty is simply materialism. In its extreme, theoretical form, materialism holds that only physical matter is real, but this is an ivory-tower concept that fails abysmally at the boots-on-the-ground level. We cannot help but live as though qualities such as honesty and dishonesty, kindness and cruelty, hope and despair, are real. In fact, by its own standards, “materialism” itself does not exist. It cannot be weighed or measured. One of the most radical materialists of the modern era was Ayn Rand, and it is telling that her most widely read works were the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—not examinations of actual events but works of fiction—and that one of her expository books was entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. If only matter is real, then obviously we need to keep getting more of it.

At the level of everyday living, then, it is doubtful that anyone is a complete and consistent materialist. However, the material world is the only one our physical senses tell us about, and their voice tends to drown out all others. So we keep trying to build our houses out of money and power. The good people of Judea, therefore, dreamed of a Davidic king and the overthrow of the Roman Empire.

That dream had deep roots. By Gospel times, the reign of David was roughly a thousand years in the past. What kind of failure would it take to quiet the clamor of “the kingdom of Israel” so that the voice of “the kingdom of heaven” could be heard? What Jesus did on Palm Sunday was to embody all those materialistic hopes so that they could be plainly seen, and carry them to the cross.

The basic message is absurdly simple. Jesus presented it to Pilate in a single sentence: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). That’s not a difficult message to understand intellectually, but it took the pain of the crucifixion to convey the full seriousness of this message, to carry it from the head to the heart.

Watching the television ads by investment firms focusing attention on the creation and management of wealth, you have to wonder whether this presumably Christian nation has noticed the Lord’s commandment not to lay up treasures on earth. Those treasures, he said, are perishable. The treasures of heaven, the treasures of mutual affection and understanding, cannot be gained rapidly. Like the house of bricks, they take time; but they last—forever. Amen.

Prayer

Grant to us, O Lord, fullness of faith, firmness of hope, and fervency of love. For the sake of the gospel, may we sit loosely to our wealth and daily embrace you in the poor of the world. As we rejoice in your generosity, so may we give ourselves in the service of others, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole