Sunday 33 • 15 Nov 2015

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Rev. Chris Udy

This is a reconstructed image
taken from the Arch of Titus,
which still stands on the Via Sacra,
very close to the Colosseum in Rome.

That panel shows Jewish prisoners
carrying plunder from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The seven-branched candlestick,
called the Menorah,
was used during Hanukkah celebrations;
the trumpets were used
to call Jerusalem to worship,
and behind the trumpets on the right-hand side,
the captives also carry a golden table
used in the Temple
to present sacrificial offerings of bread.
The arch was erected by the Emperor Domitian
to commemorate the victories of his brother Titus,
and especially his capture of Jerusalem
and the sacking and destruction of the Temple
in 70AD.

Jerusalem was taken
after a siege that lasted nearly 4 years.
The Romans surrounded the city
but couldn’t breach the walls,
so they dug a deep trench around it,
and used the earth to build another wall
to cut Jerusalem off from relief or supplies.
Anyone found in the trench between the walls
was crucified on a ridge above the city,
and the Jewish historian Josephus,
who later became, himself, a Roman soldier,
recorded that on one day
500 crosses broke the horizon
for anyone looking out from Jerusalem.
Josephus claims that more than a million people
died in Jerusalem during the siege -
the vast majority of hunger and illness -
and when the city was taken
fires were laid to break the stones
that had made up the walls
of the city and the Temple.
97,000 surviving citizens of Jerusalem were enslaved;
some carried back to Rome
to be paraded in Titus’ triumph,
but most sent west to Egypt
to work in the mines.
Jerusalem lay in ruins
for the next 60 years,
until the Emperor Hadrian ordered
that a new city be built,
called Aelia Capitolina,
with temples to the Roman gods,
in particular Jupiter,
raised on the hill where Solomon’s Temple had been.
He also ordered
that all circumcised men
were banned from the city, on pain of death.

Jewish people who escaped the fall of Jerusalem
fled around the world,
and in Rome the Arch of Titus
became a constant symbol
of destruction and blood and grief.
No Jewish person ever walked through it,
until the 14th of May 1948,
when the Jewish community in Rome
gathered to celebrate the establishment
of the modern state of Israel,
and walked through the arch together
in the opposite direction
to the way a conquering army would have come.

“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 replied,
"Do you see these great buildings?
Not one stone will be left here upon another;
all will be thrown down."”

Most scholars think
that Mark was probably written
during those terrible days
just before and just after
the destruction of the Temple.
Mark was writing
when the institutions of the faith were under attack,
when, for them, the most sacred building
in the holiest city on earth
was being demolished.
When Christians,
who at this point still read Torah and the Prophets
as their Bible,
started reading Mark’s Gospel,
the dust of that demolition was still in the air,
and refugees from Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee
would regularly have been arriving
into Jewish and Christian communities
around the Mediterranean Sea -
But there were already tensions
between Jews and Christians -
who were regarded as a sect,
and called the ‘Nazarenes’ -
Not long after this the ‘Amidah’,
one of the formal daily prayers
all Jewish men were expected to say
was amended to make it impossible
for a Christian to affirm.
So, by the time John’s Gospel was written,
in about 90AD,
the Christian movement had been cut adrift
from Jewish community and worship.

There are many
who think the place of Christian faith
is much the same today.
Religious institutions are crumbling
from pressures outside and within,
and what some Christians thought of
as foundational and essential to the faith -
church buildings, ordained ministers,
worship traditions, hymns and prayers -
even the Bible itself -
all those familiar things
are either under siege,
or being left behind as irrelevant.
For many of our neighbours
God and Church simply have no point -
for some, the Church has become
a place of danger and damage and hurt,
and they can’t understand how anyone,
especially anyone who values justice and compassion,
could look for hope and peace
in a religion that seems to be falling apart.

Some think it’s the end of the road for Christian faith;
and some Christians think
these are signs of the end of the world -
but Jesus in Mark’s gospel
says something different.
“Beware that no one leads you astray.” He says
Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!'
and they will lead many astray.
When you hear of wars
and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed;
this must take place,
but the end is still to come.
For nation will rise against nation,
and kingdom against kingdom;
there will be earthquakes in various places;
there will be famines.
This is but the beginning
of the birth pangs.”

“This is but the beginning
of the birth pangs.”

The Arch of Titus in Rome
now stands in a field of ruins.
The invincible Roman army,
and the temples and public buildings
of the city it represented
didn’t last much longer than Jerusalem -
and despite the efforts of Titus, and Hadrian,
and a succession of other rulers -
including some so-called Christians -
who did what they could
to wipe out the lives and traditions
of Jewish people,
they survive and thrive in communities,
not only in Israel and Jerusalem
but round the world.
Sadly, today Israel battles its neighbours still,
and the Temple Mount is still a battle ground
over attitudes and conflicts
that stretch back more than 3000 years.

The Christian movement’s roots and traditions
are profoundly and inescapably Jewish -
and Jewish Christians were as distressed
by the destruction of the Temple
as all the other children of Abraham -
but Christian faith
would very soon embrace and be endorsed
by the Roman Emperor Constantine,
and the Christian movement continued to live and grow
as Rome declined and fell.

In fact, the loss of Jerusalem
and the destruction of the Temple
was a resurrection moment
for the followers of Jesus.
With Jerusalem gone,
and the refuge of the Temple lost,
the early Christian movement
had to find and build
new places to live and worship.
They established important centres
throughout the Roman Empire,
east in Antioch - in what’s now Turkey -
and south in Alexandria, in Egypt,
of course in Rome,
and further north and west
into Germany, France and Britain -
and again, as the Roman Empire
was divided and Rome fell,
the Church was released and reborn again,
and Christian communities
preserved the best
of the world’s learning, and art, and music,
along with a few bad habits
and sad attitudes of the Empire
through what we sometimes wrongly call
history’s dark ages.

Each time, as the conflicts and divisions grew,
and as the stones of Temples and palaces fell,
something new was raised to life,
and the Spirit and purpose of God
found different forms and places to live and grow.
The way we worship and work together
would be very strange
to Peter and Paul and their companions -
but they would immediately recognise
the way we speak about Jesus
and the character and Spirit of his disciples.
The buildings and technology we use
would be a wonder and mystery
to those early Christian communities -
but, with a bit of translation,
they’d find our prayers and sacraments
carry the same meanings
as those that nourished and sustained them
through times of enormous upheaval.
No-one knows what the Church will look like
when Isla grows into adulthood -
but if the words of Jesus
are as reliable as they’ve always been before,
the changes we are now living through
with some anxiety and pain,
are not the end,
either of the world or of the Church -
they’re ‘birth pangs’ –
that’s what Jesus called them -
labour pains -
and new life is being born;
the mission of God is finding a new form,
moving into a new generation,
and the hope and meaning and peace
of the life of faith
will continue,
even as our structures and buildings
and rules and traditions adapt to a new world.

What that means for us
both together here at Crows Nest
and each personally,
is an encouragement to live
with the kind of hopeful anticipation
we feel when we hear news
that there’s a baby on the way.
While we’re tempted, sometimes,
when we look at the news,
to be outraged and overwhelmed
at the world’s brutality and corruption,
usually news of a baby
makes us think that, perhaps,
the world will stumble on.
When we celebrate a new life – like Isla’s -
we remind ourselves that there are good reasons
to be faithful in love,
to keep working for peace,
to look forward with hope,
and to find ways to trust and forgive.
If what we experience now
are birth pangs - labour pains -
then we have no choice
but to do what we can
to make and preserve a world
where the new life that’s arriving
is nourished and protected.
We have no choice but to work for a world
where brutality and violence
are confronted and addressed
so they can’t blight yet another generation.
We need to welcome, and bless,
and encourage that new life,
just as we would
if we knew that God was about to come to us
in the birth of a child – like Isla -
or any girl or any boy -
a new birth any day now -
and from any family on the earth
because that’s exactly
the way it is,
and the way that it always will be.