2nd Sunday Before Advent ~ Shaking the stonework of the Castles of our Souls
One of the places we visited in Jordan the other week was Machaerus – a now ruined castle strategically placed on top of a hill not far from the Dead Sea. It was built by the Hasmonean king, Alexander Jannaeus (104 -78 BC) in around 90 BC. Destroyed by the Roman general Gabinius in 57 BC, it was rebuilt in 30 BC by Herod the Great and used as a military base to safeguard his territories east of the Jordan. When Herod the Great died, the fortress passed to his son, Herod Antipas, who ruled from 4 BC until 39 AD. To put this in perspective: it was Herod the Great who was King at the birth of Jesus but Herod Antipas who ruled for most of Jesus’ life. And it was he who imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist there.
Herod Antipas was deposed in 39 AD and Herod Agrippa I held the castle until his death in 44 AD, after which it came under Roman control. The first Jewish revolt of 66 AD managed to capture it, but the Roman legate Lucilius Bassus besieged Machaerus in 72 AD. He built an embankment and a ramp in order to attack with siege engines but when they saw them the Jewish rebels surrendered. Perhaps unusually, the rebels were allowed to leave unharmed but the fortress was torn down, leaving only the foundations intact to this day. And we were there 2 weeks ago, and even though there is little left to see, it is an evocative place that connects Biblical and military history and leaves one with no doubt about the authenticity of the stories we know and of the political and religious troubles that Jesus himself lived through and preached to.
He also used the buildings around him as illustrations for his sermons, just as I have done. For Jesus understood buildings. We popularly believe that his earthly father Joseph was a carpenter. That isn’t really true – there wasn’t much wood to work with if you think about it, and Joseph, who taught his son his trade, was what is called in Greek tecton, a stonemason. Joseph would have worked in stone as well as wood, and probably spent time building houses, perhaps at the nearby Roman settlement of Sephoris. So Jesus’ trade was not carpentry, as some romantic ideas would have it, ‘skilled at the plane and the lathe’, as the hymn puts it, but he was actually a stonemason. Which means of course, then when talking about cornerstones, and having the large stones pointed out to him by the disciples as in today’s gospel reading, not only did Jesus know what he was talking about, they knew that he knew what he was talking about. They were fisherman, and just as they might be able to tell him which fish tastes good, Jesus knew about stones, whether they would stand the test of time, whether they had been cut, erected or established well. He tells them elsewhere that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, a reference to himself as unlikely saviour.
But here and now, he is predicting the Jewish revolt I mentioned, which kicked off in Jerusalem and which led to the Romans destroying Herod’s great temple in 70 AD.
For when Herod the Great became King in 37 BC he began to make plans for the construction of a new Temple. By the time Jesus was born, the main sanctuary area was complete, with the whole project being completed in 64 AD. Its glory was short-lived, and its history forms part of the problematic middle east history that is still being played out and disputed this very day in Israel and Gaza. For having been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, only the Western (‘wailing’) wall remains today, and remains a focus for Jewish nationalism, articulated in a desire to rebuild the Temple that was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago.
And it was indeed magnificent: the largest stones, referred to in today’s gospel weighed up to 400 tonnes each and were 12 metres. (39 ft) long! Their sheer size is bewildering, but when Jesus uses it as a metaphor for the coming of the Kingdom, it becomes a terrifying image.
The religious leaders of the day would have understood the imagery, the physical immediacy of the very stones Jesus is pointing to, and they knew the Psalms. Jesus is effectively insulting holy history, holy scripture and the holy building. Everything they stand for will be destroyed, he says, and that will of course look like and feel like judgment from on high. The world was changing - for good.
For they were living in the past, clinging to old ideas and old stones, which like them were immoveable. Yet with God in Christ all things are possible, and the stones and the people of God will be moved, and Jesus himself will be raised up after the resurrection. The future was to be in Christ, and it was happening around them. And the destruction of the temple would not in itself matter much, because, now God has been revealed in Christ, it is Jesus himself who is the new Temple, who will raised up on the third day, and who will become the foundation of the faith, rather than some massive, but unnecessary building. In his flesh, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, he has removed the veil of the temple, giving access – and salvation – to all. For God does not live in a house or temple – he is not confined to some grandiose edifice, but dwells in Christ, and by his spirit lives on in us, in bread and wine even today.
Nevertheless, it is very disconcerting – even threatening when someone suggests to you that the fabric of your world is going to come toppling down around you. That’s true physically and emotionally – literally and metaphorically. We all have structures built around us – structures which we have built, in association with our family and friends. These castles of the soul are emotional and psychological structures that keep out what we want kept out, and keep in what we want kept in. And for most of the us, the walls and ramparts and defences we build are never quite complete, and often, just as we are putting the finishing touches on one dimension of our lives, another begins to crumble, need maintenance, or even fall down. Ageing, bereavement sickness, redundancy, - any kind of change, can damage the walls, or even undermine the foundations of our defences. And occasionally, if things get really stressful, the walls come tumbling down around us.
And the same is true for society and for the church. Perhaps we look forward to change, with the arrival of a new Archbishop in the New Year, or perhaps we wonder what it’ll mean. Society is certainly changing, and the church is under pressure to do so too. On Tuesday there will be a vote which will probably seal the fate of female bishops, that is, a momentous decision will be made, which will probably elicit every possible response from ‘about time too’, to ‘the world as we know it is about to end’. Some walls are about to come tumbling down, and some foundations shaken in that direction, for sure.
Meanwhile the foundations of Christian marriage are being shaken – a demonstration in France yesterday and this week a man won his case against wrongful demotion because he politely expressed the view that marriage is a religious concept that does not encompass two folk of the same gender. Even the gay rights folk felt it was not acceptable for someone to be so harshly published for having a view and expressing it privately. Yet the idea that two men, or two women could be married certainly does shake the walls of many people’s interior castles, and they want to keep that thought out.
We live in changing times, and the only thing that hasn’t changed, is the fact that we live in changing times. And if you think that I’m referring to post-modernism, then I’m afraid you’re just not keeping up. Post-modernism is so passé, indeed so too is post-post-modernism.
No, today is the age whose thinking is dominated by the thinking of Generation Y (the children of Generation X, who are themselves the children of the baby-boomers). Today is Post–secular, Post-self, Post-normal, Post-empire and perhaps most tellingly, Post-finance. Ideas about normality, colonialism, self-hood, even secularism and now about money, are on the way out, and new ideas and structures are being fashioned by a generation who have shifted from rationalism to trans-rationalism. That is to say we can now choose what is truth. The heart rules the head, and most knowing is done through personal experience.
In a world driven by consumerism and information technology, it is perfectly possible to hold chaos theory and religious fundamentalism together. Perfectly possible, as the Taliban demonstrated, to use mobile phones to detonate bombs, while advocating that girls should not be educated. Old thinking deplores this as irrational, contradictory and wrong, but what is interesting and scary is that new thinking does not characterize much at all as wrong, and is quite used to what we might call an inconsistency of views. You and I might find inconsistency a problem, but imagine that you don’t: inconsistency becomes simply fluctuating consistency and is therefore not necessarily bad. Yes indeed, it does your head in. But it needn’t, and if you live in such a way that it doesn’t, then the world become a different place in which to construct open-walled spiritual open houses, rather than religious fortresses.
We have exported capitalism this last century, but have imported and been influenced by a plethora of spiritualities, and it seems that there are four groups of people we might remember when contemplating the mission of the church: There are mystical questers who ignore church, no doubt finding it too hidebound and normative. There are also restorative questers – people who suffer from mental illness or the effects of drug-taking, people experiencing an emptiness and who seek healing. Most people in the church haven’t a clue how to deal with or help them. Then there are what modern sociology calls displacement deniers - high achievers who use gyms and spas, searching physical and spiritual wellbeing. And finally there are post-religious reconstructors – people trying to form communities in the solipsistic, self-struggling new environment of post-financial, post-normative, post-secular London.
It’s good news that up to 60% of people are seeking after something spiritual, but not such good news that the church as you and I know it isn’t very good at responding. It is interesting, but not brilliant news that 40% of teenagers who go to church, do so in London. A whole generation is being lost.
I went to speak to that generation at Highlands School on Friday, and they could not have been more interested in what we as conventional Christians, believe. But I had to go to them, and what is remarkable, which has changed in the last ten years I’ve been here, is that I was invited.
Secularism is done for. Richard Dawkins and his friends – both of them - are issuing the dying squawks of a post-Darwinist dream – a dream incidentally never actually envisioned by Darwin himself. Youthful society does not see science and religion as opposed, and there has been a 75% growth in interest in spirituality over the last decade. People are interested in faith and religion, but not was we know it. Living in a fundamentally confusing world it is perhaps no surprise that many can hardly ask who God is if they don't know who they are. Modern identity is constructed through consuming, and the walls of that castle – the financial fortress, have fallen in recent years, and lying all around is the debris of debt and deprivation.
As many established structures of society seem to lie in ruins, there is much to lament, and indeed lament can lead to interesting, shocking, reconstructive action. But there is also much to be excited about. If there is truth ahead, it will be the truth that it was a thoroughly secularist, individualistic, capitalist outlook that brought us to our current financial debacle, and that secularism and individualism at least are being rejected in favour of something more community-based and spiritual. It is a tremendous opportunity for us, here and in the wider church. But it involves change, and new, creative ways of thinking that will rebuild the church back at the heart of society, rather than add to its marginalization.
So let us not be too worried about great structures falling, nor be too resistant within our own as the ebb and flow of changing times lap around us. But rather let us, as the writer of today’s epistle says:
“… hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 18/11/12