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It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Baghdad, Beirut and Paris this week. Ordinary people like you and I casually went to see friends at a stadium, at a funeral, in a concert hall, cafes, restaurants and streets.
Total strangers indiscriminately killed them. I guess that is the point of this kind of violence. One person shows how intensely he cares about politics by murdering someone who has almost nothing to do with his grievances. The very arbitrariness of the act is intended to strike fear in the hearts of whole groups of people.
Do not forget that each of the ones we lost was a perfectly unique child of God. Each was filled with beauty, grace, goodness and potential that came into being just once in the history of the whole universe. Their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children and friends will never forget Friday. They will never be quite okay ever again.
We find ourselves in that moment when we have to choose what events like this will mean to us. Again we have to decide what we will do, how we will live and who we will be.
Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great began reconstructing the Temple in Jerusalem. It cost many fortunes and became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple stood on a great platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet. This made it twice as large as the Roman Forum with all its temples. It was four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis and its Parthenon. The retaining walls included forty foot long white stones the remains of which you can still see today.
The ancient historian Josephus writes that the 150 foot square front of the temple had so many gold and silver decorations that on sunny days it nearly blinded anyone who looked at it. Pilgrims approaching the temple could see it from miles and miles away.
You can imagine how this might strike one of Jesus’ disciples. A peasant from rural Galilee would have been amazed. He would regard the temple as God’s dwelling place at the center of the world, the very symbol of the Holy One’s connection to the people. How shocking it is for Jesus to respond to his awe saying, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk. 13).
Later Jesus goes on to warn “Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place but the end is still to come.”
As Christians we have to decide what these words will mean to us. I think that there are three obvious options. First, one might interpret this passage simply as Jesus’ prediction about the Jewish Temple. In the beginning of August in the year 70 Titus conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. We could regard Jesus simply as someone who understood human nature and groups well enough to make accurate predictions about the future.
Second, many other Christians believe that these statements are about the end of the world, when everything will be destroyed to make room for God’s new creation. Some American Christians make predictions about the end. They let their imaginations run wild taking them far beyond what the Bible actually says.
I do not know if the point is that Jesus accurately predicted the results of the First Jewish-Roman War or how the world will end. I do believe that there is a kind of ongoing destruction over time that happens as God’s Word continues to permeate human experience. God’s Kingdom breaks down every structure, every human institution, every form of oppression until we are free. Jesus unleashed a power into our world and we still can barely fathom all of its implications.
I wonder if you can answer this question: what was the most controversial Christian doctrine at the beginning of the church during the first centuries?
From those years we have different historical accounts of what their Roman neighbors thought about Christian teachings. So what do you think offended them the most? You might be thinking about conflicts over whether Jesus was essentially divine or human, miracles, Mary, divine healing, the body and blood of Christ, infant baptism or bodily resurrection.
According to the Romans the most radical and controversial Christian doctrine was the idea that every person matters. Even after twenty centuries of proclaiming this truth it still is incredibly controversial. ISIS does not believe it. Our modern democracies only partly believe it. Even today the spirit unleashed by Jesus leads to surprising, radical revolutions.
This weekend Alan Jones and I were talking about the tendency to romanticize Greek and Roman culture. Alan cites a letter from Hilarion, an ancient Roman man who moved away from his wife and child for work. The author (a laborer at Oxyrhnychos) clearly cares about his wife. At the end of the letter he tenderly writes “You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.” But he also writes about what she should do if it turns out she is pregnant. He orders her, “If it is a boy let it live. If it is a girl expose it” (P.Oxy 4.744). There was no place in his heart for a girl, or for the idea that his wife could have any voice in this matter.
The Romans enjoyed watching people get torn apart by wild animals and gladiators. They owned slaves. The family patriarch had absolute control over those under his authority in matters of sex, life and death. The Romans would crucify hundreds of slaves along the road just to intimidate the others. But Alan pointed out that what most offended the Emperor Julian (331-363) was that in a Christian assembly a senator might find himself sitting next to a slave.
In this context the idea that who you are as citizen or foreigner, free or slave, male or female, rich or poor is of secondary importance to being a child of God – this idea is still revolutionary. Human beings have not completely discovered exactly what this means. We are not very attractive and certainly do not deserve it but God is madly in love with us. Alan said that the monks at The College of the Resurrection (Mirfield) talked about “how disgusting it is that God so lacks taste as to really love everyone.”
David Bentley Hart (1965-) is a contemporary theologian who writes about the contrast between Christian thought and modern atheist philosophers like Friedrich Nieztsche (1844-1900). Hart points out that in the modern postmodern world many sophisticated people believe that there is nothing more than power. When you probe how they think and talk you will discover that they believe that power is what we all long for, that power and those who have it write the stories that ultimately determines what is true. For them, beneath power, there is nothing more than power.
Hart writes, “the difference between two narratives: [is] one… finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric, and [the other] claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.”
I love what Hart writes later. He says, “We are music moved to music… partaking in the inexhaustible goodness of God… the restless soul, immersed in the spectacle of God’s glory, is drawn without break beyond the world to the source of its beauty, to embrace the infinite.”
The twentieth century writer Dorothy Sayers describes Dante’s Divine Comedy as the drama of the soul’s choice between good and evil. She writes that we put ourselves with God or far from God, and where we are tells us who we are. To quote Alan once again, “we become what we are by choosing and the Good News is that God chooses us.”
Mahatma Gandhi says my religion is kindness. The New Testament states that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). Every moment we have the chance to choose love, to choose God.
So how will you live in that love? How will you prevent yourself from becoming another kind of terrorist, that is, a sort of mirror image of the terrorist – someone who merely differs in one’s belief about who needs to be protected and who is dispensable?
People who try to be citizens of God’s kingdom begin with humility, with letting God be God.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) expresses this in his poem “The Place Where We Are Right.”
“From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be hear in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.”
It is hard. It is hard to understand what happened in Paris this week. It is difficult for us to move from the place where we are right, the place of easy answers, the place that is hard and trampled. It is hard when we feel like our world is being dug up, and not one stone will be left on another.
But a way of reconciliation has been opened. And we can hear the whisper in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Yes, we are music moved by music as the inexhaustible goodness of God draws us to embrace the infinite. So let us, by choosing, become what we are and live in God’s love.
 Adam Nossiter, Aurelien Breeden and Nicola Clark, “Paris Attacks Were an ‘Act of War’ by ISIS, Hollande Says,” The New York Times, 14 November 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/world/europe/paris-terrorist-attacks.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=span-abc-region®ion=span-abc-region&WT.nav=span-abc-region
 These three paragraphs from A. Katherine Grieb, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, 11 November 2015, 20.
 “[T]he sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven” (Mk. 13).
 I’m very indebted to conversations with Alan Jones (November 12-14, 2015) for most of this sermon from Hilarion to Yehuda Amichai.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2003), 2.
 Ibid., 195.