Monday, November 18, 2013

The Grinch, the Temple and Jesus

Today I read from the Message translation of Luke 21- the whole chapter. And then…

So, today I am thinking about Christmas, after all everyone else is. Especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner. And the Reading holiday Parade and Christmas tree lighting are next weekend, even before Thanksgiving. My neighbors are putting up Christmas lights and there are snarky “don’t hate me decorating” posts on Facebook. No worries, friends. I am thinking about Christmas but more specifically about “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, a now classic Dr. Seuss tale that has been a TV special and a movie. I was significantly depressed to learn that it was first broadcast in 1966 and that I was alive. Well, you might wonder what The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has to do with Jesus and the Temple of the people of Israel. In the Grinch story, the Grinch is a very unhappy creature who can’t stand the happiness and celebrating of the Whos in Whoville, especially at Christmas. They wake up and open presents and then all come outside and stand around the big Christmas tree and sing and then there is feasting on the Who Roast Beast. It seem this is the center of life. The Grinch finds it all so irritating and can’t stand how this galvanizes people and gives them joy. So, he sets about bringing it to an end. He devises a plan believing that if he takes away all the trappings of the day, there will be nothing to celebrate. Because it’s about the stuff.

In Jesus’ day, the temple was the center of it all- It was huge and stunning. The outer court alone could hold 400,000 people, and at festival times, like for those gathering in Luke, it frequently held crowds nearly that large. It was intended to honor God, but it was not breathtakingly beautiful because the people made it so. It had been Herod, a Roman ruler who wanted to be powerful who spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful.  Taking the Temple intended to testify to God’s unique majesty, and making it beautiful to bring glory to himself. The place intended to reflect where God touched the earth and held it still and safe had become something very different to many. So in all those people and all that beauty, one insignificant woman, faithful but widowed could be impoverished and unnoticed, as she has thrown her whole life away to preserve God’s house. Because others are so bedazzled by the beauty of the building. Its beauty and not holiness, had become the center.

Jesus, who has already been poking sticks at religious leaders, speaks prophetically of it all being leveled. Not one stone on another on the eve of the big festival. Scandalous talk that the beautiful temple was temporary. That even something so concretely placed in people’s minds could be gone. What would life mean? How would life go on?

For those hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, this was reality. The temple had in fact been brought down about 30 years before, by the Romans determined to leave no stone standing. Just like the Grinch in his efforts to take away all of Christmas from the Whos in Whoville. In a calculated way to guarantee that everything that shapes their identity will be gone. The Romans didn’t quite succeed. One wall is left, which we now call the Western wall, or the Wailing Wall.

Suzanne Richardson, whose work can be found online at Edge of Enclosure writes that while reflecting upon Jesus prediction of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Grinch comes to mind. Particularly the scene involving the moment the Grinch pauses to hear the moaning of the Whos in Whoville after he has stolen everything related to the village Christmas celebration. "That's a noise," grinned the Grinch, "That I simply must hear!" So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear. “And he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started out low. Then it started to grow... But the sound wasn't sad! Why, this sound sounded merry! It couldn't be so! But it WAS merry! VERY! He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes! Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise! Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing!

Without any presents at all! He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” There stand the Whos in a circle around where the tree had been. They lift their heads and now instead was a glowing star rising over them-light for the world. They live anew! Transformed. They don’t just endure, they live anew. Because it’s not about the tree or the presents or even the Roast Beast.

Our gospel reading at first sounds more like what the Grinch expects-destruction, chaos, rejection, family-shattering, betrayals. And Richard Swanson suggests, it might seem that what we take from this is that the calm individual is the center of the world, (and) that Christian endurance is the point of Jesus’ message. It’s actually greater than that-its’ not just about endurance but survival.” And by survival, I don’t mean “hunker down.” I mean continued new life. That's the question we all ask when something happens that rips the very fabric of our existence apart, or the roadmap we’ve been using is gone. When divorce comes out of nowhere, when illness changes everything, when addiction tramples and terrorizes, when family strife breaks out. Or when church doesn’t look like it used to. When the universe is shaken to the core, how will we live?

Even in world-destroying catastrophe, Jesus says, God’s faithful people should lift their heads and expect resurrection, redemption, and rescue. Life.
It takes life together looking for God at work. And moving beyond what stymies the Grinch. The Whos find a way to live and share joy that is not at all about stuff. For us, that living doesn’t come from this sanctuary as a beautiful place as it is. These windows, the memorial gifts are not the source for living.
It comes from the God we encounter in the midst of them. God who enters the world, in the flesh, and rises beyond everything we imagine. Coming into a world waiting for life to be what it should be, bringing resurrection and faithful hope. To people just like us.
And this is why I say thank God it’s not about a building. 
But here then are deeper questions that I hope empower our living here.

Do we recognize this place as one where we sense and connect with God? When we are here, is it holy?

Do we sense that we are in the presence of the Divine?  

Do we glimpse Jesus present in our midst?

Do we feel Christ literally taken into us in communion, dwelling in us?

Do we notice that power- that we bear this sacred and holy into a suffering world-
where people don’t see beauty or joy or new life?

Are we raising our heads to look for resurrection?
Or do we just see people and stuff?

All our words in worship are centered around helping us experience resurrection.
We can't explain it but that's the power of God in this place.
Luke goes on to tell of faithful rising day after day to listen to Jesus. Words heard by people who only see the charred remnants of a ruin and disappointment. Trying to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection in the midst of what seems like anything but.
That is what our life as Christians often feels like- trying to see and point to God’s life in what seems like anything but.
This is why we are here to be God’s people- together.
To encounter resurrection and to show it to others in the kingdom.
Because we know-in our world, endurance is just not enough, not even close.
When it really matters, and everything feels like its falling away
only resurrection will do.
But to steal the phrase from Dr. Seuss-
“they can’t stop Jesus from coming.
Somehow or other, he comes just the same!”

Thanks be to God. AMEN

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