Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jerusalem and Fukushima: temples old and new

Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (foolishness and wisdom), John 2:13-22 (Jesus at the Temple)

Does today's Gospel passage about Jesus in the Temple have any connection with today's anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan? Perhaps not. But the massive earthquake in Japan, which occurred one-year ago today, has been rattling around in my mind this week along with the story of Jesus' outburst in the Temple. So this sermon is about the Temple, earthquakes, uranium, nuclear power, and the strange and wonderful universe in which we live.

Jesus' act of overturning the tables in the Temple is the most aggressive act of his career. In the version from John that we heard today, he even brandishes a whip. Given that we hear this text during Lent -- a season in which we focus on sin -- ministers often use this text to ask how the contemporary church may have gone off the rails.

However, I look at the text differently. This week we have switched from the Gospel of Mark to the Gospel of John. In Mark, the story of Jesus' clearing the Temple is set just after Palm Sunday in the week of his crucifixion. Mark says that Jesus' action in the Temple is the key reason for his arrest.

John tells much the same story. But in contrast to Mark, John places this scene at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, a full two-years before Palm Sunday. John also points out a metaphor in the story. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," Jesus says. John explains that [quote] "he was speaking of the temple of his body."

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon, about 1,000 years before the time of Jesus. The people of Jerusalem considered it to be the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh, their God.

The First Temple was destroyed almost 600 years before Jesus' birth by the Babylonians. Jerusalem's defeat by Babylon was the national trauma that led to the birth of Judaism as a religion based on Scripture as opposed to one based on Temple sacrifice. This occurred in the decades of Jewish exile in Babylon.

Despite this new focus on Scripture, the Second Temple was rebuilt following the return of Jewish leaders to Jerusalem from Babylon. Once again, Jews considered this Second Temple to be the dwelling place of God

Then for the second time, the unthinkable happened. In the year 70, the Romans crushed a rebellion in Jerusalem. They burned the holy city to the ground and killed 10s of thousands of people. They also completely destroyed the magnificent Temple, taking it apart stone by stone.

Scholars date the writing of the Gospels to after the Year 70 since all four refer to the destruction of the Temple. Mark is thought to be the one written first, perhaps in that fateful year 70 as reports came to Jews living outside Palestine that Jerusalem was burning. John is considered to be the last Gospel written, perhaps as late as the year 100, or 70 years following Jesus' death and resurrection.

When Jesus was crucified in the Year 30, those who hailed him as the new King were devastated at first. 40 years later, the destruction of God's Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans must have devastated all Jews, included those who followed Jesus.

Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about the death of God. In ancient times, when one nation crushed another, it was often interpreted as the death of a god. When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple 2600 years ago, those who worshipped there at first believed that Yahweh had also died in the battle. In exile, however, Jewish prophets taught something different. They said that Yahweh had used the Babylonians to defeat Jerusalem in order to punish it for its sins. This thinking laid the groundwork for the later rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple.

When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, many Jews must have once again believed that their God had been killed. However, those among them who followed Jesus as the Christ had told of Jesus' death and resurrection for 40 years. In the face of the destruction of Jerusalem, they repeated the good news that God's Love survives such disasters. God is stronger than the Temple. Love is stronger than death on a cross. God might be killed, but the God who is Love rises to new life in our hearts . . .

In the ancient past, people often believed that earthquakes, just as defeat in war, were expression of God's anger. Today, most of us no longer think this way. We understand that earthquakes are caused by the slow movement of the earth's tectonic plates against each other. Untold numbers of such quakes over billions of years reshape the continents.

Last year's earthquake, which moved Japan almost three metres closer to North America, was one of the largest ever measured. The earthquake and tsunami not only led to the deaths of 20,000 people, they also triggered a nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daichi electrical plant, which continues to unfold.

Thinking about the immense age of the earth and the strange ways in which it works led me speculate about where the uranium that was burned in the nuclear plant at Fukushima came from. It probably didn't come from Saskatchewan, although the uranium mines in the north of our province continue to be one of the world's leading sources of this rare and dangerous metal.

Then I realized that at a deeper level, uranium, like all elements heavier than hydrogen, comes from the stars. Stars are huge balls of hydrogen that have burst into nuclear fusion. Fusion slowly turns hydrogen into helium and other elements. When stars run out of hydrogen fuel after several billion years, they sometimes explode. The heaviest elements are formed in these supernovae explosions. These explosions also spread stellar dust, from which planets like earth coalesce, throughout the universe.

The earth mostly contains elements that are on the lighter end of the scale: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, iron and so on. But it also contains small amounts of heavier elements, which are formed in the biggest of supernovae explosions. Uranium is the second heaviest metal found in the earths' crust. Since it is also radioactive and therefore dangerous to living things, it is lucky for us that uranium is extremely rare.

When nuclear science was young a century ago, the radioactivity of uranium was key to its research. Then came the first man-made nuclear reactions -- the atomic bombs of WWII. These uranium and plutonium bombs proved Einstein right when he said that atoms contain immense energy. Humans can exploit this energy by splitting the atoms of rare and radioactive minerals like uranium.

After WWII, uranium mining for weapons production and electrical generation became a huge business. Tiny deposits of uranium, like those in northern Saskatchewan, were prospected, mined, refined, and used to arm bombs and power nuclear reactors.

A nuclear reactor is similar to the coal-fired plant here in Coronach. It creates heat to boil water that turns a turbine to generate electricity. But while the Coronach plant burns abundantly-available coal in a conventional process, nuclear reactors burn rare uranium in controlled nuclear fission. The burning of coal releases long-stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is linked to climate change. The burning of uranium produces highly radioactive spent fuel, which has to be stored for thousands of years.

When the tsunami disabled the nuclear plant in Japan last March, it released large amounts of dangerous radiation. But the accident could have been much worse. After four days of trying to contain the meltdown, plant managers came within a few hours of abandoning it, which might have left Tokyo, with its 35 million people, permanently uninhabitable. Luckily, emergency intervention by the army brought the meltdowns to a halt. Several decades of dangerous work lies ahead to bring the plant site fully under human control again . . .

In my opinion, science is our current Temple. The story I just told about stars, planets  and nuclear energy is as incredible, and as true, as anything in the Bible. We trust the story since it comes from a democratic search for scientific truth, and since it is proven in every nuclear nuclear reactor that produces the electricity we use. We may not consciously worship at the Temple of science and technology, but it many ways I think that science has taken the place of religion in our culture.

After the defeat of the Jews by the Romans in the year 70, both Judaism and Christianity showed us how God could be worshipped without a Temple in a holy city. Since God's strength lies in weakness, we need not build huge and magnificent Temples. And since life is one long experience of sacrifice, we need not travel to a holy city to offer sacrifices in order to worship God.

Today we rely on the understandings and technology that come from the temple of science. Perhaps we need to hear again St. Paul's words that strength lies in weakness and that wisdom is found in the foolishness of the cross. Could we find something more modest than a nuclear reactor to act as our altar? Could we turn our backs on unlimited growth and so remember that our world is sacred?

Unfortunately, no mechanism yet exists for humanity to collectively decide to produce electricity without unintended consequences. We have built the strong and beautiful Temple of science and technology, giving us unprecedented knowledge and power. But as a society, we do not yet know how to move from this secular strength to spiritual wisdom, which is found in weakness and foolishness.

I don't believe that there is anything inherently wrong with burning either coal or uranium to generate electricity. At the same time, the weird weather this winter -- mild in North America and cold in Europe -- help us remain aware of the dangers in the unrestricted burning of fossil fuels. And the nuclear disaster in Japan helps us remain aware of the dangers in refining and burning uranium.

As followers of Christ, we know that human folly leads us to build Temples and then conduct bloody wars, which destroy them. Like Jesus and the Gospel writers, we also know that out of the ashes of folly and defeat, new life in God arises.

In Lent, we prepare to hear again of the betrayal, arrest, and execution of Jesus. Since Jesus is our Christ, this story contains within it all the pain and horror of life. At the same time, it is a story that leads us to Easter.

Tragedies like the defeat of Jerusalem by Babylon or Rome and natural disasters like Japan's earthquake might make it difficult for us to trust life or trust God. The genius of both Judaism and Christianity is that they face the horror of life square in the face and proclaim the spiritual truth that the God who is Love lives on even in the face of defeat, destruction and death.

Humans build wonderful temples; and then we tragically lay these temples to waste. The good news is that out of the ashes arises the unquenchable Spirit of God's love, which continues to shine within each foolish heart.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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