Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Sacred and the desolate

Text: Luke 13 31-35 (Jesus sorrows over Jerusalem)

A few years ago, the church in which I grew up in Cornwall Ontario was torn down. The building of Knox United had been damaged in a 1940s earthquake. But other than a missing steeple pinnacle, the building seemed OK when I was growing up in Cornwall in the 60s and 70s.

Unfortunately, a recent inspection revealed that the structure was no longer safe, and so it was torn down. Knox United bought an unused church in the suburbs from the Roman Catholics, which is where Knox members now worship.

I was sad when I heard of the demolition of the church. I had loved its Gothic architecture, the weird layout of its halls, offices, corridors, and how the original building linked up with a newer Christian Education wing. When I was young, I remember discussing with my friends whether God lived in the sanctuary. At the very least, we considered the building sacred.

I thought of this old building as I prepared this sermon on Jerusalem. In a small way, the destruction of any sanctuary can resonate with the tragedies of wars and conquest that have seen countless holy cities and temples destroyed, including in that most Sacred of all cities, Jerusalem.

What is it about Jerusalem that makes it so special? Jerusalem is where King Solomon built the First Temple to the Hebrew God, Yahweh. 300 years later, the city and its Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. When Jewish leaders rebuilt  Jerusalem and its Temple 50 years later, worship started again, but this time without the lost Ark of the Covenant.

Christians revere Jerusalem as the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. When early Christians imagined what a restored heaven or earth would look like, they used the metaphor of a New Jerusalem.

Muslims revere Jerusalem as the place where The Prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven with the Angel Gabriel.

Jerusalem is sacred to all three of the religions of Abraham -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- even as it is also known as a place of betrayal, death, and desolation.

The most famous Christian hymn about the city is called just that, "Jerusalem," based upon an 1804 poem by William Blake.  The poem uses the symbol of Jerusalem to refer to "heaven on earth" -- the new age that began with the coming of Jesus.

I first learned the hymn "Jerusalem" in school when I was growing up in Cornwall. Cornwall is small industrial city on the St Lawrence River about an hour's drive west of Montreal. To me, it seems like a microcosm of Canada. 70% of the population is English-speaking, 30% French and there is a First Nations Mohawk reserve south of the city on an island that is half in Ontario and half in New York.

Perhaps the presence of French and First Nations people and the closeness of Quebec and the U.S. made English people in Cornwall especially conscious of our English roots -- and there is no more English hymn than "Jerusalem."

In fact, "Jerusalem" is the unofficial English national anthem. When the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, King George V, first heard "Jerusalem," he said that he preferred it even to "God Save the King."

Blake's poem was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 as a way to bolster English spirits during the horrors of World War I. There is irony in this because Blake was a radical who supported the French Revolution and was once tried for treason. Also, the hymn "Jerusalem" is not only popular with staunch monarchists and conservatives but also with socialists and trade unionists.

"Jerusalem" is the final song performed at "Last Night at the Proms" concerts. It is a staple in English schools, just as it was at my elementary school in Cornwall. And a line from the hymn inspired the title of the 1981 Academy Award Winning movie "Chariots of Fire," which ends with the singing of the hymn at a funeral service.

Here are the words of Blake's poem: "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green? And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark Satanic mills?

"Bring me my bow of burning gold: bring me my arrows of desire: bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." The poem is packed with symbols and metaphors.

The Holy Lamb of God is a metaphor for Christ. But what does Blake mean by bows of burning gold, arrows of desire, and chariots of fire? The "dark Satanic mills" probably refer to cotton and flour mills, which Blake hated when he wrote the poem in 1804. The goal of building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land symbolizes the fight to create heaven on earth.

Our Gospel passage today is also about Jerusalem; and like Blake's poem, it also contains many symbols and metaphors. Jesus calls King Herod a fox. He then makes an analogy between himself and a mothering hen that protects its chicks under her wings. He mentions "the third day," a symbol of his resurrection. He states that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem. But since this is not literally the case, it must also be a metaphor for something or other. And when Jesus talks about the desolation of Jerusalem, this foreshadows the second destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 by the Romans, 40 years after Jesus' death.

In the late 60s of the First Century, there was a Jewish revolt against Rome. After a three-year siege of Jerusalem, the Romans burned the city to the ground, killed 10s of thousands of Jews, and destroyed the Temple. Luke wrote his Gospel 15 to 20 years after this disaster.

Like us, the people who first heard Luke's Gospel would not have known Jesus and the disciples, so they might connect the story of the death of the Son of God to the destruction of God's Temple and his Holy City. The story of the resurrection would have assured them that God's Love lives on even though His Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem was once again a ghost town.

It is a sad fact that the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 is not unusual. Jerusalem had been destroyed 600 years earlier by the Babylonians. After the Roman disaster in 70, Jews repopulated the city; but it was destroyed a third time by the Romans in 135. When the Roman emperors adopted Christianity as the state religion 200 years later, they rebuilt Jerusalem. Muslims then captured Jerusalem from the Greek survivors of Rome's fall in the 700s. The Muslims allowed the Christians to remain and also invited Jews to return. But 400 years later, European armies slaughtered all the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Today, both the modern state of Israel and the hoped-for Palestinian state claim Jerusalem as their capital. Jerusalem is sacred but also continually troubled.

The sacred temples and cities of many other peoples have also been destroyed in conflict and war over the centuries.

Some sanctuaries are destroyed by invading armies. Some sanctuaries are weakened by earthquakes and later torn down. Some sanctuaries are abandoned because a community of faith has lost numbers, energy and money. What the Christ story reminds us is that the God who is Love, survives all these tragedies. Our temples and sacred cities, no matter how grand, are all subject to decay or attack. But God's Love is indestructible.

So this Lent, as we continue our walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross, know that God grants us the strength to be present to both sides of Jerusalem: both its desolation and its new life. The path of Lent has two sides. It is a journey through death to new life with God in Christ.

Thanks be to God.


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