Mourning the Temple of Our Ancestors: A Tisha B'Av Sermon

 

You've probably noticed that there's something different about our readings today. (See collect and lessons attached below) Our propers commemorate the destruction of the Temple observed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the summer month of Av in the Jewish calendar. That day is today. Let us remember. 

The Israelite monarchy was a mess. A long time ago David brought the tribes together, including many that had nothing to do with the others – two even refused to cross the Jordan and settled instead on the other side of the Promised Land – with them David forged a nation that dreamed of being an empire. Later, Solomon expanded and undermined the nation. He weakened it with his taxes and spending; he sold off pieces of the Promised Land to pay his bills for the temple and for his own palace which was 10 times larger than the temple and, he forced people – his own and foreigners – into virtual slave labor for years at a time to serve on those building projects. It got so bad at one point that the man he sent to recruit new workers was stoned to death for returning to one village one too many times. And then, even though he released them, the workers went home to live in poverty because they weren’t able to tend their crops or raise their herds while they were working on his projects. 

After Solomon came Rehoboam but his son and heir was not even half the man he was. Most of the people of Israel refused to recognize him as king. They decided they would rather have one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam and went all the way to Egypt to bring him back from exile. Now there were two pieces of Israel: one led by folk who could trace their ancestry directly back to David and the other by a series of soldiers and bureaucrats and sometimes their children when they were able to pass the throne down from one generation to the next. And every once in a while, one of them was also able to claim authentic Davidic heritage. Israel and Judah were constantly under siege. The nations surrounding them were always nibbling at their borders, small nations who had once been governed by them and the mighty empires all looking to gobble up the two tiny nations. Even mighty Cleopatra would one day lay claim to part of Israel Land and she got it too; she and Herod fought over it so much that he tried to put a hit out on her but somebody talked him out of it.

But before that, the Assyrians came. They destroyed the northern monarchy. Nine and a half tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel were decimated and dispersed. All that was left was the tribe of Judah in the south with some Benjaminites, some Simeonites and whatever refugees made it in. The loss of the capital city Samaria was devastating. People in Judah struggled to make sense of it by saying that can’t happen here. That happened to them because they were sinners. But we, we live with God. God lives in our midst. They pointed to the temple. They recited the psalms that celebrate the presence of God in the midst of Jerusalem, that promise the protection of God, psalms that promise Jerusalem, Mount Zion where the temple is – was, will stand forever. 

The throne of David was also supposed to endure forever. But even we who understand that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of David must acknowledge that there was a time, a long time, centuries, when no one from the line of David sat on his throne, because when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple he also destroyed the monarchy. Israel ceased to exist as an independent, self-governing nation. It would be restored in the time of the Maccabees and the monarchy would return until the Romans destroyed the temple again and Israel would be re-established as a nation in our own modern history. 

But 587 years before the time of Mary and Jesus, the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and set their sights on what was left of Israel, the monarchy of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar taxed the last king of Judah to the breaking point. And when he had had enough and rebelled then Nebuchadnezzar had the pretense that he was looking for; he moved his whole army across Mesopotamia and he savaged the nation of Judah. 

There are eyewitness accounts scattered throughout the Bible in Jeremiah, Obadiah and 2 Kings from our first lesson:

And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall; the king with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. They went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho; all his army was scattered, deserting him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.

The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens. 

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial. And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for their king as trophies. 

And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, no earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

Listen to the psalm: 

4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there. 
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes. 
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work. 
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
… they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.

It must have seemed like the stories passed down from generation to generation and the promises God made either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services. 

And the Israelites wrestled with their devastation. They tried to make sense of it all. They thought that perhaps it was because they had sinned as had the rest of Israel. They thought that God allowed their destruction as punishment. But then they thought God could not have given permission to the Babylonians to do all of the things that they did to them. They cried out in the book of Lamentations that Jews all over the world will read today remembering and mourning:

1:10 Enemies have stretched out their hands
over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
to enter your congregation.
 11 All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength…
2:11 My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
because of the destruction of my people,
because infants and babes faint
in the streets of the city…
20 …Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have given birth to?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
  21 The young and the old are lying
on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
have fallen by the sword;
in the day of your anger you have killed them,
slaughtering without mercy…
 4:3 Even the jackals offer the breast
and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
like the ostriches in the wilderness.
  4 The tongue of the infant sticks
to the roof of her mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
but no one gives them anything…
10 The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people…
 20 The Lord’s anointed, the breath of our life,
was taken in their pits—
the one of whom we said, “Under God’s shadow
we shall live among the nations.”
 5:11 Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah. 
12 Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders…
20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days? 
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Our lectionary doesn't commemorate the destruction of the temple which is a shame because the destruction of the temple, and its repeated destruction after the founding of the Church, shapes our very faith. The first destruction of the temple in 587 BCE gave birth to our scriptures and some of its most important theology, as people sought to explain what had happened, told one another the stories of their God and passed down the knowledge of who they were and who their God was to their children and their children’s children in exile in writing for the first time. They wrote the Scriptures. And as they wrote they recorded a theology of return and restoration. Exile would not have the last word. They believed that God would bring them back to their Promised Land in a Second Exodus. And they crafted a wholly new theology of God, a theology of divine accompaniment. They realized that God was not just rooted in the Holy Land. But that God was with God's people, wherever they were in the world. And if God's people were in exile, then God was in exile with God’s people. That’s good news for us today, and for people who suffer around the world and across time.

Everywhere God’s people are, God is: with Native persons herded onto reservations, Japanese American citizens interned in camps, South Africans banned to Bantustans, European Jews crowded into European ghettos, American Blacks crowded into inner city ghettos, political dissidents sentenced to gulags and reeducation camps, warzones and hospitals and mental hospitals and prisons. The theology that emerges from the exile in the Scriptures is that God is with the suffering people of the world wherever they are. This is an Immanuel theology.

When Israel return to their land the broken temple reminded them of the day that Nebuchadnezzar evicted them and their God from their home. Rebuilding the Temple became a national obsession. That’s what our gospel lesson is pointing to. How could Jesus say he would destroy the temple? It had taken them so long to rebuild it to make it as good as Solomon’s. Better even. They were never satisfied. That’s why Herod kept revising it, kept renovating it, kept adding to it. Of course Jesus was taking Immanuel theology to the next level. He was talking about the temple of his body. Paul took it further in the Epistle and wrote of the temple of all our bodies. That wherever we are, not only is God with us, God is within is.

While we rejoice that God is present with us and within us, we remember the temple today and we mourn its loss and the devastation caused by war in every age. We perpetuate the memory of the temple in our own services, in our prayers and even the configuration of our churches. We stand with our Jewish sisters and brothers and lament that human hands destroyed the house of God in an attempt to subdue their people. We remember the temple of our ancestors, we mourn its loss. We lament the violence that plagues our world. And we turn to God for comfort. God who dwells within and among us. Amen.

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