In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” Just how big were these stones, and how vast was this building complex, that they should so captivate the attention and wonder of one of Jesus’ disciples? “Josephus tells us that the stones used in the Temple were ‘white and strong and each of their length was twenty-five cubits, their height was eight [cubits], and their breadth about twelve.’ For building purposes a cubit was about twenty inches.” So in our measures, each stone was about 41 feet eight inches long by thirteen feet four inches high by twenty feet wide, with a volume of over eleven thousand cubic feet each. Josephus also says “the pillars supporting the porches were twenty-five cubits high, all of one stone, and that of the whitest marble.” Herod the Great had begun construction on the new temple structure in 20 BC, and the outer courts surrounding the temple mount weren’t completed until AD 64. Herod followed the floor plans of the previous temples built on the site by Solomon and Zerubbabel; but, his temple rose 100 cubits, or fifteen stories, high. It must have been an extraordinary sight indeed!
Herod the Great had rebuilt the Jerusalem temple greater than it had ever been, and he greatly expanded the surrounding courts to cover the top of the Temple Mount. He also engaged in many other building projects: port cities, theatres, hippodromes, and a string of fortresses on the eastern frontier. Why did Herod the Great engage in such a massive building program? Some was for defense, some for commerce, some for culture, the temple to try to ingratiate himself to the Jewish people; but above all, to show his greatness, to leave a lasting legacy to his own honor and glory and might.
The original God-given purpose for the temple was to be the place of sacrifice, where the people of Israel would bring their offerings and sacrifices to the LORD, as they had done in the wilderness with the tabernacle. The temple was the place of which the LORD said, “My name shall be there” (1 Ki 8:29); so it was to be a house for worship and prayer, toward where the Israelite would pray, and to which the foreigner could come to pray, the non-Israelite who had heard of the great name of the LORD and of His mighty deeds (1 Ki 8:41–42). Yet the central purpose of the temple was as the place of sacrifice, especially the sacrifices for sin, and above all the sacrifice for atonement for all the people on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, carried out in the Holy of Holies by the high priest. All of the sacrifices which the LORD prescribed for Israel to perform were given as signs pointing to the One Final Sacrifice for all sin, the sacrifice of the promised Savior from sin, who would offer up Himself as both the Victim and the Priest.
But God’s people forgot the purpose of the temple, and instead of keeping it as a sign of the Coming One, the Messiah, the Savior, they turned the temple into an idol of sorts. It became the central focus of their identity and strength as a nation. What, or rather, Who should have been the central focus of their identity? The LORD who had put His name in the temple. He was supposed to be the strength of His people, and the Source and sole object of their worship. Three times in the Old Testament it says, “The LORD is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2; Ps 118:14; Isa 12:2).
It is not someone from the crowds, but rather one of Jesus’ disciples who has his eyes, his attention—his heart and mind—drawn to the great stones and splendid edifices. What is the attraction of “what large, what wonderful stones”? What do these large stones represent? Power, wealth, achievement? Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, calls this “the idolatry of grandeur,” and it’s a problem not just for Jesus’ disciples back then, or for the worldly; it’s a constant, nagging problem for us, too. How do we measure ministry success? Perception settles in on numbers, budgets, grants, shiny new ministry programs (the more, the better), growing membership and attendance. How does the world measure success? Numbers, budgets, shiny new products, growing sales and customer traffic. What’s the difference? Jesus’ disciples, we included, might want to see God’s kingdom match the kingdoms of the world in visible glory and power and influence; but, that’s not how God works. This is the God who says, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This is the Lord who says, “The last will be first” (Mk 10:31). This is the Lord who, as we just heard last Sunday, commended the widow’s offering of two small copper coins as more than those who put in out of their abundance (Mk 12:43). This is the God who showed His glory and power and greatness on the cross—an instrument of execution and torture and shame! Our Lord is the God who has a rap sheet. How’s that for a measure of success?
Jesus answers His grandeur-worshipping disciple with a reproach. “Oh, so you see these great buildings, do you?” Yes, I see them, and let Me tell you what’s going to happen to them. “There will not be left here stone upon stone that will not be cast down.” Why such utter destruction of the temple of the Lord? The time of this scene is Tuesday of Holy Week, and in just three days He would be offering Himself on the altar of His cross as the Final Sacrifice for sin. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and when He goes out from the temple in today’s Gospel, He is departing nevermore to re-enter its precincts. With His departure, the gracious presence of God has left the temple sanctuary. With Jesus’ imminent self-offering, with the shedding of His holy, precious blood, the age of sacrifices is complete, and there is no more need for a temple made of stones. Jesus is the new and true and living Temple, as He declared to His opponents, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). He also is building His believers, you and me included, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:20), as the Apostle Paul declares; and as St. Peter declares, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” the “living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious” (1 Pe 2:4–5). Through His means of grace in His Divine Service to you—in Baptism, Absolution, the reading, preaching, and singing of the Word, the body and blood of Christ in the Supper—the Holy Spirit like a craftsman is shaping you to be a fit part of God’s enduring, eternal building, prepared by Christ.
Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, only one is still standing, the Great Pyramids of Egypt—and as great as they still are, they long ago lost their brilliant white exteriors and gold caps. There will come a day when they will be no more. This building will not last forever, as our Board of Trustees can well testify. We sure don’t want it to come down around us, which is why we keep up repairs on it. So it is with everything people build. As long as we hold fast to this building’s purpose, the reason for its being, then it’s worth keeping. It is here so that we may “meet together … encouraging one another” in this Faith, and together we “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22, 25), in Baptism and Absolution for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiven through the blood of Jesus, our God declares us righteous, so that we too may “turn many to righteousness,” so that they may be turned to Christ Jesus, the Lord our Righteousness. To that eternal, lasting purpose we are privileged by our Lord to return a portion to Him of what He has first given to us.
It so often seems as though the ungodly in this world full of unbelief and false belief is blessed and successful, while the Lord’s church struggles and limps along. Luther has something to say about this “scandal of God’s grace blessing the ungodly,” that He does indeed cause the sun to shine and rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike:
The ungodly boast about their scepter and rule, and they have reason to do so, for God fills their belly with good things, He gives them the kingdoms and riches of the world. … He also gives bodily blessings to the saints, but slowly and in the midst of many tribulations so that their faith may be exercised and that they may learn to know the gifts of God and to use them in a godly manner.
Let us therefore remain in that assembly which has the Word, even though it is despised and abject. (LW 6:306)
Yes, His Word is despised and abject before the world, and so is He, our Lord hated. He warns us, “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake”—but He doesn’t leave it there. For He gives us this promise: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” By His grace, through your faith in Him, you will last, your name shall be found written in His book, you shall awake to everlasting life, and you shall shine like the brightness of the sky above and like the stars forever and ever, eternally reflecting His glory.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.