23nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2019, 2019
– Luke 21:5-19
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –
Not long ago, confirmands and their parents joined me in watching the Disney movie Maleficent, Mistress of Evil, the latest in a series of Sleeping Beauty sagas. But unlike stories of old that pitted unredeemable forces of evil against untarnished forces of good; when Boris Badenov was very bad and Dudley Do-Right was nauseatingly nice, we see nowadays gradations of good and evil in all the main characters, leaving us uncertain as to how the story might end, or even how we would want it to end.
Certainly, within faith traditions, including our own, there are cosmic battles between evil angels of darkness and heavenly armies of light, a battle which our faith assures us that the guardians of goodness shall ultimately prevail. Yet we also see this cosmic battle played out in various frames of reference, be it real-world political warfare between dictatorships and democracies, or science fiction dramas between the Imperial forces and the Jedi Alliance, along with spiritual conflicts between heaven and hell. These are virtual reality scenarios in which we imagine ourselves as players.
Jesus prophesied that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed nearly forty years before the actual event. And while it is mentioned in Luke’s gospel, written about twenty years after the event, the prophecy is first revealed in Mark’s gospel (13:2), written prior to or around the time of the temples destruction, along with all of Jerusalem, by Roman legions led by Titus, who would later become emperor of Rome. This prophecy is one of the accusations raised against Jesus as one of the causes for his crucifixion, alleging that he, like a terrorist, plotted its destruction (Mark 14:58).
The destruction of the temple became embroiled in end-time expectations which, of course, did not occur. However, what did occur was far worse.
By the time of the temple’s destruction in 70 CE, Christianity was increasingly becoming a movement dominated by Gentile converts, who saw its destruction as evidence that God no longer regarded Jews as the chosen people, since they crucified Christ, and that the followers of Jesus would become the new descendants of Abraham. In other words, what emerged from the temple’s destruction was not the dawning of a new age, but the degradation of a faith into anti-Semitism that would tarnish our behavior for centuries to come.
After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Some biblical scholars interpret this event as one in which Jesus had to face and suppress the satanic urges in himself if he were to fully embody God’s presence in the world. But even if Satan is understood as a separate personality, he has a history of once being a heavenly angel and, therefore, able to compare his previous and present conditions, making me wonder, in his encounter with Christ, who was tempting whom.
Each of us comprises a spiritual wilderness in which evil and angelic, saintly and satanic qualities intersect. And it is only by acknowledging that none of us are whom we’d like to be before God that enables us to appreciate all of us as individuals in need of one another if we are to move closer to the likeness and realm of God among us.
As a Christian, I’ve learned to view popular fantasy and fiction through a theological lens. So, as the evil Maleficent grew kind in her association with Aurora; as the beast became beautiful in the company of Belle; as Darth Vader was restored to his former self in reunion with his son Luke Skywalker, quite possibly the Satan in each of us may diminish in the company of angels among us.
Recently confirmands and their parents met with Muslim youth and their parents at the Islamic Society of Vermont. We were welcomed with a potluck feast and conversation that lowered our defenses and heightened the sense of fellowship we felt among them. At the close of our time together, a member extended his hand and said, “We are all children of Abraham and Sarah, and so we welcome you as our brothers and sisters.”
The destruction of the Jerusalem temple caused irreparable divisions among faith communities. May the temples we build in God’s name never again serve as barricades separating us from other faith traditions, or one another, or God. Amen.