WORSHIP SERVICE November 14, 2021 “A Song with Walls Rebuilt.”
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“A Song within Walls Rebuilt”
Like many people, I was shocked to see the images of Notre Dame Cathedral on fire in April 2019. The ancient church in the heart of Paris which had survived storms, revolutions and two world wars, would not go unscathed when a blaze broke out perhaps from an electrical spark. Smoke and flames poured into the skies above the city of Paris and the iconic spire and cross came crashing down into the center of the sanctuary.
Construction had begun on Notre Dame in the 12th century and the church has stood in the center of the city for almost 850 years. It has been a symbol of the sacred for Catholics, Christians and even secular tourists. I had the privilege of worshipping in the massive cathedral the summer after I graduated from college. I was backpacking around Europe with some friends, and because we were in Paris on a Sunday we decided to attend services at Notre Dame.
It was exciting to be there during an actual worship and to see the church full of locals as well as tourists from around the world. Because we were familiar with the liturgy as Lutherans, we could follow along with the service even with our rudimentary knowledge of the French language.
But we would not have needed any knowledge of the language at all to still feel the sacred symbolism of that space. The dramatic flying buttresses, the towering ceiling and the tall stain glass windows all worked together to draw our gaze heavenward and stirred up within me the sense of something greater than myself.
This is why the destruction of the cathedral affected so many around the world whether or not they were Catholic or even Christian. Due to its historic nature, Notre Dame had become a symbol that transcended denominational divides and took on a general religious significance that reminded people of something holy. When the spire came crashing down, it wasn’t just metal and wood that fell. It was the loss of something that had withstood the test of time. It was the loss of something that had helped inspire millions of people over the centuries and created a space where they could connect more deeply to the divine.
This was a similar feeling the Jewish people may have had as they watched their beloved temple burn in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but for them the feeling and grief was much greater because the temple was not just a general religious symbol or a historic tourist attraction, it was the very center of their religious, and in many ways, economic, lives. The patterns of rituals and seasons of festivals shape their calendars and gave meaning to their everyday existence. The temple was literally the dwelling place of God and now it had been burned down by the Romans in retribution for the rebellion. Where was God now and what would come next?
These were questions that were swirling around in minds of the Jewish people after the temple had been destroyed and were swirling around in the minds of the early followers of Jesus as well when Mark writes his Gospel that we heard from today. Most Biblical scholars think that the book of Mark was probably written around 70 CE. Mark is telling his story about Jesus at this same time when the followers of Jesus and the other Jewish people from around the world are dealing with this news that the city of Jerusalem has fallen, and their most holy place of worship has been burned down.
This would have created an existential and spiritual crisis for many of them. The temple had been an impressive structure. It had stood for 515 years, surviving conflicts, harsh weather and the transfer of power from one king to the next. It had provided spiritual comfort and shelter for the many people who came to make sacrifices and atone for their sins before God.
Our reading today gives us a glimpse of just how impressive the temple really was. Many of the first disciples of Jesus were from the small fishing villages and the countryside of Galilee, north of Jerusalem. Some of them had maybe never been to a big city like Jerusalem, or had only been there on a few occasions for the religious festivals. The scripture tells us as they are leaving the temple they call out to Jesus, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
The disciples are amazed at the incredible architecture of the temple and its surroundings. They are marveling at the human ingenuity and engineering which produced such structures.
But Jesus does not seem to be as impressed. As they gawk up at the towering walls he responds to their comments by saying, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down.” Jesus then goes on to warn his followers of wars and rumors of wars. Was Jesus talking about the upcoming Jewish rebellion and the war with Rome? It is hard to know for sure, but looking back, the listeners of the Gospel of Mark probably could not have helped to make the connection between Jesus’ prediction of the buildings coming down and the destruction of the temple.
Jesus’ real point, however, may not have been about making a particular prediction. It may have been more about a general warning not to put your trust in buildings no matter how large of stones might be that make up their walls. It may have been more about reminding his followers that no matter the chaos around them from conflicts or disasters, they should not be deceived about who to place their trust in. They need to keep clinging to the name of Jesus because it is through him they can still find hope.
The listeners of Mark’s Gospel may have also found comfort in reflecting upon the experiences of their ancestors. You see, the Roman siege was not the first time that the temple had been destroyed. It was actually the second time. The first time was when the Babylonian armies had attacked in 587 BC. Jerusalem had been destroyed and many of its people had been dragged into exile to the land of Babylon. It wasn’t until 70 years later that the walls began to be rebuilt in Jerusalem.
These efforts were led by a man named Nehemiah, who has a book of the Bible named after him. We heard from it in our first reading. The section we read is about a celebration that took place after some of the first efforts to rebuild the wall around the city had been completed.
Nehemiah organizes a dedication ceremony to recognize what has been accomplished and bless the structure that has been finished. Part of the ceremony involves two choirs made up of people who have come from near and far which march around the area singing as a way of purifying the building and dedicating it to God. The walls in and of themselves are just stones. It is the song with walls rebuilt that make the structure sacred. It is the song which blesses the building. It is the ancient song of praise that says, “This space is holy. This space is to re-connect us with one another and with God.”
Perhaps this is what Jesus wants to remind his followers when he tells them not to be deceived when others come claiming to be him, claiming to bring answers that are not really the truth. Jesus could be telling them not to forget the song of salvation that he has brought. There may be birth pains, but a song will arise again. God’s people will still sing of a hope of walls rebuilt—of shelter again given, of a space once again made holy by God’s presence.
Which brings me back to Notre Dame. After the fire, the space between the sanctuary walls was silent. A place where songs of praise had been sung for centuries was quiet amid the ashes and dust. There was no singing for over a year after the blaze gutted the church, but on December 25, 2020 a long-standing tradition was revived. There was a Christmas concert in the old cathedral. It was a little different than before.
There were no large crowds in attendance. The smaller group of singers wore construction jumpsuits and hard hats. But a song still rose in the midst of the scaffolding and braces. A story was remembered of a sacred Silent Night and once again the holiness of God could be felt within the cathedral walls.
Whether it is the walls of Jerusalem, or the walls of a cathedral, that have come crashing down, or whether it is the religious, societal, or mental structures which have given shape to our lives that have come crashing down, people of faith respond with the hope that things can be rebuilt. We respond with a song that recalls it is the Spirit which brings us into God’s presence and not the brick and mortar of buildings.
We respond with remembering the ancient story of a Savior who can bring beauty from our ashes and who calls us out of what was once destroyed in order that we might rise again. Amen.