Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
It can’t have been easy for Christ’s disciples. Each of them had been brought up to love their Scriptures and at least to respect if not revere those who taught them. The Temple itself had a very special place in their hearts. The feasts and festivals, the priesthood and all the institutions of Judaism were woven into the fabric of their lives. So, when Jesus had announced to them that he would be rejected by the religious authorities in Jerusalem and killed, it had rocked them to the core.
All the way along their journey to Jerusalem he sought to prepare them for this opposition. Now they were starting to see it first-hand. Even the joy of the procession into Jerusalem had been marred by criticism. Christ’s lament over Jerusalem revealed not only his compassion but the entrenched nature of the city’s rejection of him.
And storm clouds were gathering. The atmosphere had become increasingly hostile. They had watched on as the religious leaders of various stripes had attempted to trap Jesus into saying something that would give them the excuse they needed to have him arrested. And while Jesus brilliantly caught them each time in their own trap, that was clearly only adding to the determination of his opponents to destroy him. His actions in the temple, the devastating parable of the vineyard and his very public warnings about the Scribes could only spell more trouble. At the moment the crowd was on their side but crowds are notoriously fickle. It was all rather difficult to come to terms with.
They were standing in the Temple. As they looked at it, they couldn’t help remarking on the sheer beauty, both of its stonework and of the varied and colourful expressions of people’s religious devotion with which the interiors were adorned. This was a welcome distraction. Art, in its various forms, is one of the lovely parts of life. And one of the most important. Flowers make a much better (and wiser!) present for my wife on special occasions than potatoes.
For some (perhaps many) this is all that really matters when it comes to religion and the worship of God: the beauty of the building, the forms of worship, the aesthetics of the music. These things can easily be mistaken for genuine spirituality. They are not the same. At the beginning, human beings used the beauty of the garden to hide from God. But art and beauty couldn’t mask the ugliness of the corruption and rebellion against God that were contained there. “The time will come,” said Jesus, “when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Long before, in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, many people clung on to the belief that God would never allow the nations to sweep in and destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, no matter how corrupt Israel’s worship had become. And yet God did precisely that. One of the lessons history teaches is that we don’t always learn the lessons it teaches! Because of his people’s unrepentant perversion of what the Temple stood for and their rejection of his Son, God was going to permit both the temple and the city to be destroyed once more.
The stones are worth thinking about. Art in its various forms is such a rich part of life, to be celebrated and enjoyed. But it isn’t the highest part of life. Our relationship with the Creator is. It would be a serious mistake to allow beautiful stones, or any other form of aesthetic beauty to distract our attention from God himself.