It is very easy for us to mistake things that seem important for things that are actually important in the end. The current use of the word 'ultimate' rather encourages this! For the word ultimate means last, and only in that sense 'best'. So when we hear a marketer tell us that such and such a product is the 'ultimate' of its kind, we might reasonably hope that it is not in fact the last we shall see. I do not want to go to my ultimate holiday destination, as that might mean an end to vacations! The disciples however were feeling that the temple could not be bettered, and that was a mistake that Jesus was quick to point out, prophesying correctly that within forty years of his death not one stone would be left upon another. The disciples thought the temple was the ultimate thing, that if it was destroyed it would be the end of the world. But Jesus was telling them that this was not so. Only God is ultimate. In the end only what we build with God can endure, and we must not mistake what we consider important, our pet project, our vital concerns however admirable, with what is ultimately important.
So, moving back in time, imagine the world to which the Jewish people returned after their period of exile and submission to the Babylonians. They knew how great the temple had been under Solomon, and how lovely the city had been, but now they were walking through the rubble of their lost nation. We only have to picture some of the desolate scenes currently coming out of Syria and Iraq to imagine how they must have felt. It is not always easy to rebuild, either something physical, or something more intangible, like a relationship or a dream.
The American commentator Seth Godin in a recent blog, in part responding to the recent political shift in the US, wrote:
"Sometimes, the wind is at our back, the resources are easily acquired and good karma increases our ability to do great work Sometimes. Other times, it feels like we're up against it, that the wind has shifted, that there's not a lot of opportunity or momentum It's in those times that, "what are you working on?" becomes a vital question, a lifeline to get us from here to there. Trainwrecks, tantrums, massive shifts in the way things are and are supposed to be--they make it difficult to concentrate, to plan, to leap.. We each have a platform, access to tools, a change we'd like to make in the world around us. We each have a chance to connect, to see, to lead. And it's not, at least right now, fun or easy. It might not even seem like you've got a shot, or that the wind is too harsh. Persist. It matters."
Persist. It matters. So what are we working on? Well the short answer is that we are working on the kingdom of God - because that, unlike the Temple or our latest career move, or the election of a president is what ultimately matters. And if we want a reminder of what that looks like, we have only to read Isaiah, who in the passage we heard today invites us to imagine a world that has security, prosperity and purpose, 'for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.'
And these things are possible because we are God's own project; God is working on us. Our attentive, responsive God is working constantly to bring in a new thing. We have only to imagine that it is possible and do everything we can to co-operate. As the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes: "Ours is not an empty world of machinery where we get what we have coming to us. No! Caring, healing communication is still possible. Life is not a driven or anxious monologue. The Lord is findable.... And that is the song of the promises and the image of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, and we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it"
So imagine! Imagine that new world and live as it were already here.
by Penny Jones, for Pentecost 26, Sunday 13 November 2016