A Homily for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who is coming again in glory. Amen.
Rome. The Eternal City.
It sounds like the tagline for a fantastic tourism ad campaign. Or maybe like it was written by some 19th century Romantic, as though Percey Shelley coined the phrase in writing to Keats. Or perhaps it’s some medieval papal propaganda, as though Boniface IX granted Rome the title to spite those antipopes in Avignon?
The moniker actually dates back much, much further. The Roman poet Tibullus first called Rome Urbs Aeterna in the first century while the empire was still pretending to be a republic. The city was already seven centuries old. And this before Octavian became the Augustus and built his palatial estate on Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus, before Vespasian ordered the construction of the Colosseum, and before the Arch of Titus was built, dedicated “to the divine Titus Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian.” This arch celebrates the Roman military defeat of Jewish rebels, the ransacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.
Wandering around the city even in our current age, a student might gaze from the Colosseum past the Arch of Titus towards August’s palace and say, “Look, teacher! What large stones and what large buildings!”
We need not travel far to have a similar reaction, though. There are moments when I catch a view of Atlanta’s skyline – even from a distance – and ponder at how magnificent it all is. And if you’ve ever set foot in St. Philip’s cathedral in Buckhead or our namesake Lutheran church downtown, you might marvel, “What large stones and what large buildings!”
But what am I saying? To be certain, even the view of downtown Macon – say, from atop the mounds at Ocmulgee – is enough to inspire awe at human achievement.
But Rome, that eternal city, is most famous for its ruins – not for what’s still standing but for the once-great buildings that have been toppled by invasion, by vandals, and by the passage of time.
As Christ said, “Not a stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
No earthly city forged by human hands is eternal.
Our readings today pick back up in the Gospel according to St. Mark after a few weeks off to mark the Reformation and All Saint’s. Now, Jesus is in Jerusalem, preparing for the end. His disciples still haven’t quite caught on to what’s going to happen. They entered the city in a huge parade full of political symbolism. The city is bustling with pilgrims in town for Passover. Tensions are high with Roman soldiers ready to put down a revolt. And the disciples are ready for Jesus to ascend to David’s throne. “What large stones and what large buildings” indeed – because surely Jesus, as the royal heir, will reign over a united Israel with this glorious city as his capital, right?
What a let down it must have been when Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
I imagine the disciples kind of blinking in disbelief before one of them – let’s be honest, if anyone did this, it was probably Simon Peter – leaned over and said, “But we’ll rebuild after that, right? Right?”
But then they leave the city and cross the valley over to the Mount of Olives. Jesus begins to unpack everything he’s said: There will be false prophets and false saviors whispering, Place your trust in me; I alone can fix it. But don’t believe them – they will lead you astray. You will hear of strife and conflict, some of it real, some of it made up to cause you to panic. Nations will rage against each other, the earth will quake, and food will run out. And this is not the end but only the beginning.
Ah yes, we’ve reached that time of year, when decorations start going up, the carols start playing, and the Gospel reading focuses on the reason for the season: the End of Days. It’s beginning to look a lot like Armageddon. It’s a shortened season this year, to be sure, but the readings this time of year – all the way through the first two weeks of Advent – take an apocalyptic feel during the end of the liturgical calendar as we turn to the consummation of history.
On this penultimate Sunday of the church year, we end where we began, literally. Today’s reading from the “little apocalypse” ends mere verses before are reading from Advent I way back in December 2020, like a snake devouring its own tail.
But almost a year later, are still waiting – waiting for the same thing that we longed for in Advent. We are still looking east, waiting for that final victory, waiting for something better to come. We are still waiting, like the disciples nearly two thousand years ago. And we, like them, are waiting for something we don’t fully understand, placing our trust in things that will eventually crumble.
Some forty-odd years after Christ’s death and Resurrection, a group of Jewish zealots attempted to overthrow their Roman rulers. A riot turned into a rebellion turned into a war, and for four bloody years, the Romans ruthlessly pushed in on all sides, eventually laying siege to Jerusalem itself. Over the course of the summer in the year 70, they overpowered defense after defense, laying waste to the city before destroying the Temple itself on the 9th of Av. Not a stone left on stone.
The temple artifacts were carted off by the Romans, commemorated on the Arch of Titus in Rome itself, that Eternal City. But now, the Arch commemorating military victory looks out over the ruins of the Forum because the Eternal City has itself crumbled, and the Arch of Titus stands triumphant among tumbled stone.
Gospel readings like this are frightening because we know that they come true: cities and empires crumble. Every power and principality will eventually topple. The Romans conquered Jerusalem, but Rome was conquered by the Goths and the Ottomans, and those empires in turn collapsed. We delude ourselves if we think that our great buildings will stand any longer than the Temple in Jerusalem or the ruins of Rome.
No city built by human hands is eternal. No monument we build will last; not a stone will be left on stone.
The nations will rage against each other, kingdoms will tear themselves apart. The earth will shake. And all shall fade.
This is bad news to those who would cling to power in human nations – to wealth or to the judge’s gavel or the president’s mansion as their hope. The kingdoms of this world cannot stand. This is truly terrible, awful news if we think we can save ourselves. If we place our faith in anything we can do, we will have nothing but ash and dust.
But if we trust in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Heir of David, the Only Son of God, Eternally Begotten, Through Whom All Things Were Made, then on that Awesome Day, we shall see things for what they are: the earth trembling at the advent of her Creator, returning in victorious glory. The birth pangs will give way to new and everlasting life.
Yes, the first things will pass away. But a new heavens and a new earth will descend, and Christ will enter the New Jerusalem in triumph to sit upon the royal throne.