A few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, Jill, our daughter, a nephew, and I drove the half hour from Paragould to Jonesboro to pay homage to my grandparents’ graves. After we visited the cemetery, on a whim I decided to swing by my grandparents’ house, which I’d not seen for twenty years. We made a slow drive-by 1244 Walnut Street. The outside of the house was unchanged; the yard was well-tended; and there was a man in the carport unloading his pickup truck. Because of the kind of person I am, we pulled up to the curb, stopped the car, and to Jill’s and the kids’ mild protest I got out to talk to the homeowner. It turned out that he’d been the sole resident of the house since my grandmother’s death; he’d bought it from my mother and uncle and lived there for two decades. And, he was happy to see us. We talked for several minutes, and then, to my surprise, he asked, “Do you want to come inside and see the house?”
I should have declined, but my curiosity got the better of me. We walked through the back door, and the experience was surreal. The floorplan remained vaguely as I recalled, but beyond that my memory of my grandparents’ house dissolved. Everything had been deconstructed. The Formica countertops were gone. The vinyl flooring was gone. The mid-century modern furniture was gone. The house was transformed. The homeowner was excited to show me the house anew, and it was very nice, but I rebelled against the transformation. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
We are not fans of the deconstruction of the familiar. Whether it’s our old haunts, our old habits, or our understanding of the world around us, there is a human tendency to cling to the familiar as an unchanging comfort. We want things to stay the same, when things are good but also, perversely, sometimes when things are bad. Even when it harms us, we would rather remain in the construction of the familiar than risk its deconstruction toward who-knows-what.
This is equally true of our faith. In seminary, I had a classmate who dropped out after one semester. He was almost frantic to escape the seminary, because the first-year curriculum is so much about deconstructing what we’ve understood about our faith: its origins, its presumptions, it’s unexamined conclusions. My classmate couldn’t bear to face deconstructing questions of his faith. He saw them as a threat to his belief system, as if God might dissolve in the questions, and so he bailed as quickly as he could.
Today’s Gospel passage is all about the deconstruction of the most familiar and, indeed, most vitally important. Those around Jesus are gazing at Herod’s temple, a massive architectural wonder of the world and the centerpiece of Jewish faith. Jesus declares that the temple will, soon and very soon, be deconstructed down to the last stone. His claim confuses and discomfits those around him. The temple is the most permanent thing they can imagine, and it is at the core of their identity. The notion of its deconstruction sends Jesus’ hearers into a frenzy of anxiety. They can’t imagine life without it.
About the temple, Jesus speaks literally. Within a few decades, Herod’s temple will be, in fact, razed to the ground. But Jesus also speaks metaphorically. In his own coming passion and death, every presupposition, expectation, and hope within the hearts and souls of his followers will crumble. At the foot of the cross, faith will itself collapse. All the hope that the disciples had placed in Jesus will be deconstructed, piece by piece, until they are left in the rubble.
The lectionary wisely pairs this passage from Luke with God’s closing speech in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah lives five hundred years before Jesus, during the era in which the first Jewish temple—Solomon’s temple—was destroyed. During Isaiah’s life, too, the Jewish world and faith was deconstructed, and Jews lived in a decades-long literal and spiritual exile. As Isaiah’s book nears its end, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, but it is not how they remember it. None of the familiar markers remain. The world they knew is gone, crumbled to the ground like Solomon’s temple. The people are bereft. They begin to wish they’d never returned home.
But notice: It is in that moment that God speaks a wondrous word. It is then that the very deconstruction that led to despair becomes, instead, a foundation for hope. Through Isaiah, God says to God’s shell-shocked people standing in the rubble, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
In other words, where the returning Jews see disaster, God sees building material. Where the Israelites see a life deconstructed, God sees a foundation on which to build something new. And note that God does not build from scratch. Whatever new heaven and new earth God will create—whatever new life God will birth—is made of the remnant of the old. God does not discard what was; God redeems it.
As I was racing out the back door of my grandparents’ old house, the new owner said, “Before you go, I want to show you your granddad’s woodshop.” Reluctantly, I crossed the carport and entered the shop, expecting it to be as different as the house. But with wonder in his eyes, the homeowner showed me the unique shelves my granddad Pop had made a half century ago using bicycle chains, the smooth worktable Pop had built that now held the woodwork of a different hand, the jars of nails, screws, and rivets that Pop had spent a lifetime collecting. “Your grandfather must have been something else,” the homeowner said to me, “Some of these things I couldn’t bear to change, so I’ve incorporated them, and I’m glad to have them.”
I left Pop’s woodshop with my perspective on the house as transformed as the house itself. It was new, but the new was built on the foundation of the old. And though what had been familiar to me was deconstructed and transformed, it was good.
The thing is, we don’t get the Gospel without the destruction of the temple. We don’t get to Easter resurrection without first spending time at the foot of the cross and in the tomb. We don’t walk long or far in this world without the comfortable, familiar, and expected ultimately being deconstructed, leaving us confused, anxious, and bereft. Whether it’s our haunts, our habits, our worldview, or our faith, sooner or later the world cracks and crumbles around us. What do we do then?
It is then that we most need to hear voice of God, who promises that deconstruction is never for its own sake. Whether God causes the deconstruction (as God sometimes does) or the world simply has its way with us (as the world often does), God will always seek to work redemption from the rubble. Where we may see only devastation, God says, “I am about to do a new thing! See, I make all things new.”
We look across the globe and our own community, and we see so much turmoil, so much centripetal force seeming to tear at the very fabric of all we know. In your own life, inside or out, you may be experiencing the same thing. The temples may be falling down. Hope may seem to hang by a thread. But God will never abandon or discard you. Beyond the deconstruction, Jesus promises not a hair of your head will perish. Beyond any exile, God promises to create you anew and give you joy and delight. And God will use the you-that-is and incorporate it, build upon it, redeem and transform it, into God’s new creation. And far beyond our individual lives, today both Isaiah and Jesus allude that what God does in each of us, God promises ultimately to do for the whole world. Eventually, even the broken fabric of our creation will all be made new: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” The time will come when all things are made new—you, me, the good world round about us—and the love of God in Christ will be all in all.[i]
[i] Ephesians 1:23