What do you do when the world around you seems to be falling apart? What do you do When things you had placed great confidence in begin to crumble, or you discover they are a lie?
How do you prepare for predicted disaster and devastation?
Many in this country have predicting and proclaiming the end of things as we know them. Internal and ideological wars and rumors of wars have filled our tv screens and Facebook feeds. Many, many people have appeared and said I am he, or I am she. Only I can save this country.
People have been arrested while protesting the value of black lives and protecting sacred land. Nations have risen up against nation, party against party, neighbor against neighbor.
The times we live in don’t sound that different from Jesus’ words in our gospel text this morning. So. What does this mean? Are these the “End Times” – that time that people since even before the time of Christ have felt are imminent? And if these are the times that Jesus seems to be talking about – what are we to do? Our temptations range from sticking our head in the sand and ignoring what’s going on around us to mounting an angry rebellion. And either of those responses seem reasonable – and were common to Jesus’ time as well.
Let’s step back a little from the emotion and the rhetoric from our reading and from current events and look a little closer at the text.
Jesus and his disciples have been hanging out at the temple in Jerusalem. Just before these verses they had watched the widow drop her 2 coins into the offering plate. Once again, Jesus was using an old woman, a widow to teach these young men what life in God’s reign looked like. After that I guess nothing much was happening and the disciples started laying back and looking around. “I can’t get over how amazingly big and beautiful this place is. All that gold and gems everywhere. And all this to glorify God. Have you ever seen something like this Jesus? Isn’t it wonderful?” Those seem like perfectly legitimate responses to the grandeur of the temple.
Jesus quietly looked around for a bit “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
This temple was a symbol of Yahweh’s relationship with God’s chosen people, and a symbol religious security and strength. Announcing its destruction would be a little disconcerting.
Now, this temple they were sitting in was also known as Herod’s temple – this wasn’t the Herod that tried to kill Jesus as a baby, but that of his Father. Yes, this was a place for the Jewish people to gather to worship, but like any good political leader, Herod had spent time visiting neighboring countries and saw the amazing temples built to their gods, and well, like any good politician, he didn’t want to be outdone. So, he made sure “his” temple was as good as theirs, if not better. Public works projects and personal vanity have been with us for millennia. And, let us not forget that Herod was an agent of the occupying Roman empire. As we know from the story of Jesus’ passion, local religious and political leaders were pretty intertwined. It seems that as much as the temple was a place of worship and religious identity, it was also a symbol of political domination and hubris.
Political and religious forces had taken an institution that was supposed to be a place where the people of Israel worshiped Yahweh, and turned it into a political tool to help uphold the empire.
So, even though this place still had deep religious resonance for the people – and for Jesus as well – perhaps we shouldn’t be too startled that Jesus essentially declares “The foolish man built his house on the sand and the walls will come tumbling down.”
Not surprisingly, the disciples are surprised by this declaration and want more information. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
There they are lounging underneath the high ceiling and heavy walls of the temple, and Jesus says that this place is going to crumble – so, yeah, they want to know when and if they should leave, now. But I find it curious they also ask “What will be the sign this is about to take place?” They want to know what will happen before this destruction is about to happen. They want to know when and how to prepare.
To recap the story so far. The disciples are marveling at how beautiful the temple is, Jesus tells them it is going to fall apart, and the disciples urgently want to know when.
In response to the question Jesus begins a progressively dark and discouraging description of future events. (With language that feels all too current.)
Early on in his reply, however, Jesus gives a warning to their pressing question of “when will this happen.” He says people will come saying the end is near – and Jesus tells the disciples – ignore those people. His instructions in these couple of verses – “Don’t be deceived. Don’t follow them. Don’t be terrified.” The disciples’ big questions are when will this happen, and how do I prepare, and Jesus recognizes their anxiety and tells them to chill. Jesus knows that the events he is discussing have reason to cause people to be anxious and afraid and he knows that fear is not conducive to good decision making. Jesus warns, Don’t feed into the chaos going around you. Don’t become another cable news head yelling idiotic things at other people yelling idiotic things. And don’t trust people who offer easy answers that feed your fears. Be wise, be cautious, and don’t be afraid. My very loose paraphrase of Jesus’ response “Don’t forget to breathe, and don’t be stupid.”
But then he goes on to describe horrible future events. But his description of all the horrible events messes up with anybody’s attempt to create a timeline. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you”
Jesus is not trying lay out the linear flow of future events. In fact, it seems like Jesus is trying to intentionally thwart any efforts to draw out a logical progression of events. I think Jesus is simply describing the world as it is, or as it can seem.
It is a noteworthy to remember, that the Gospel of Luke was written in the latter half of the first century – scholars suggest around the year 85. This temple that the disciples were sitting in and admiring – it was destroyed in 70 AD, 15 years earlier. All the people reading this text know the temple as a destroyed ruin, and these people live a deeply persecuted life. So, for the first readers or hearers of Luke’s gospel, their reaction to Jesus description will likely be (like ours is) “Yes, that describes the world as it is right now.”
And all this brings us to what I think is the key to this passage – this is the message that Jesus had for his disciples and for us. “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
All these things that are happening – the war, the portents, the persecution – they are going to happen. And what should your response be?
“Go out and make disciples.”
“Make a joyful noise to the lord.”
Testify that the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
Testify that the one who is able to destroy the temple, in three days will build it up again.
Testify in word and deed to the love and justice that you know is true.
And because Jesus knew well his disciples (and us) and our propensity to anxiety and worry, he knew to immediately add “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”
As Jesus so often tells his disciples he once again tells them – don’t worry. Don’t worry about when these things shall happen, don’t worry about what we shall say, don’t worry about what we shall eat and drink. I am with you, and that is all you need.
After Jesus warns against being anxious about preparing, he ends this passage with a challenge. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Earlier Jesus called us to testify, and he ends by telling us not to stop testifying. We are to respond to the never-ending flow of news and of our own experience of war, violence, and persecution with our own endless testifying to the love and forgiveness of God.
Another translation ends this section with “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” This topic of perseverance should be a familiar one for some of us as a few Sundays ago Melanie preached about the widow who kept bothering the judge and Jesus’ instruction to persevere in prayer.
This past Monday I sat with the group in the basement of St John Student Center where we prayed and meditated on this scripture. And within that time of silent meditation the theme of perseverance came to the foreground as something for me to pay attention to. Then, Tuesday morning, I was up early as and resumed listening to an audio book about Lakota Native American stories and teachings and the very next chapter was all about the value of perseverance. All this may all just be for me – but I feel like God is trying to tell me something.
Testify, and don’t give up. Our relationship with God, and with others, and the coming of God’s reign is not a one and done event. They are the results of our continually putting one foot in front of the other – even when you feel discouraged and even when you cannot see more than a foot ahead of you, even when there are wars, and false leaders, and persecution. We don’t testify to the love of God only when we really feel it or when it fits our schedule or when it feels safe to do so, but we keep testifying. We persevere because we have hope.
To recap, let’s look once again at Jesus’ instructions to his anxious disciples.
• Don’t be deceived and don’t be misled.
• Don’t be afraid. Don’t be anxious.
• But testify. And despite everything going on around you, or more importantly because of everything going on around you, keep on testifying to the thing you know to be true. The love and justice that God desires for everyone and for all creation.