It’s Jerusalem; and it’s the time that we’ve come to know as “Holy Week,” those days just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. And indeed, the events leading up to that horrific event have already started to unfold: the Palm Sunday parade has come and gone, the shouts of Hosanna having given way to questions and threats and challenges to Jesus’ authority. Soon it will be the Passover, and with it will come the betrayal and desertion of Maundy Thursday; but as we pick up the story today, there’s this… moment in the temple where Jesus has been teaching the disciples and the gathered crowds.
And it’s one of those “wow, look at where we are, look at what we’re doing” kind of moments in that they’re admiring the massive beauty of this temple that’s all around them: the arches, the stones and jeweled pillars. The sheer scope of this place was simply amazing: it was said that the outer court alone could hold thousands of people. As Richard Swanson has written, the temple “was overwhelming, as befits the building that honors the God who alone is God;” indeed, to simply breathe the rarified air of such a place was to be filled with awe and wonder!
So what does Jesus say to them in the midst of this grandeur?
Well, you know… all this you’re looking at? “…the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Mark my words; every pillar, every stone: it’ll all end up nothing but a heap of rubble!
Now, in 21st century parlance we have a word for a response like that: it’s called a buzzkill! I mean, what a way to ruin a moment; and besides, the disciples couldn’t even conceive of anything like what Jesus was talking about. The temple; the very center of their national pride and spiritual life; this place that was the very seat of God: destroyed? Such a thing was unimaginable, unthinkable! But Jesus was resolute, and if the temple being thrown down wasn’t enough doomsday prophecy, he then goes on in great detail all the other “Coming Attractions” that will soon be arriving in their midst: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” But don’t worry, Jesus says to the now pale and slack-jawed disciples, “before any of that happens, they’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse.”
Whoa. I have to wonder as Jesus was laying this all out for them if some of those disciples were thinking that this was not at all what they’d signed up for! No doubt they were remembering how Jesus had told them were going to be “fishers of men,” and how the kingdom of heaven was supposed to be springing up like those seeds planted in good soil that provided the 100-fold harvest; instead what they’re getting is war, pestilence, and signs in the sun and moon that inevitably lead to a world filled with fear and foreboding! This was not the future they were expecting, and certainly not the one they wanted; and I don’t know about you, but I can understand how they must have felt: because frankly, it’s not the future I’m envisioning either!
Actually, I have to confess that as a pastor I’ve always found these passages in the gospels about “end-times” (or eschatology, as it’s referred to in theology) more than a little bit disconcerting. For one thing, it’s not the most uplifting of subject matter; as you folks know, I’m not one to step into this pulpit and preach gloom and doom and I know you don’t want to leave here this morning carrying the heavy burden of future global disaster (!); there’s more than enough bad news out there, so I suspect we’d all much rather spend our time basking in good news, and then, not unlike the disciples at the temple that day, take on the rest of the day bolstered by our own sense of awe at God’s presence and power!
And yet… it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t say all of what we’ve heard this morning randomly; these prophecies had in fact a direct correlation to the harsh reality of life in Israel at that time; that of civil wars, power and poverty, privilege and pain, even persecution for faith: a real world scenario, if you will, in which their very lives and the depth of their faith would most certainly come into play! And the truth of it is as much as we post-modern progressive Christians would like to avoid or ignore the issue, “except for the name and a few of the changes,” it’s pretty much the same real world scenario for us today! Indeed, so much of what Jesus is saying here sounds as though he’s heard the same kind of disturbing and unsettling news stories we all hear on a daily basis: to quote Will Willimon here, “those ancient words from Luke sound so foreign to our ears, so primitive with their prediction of wars and rumors of wars, of stones upturned, of pestilence and signs from heaven. Yet, strangely enough, we are coming to believe them.”
So the question becomes… what’s a believer to do?
How are we to deal with Jesus’ words about “the end of the age?” Are we meant to cower in fear for the disasters to come, or to run as far away from the realities of this world as we can; or are we, as some are wont to do, to start watching CNN and Fox News so to correctly “connect the dots” between our world and biblical prophecy, all the better to predict the exact day of the end of the world?
And the answer to this, of course, is… neither! And I can say this precisely because of the text this morning. You’ll also notice in that passage that as much as the disciples and others want to pin Jesus down as to the particular sign they ought to be watching for in advance of these events, it turns out that this is not what Jesus wants to talk about. What Jesus wants to do is to give them and us assurance; “do not be terrified,” he says! Do not be terrified! Whatever happens, he says, in whatever disaster or persecution you face in this world, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Yes, in the days that are coming you may very well be hated; despised and betrayed by those closest to you; some of you might not even survive. But know this: “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Now, on the face of it, this is upside down thinking indeed; the very idea that you will face all of these things, even to the point of being killed, and yet you won’t perish! But in fact what Jesus gives us here is amazing good news, for in the face of all these dire prophecies, this represents the best possible “coming attraction” for a difficult and confusing world. And it’s a reminder to us that in every generation there are things so large and global and unmanageable that our temptation is to either throw up our hands in despair, or else bury our heads in the sand in utter denial. But the good news amidst those realities is that you and I who are followers of Jesus Christ are called to a different response: that of endurance, patience and above all, faith. Ultimately, that’s what these “end of the world” verses are all about: it’s about how you and I are called to a life that looks above and beyond the “travails” of the world and focuses wholly on the promises of God in Christ to be with us “even unto the end of the age” and to keep us safe in his loving embrace.
In other words, what Jesus is saying here has less to do with us “looking for signs” than it does about the importance of our being the sign! Truly; even as we shudder at the ever unbalanced cycles of poverty and privilege that wreak havoc in our own time; even as we mourn the multitude of ways that “doing justice and loving mercy” has in this culture been supplanted by acts of terror and tumult; even as you and I find ourselves having to deal with persecution and the pain and complexity of trying to live with some kind of faithful integrity in a world that actively works against it; in the end, we can rejoice, for as followers of Jesus, we are people of a promise: the promise of God’s future that will overcome the world. By our lives and living we are the signs of that promised future; and so as such, yes we are truly the people of coming attractions!
You know, it’s said that the renowned Protestant theologian Karl Barth had on the wall of his study a very unique painting created by the 16th century German artist Matthias Grunewald, on which there was depicted an image of John the Baptist pointing a very long finger in the direction of Jesus, who in turn is depicted as hanging on the cross. The story goes that when visitors would come to ask Barth about his vocation as a theologian – about what it was that motivated and inspired him in his work – he would inevitably direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, explaining, “I want to be that finger.” His desire, you see; ultimately, the whole purpose of this man’s Christian work was centered on being the sign which pointed to the victory of Christ on the cross. And so it is for you and for me, friends; what we do in this life, whatever that happens to be, is ultimately meant to point the way!
You know, one piece of good news that’s inherent in all these biblical words of prophecy is that we already know how this story ends. God’s kingdom is coming; and in Jesus Christ we know for certain that that kingdom is coming soon, and very soon; in fact, in Jesus, it’s already started to be revealed. Now, when that kingdom comes in its fullness, we don’t know; perhaps it’ll be tomorrow, perhaps next year, perhaps in a thousand years – as Jesus himself said on many occasions, we “know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt. 25:13) But in the meantime, you and I are called to be the signs of the change that is coming, of that incredible new thing that God will be doing in the world; we’re to be the ones who by our very lives and living point others in the direction of God’s victory in Christ, and changes the world – or at least a small part of it – in the process.
In a very real way, our lives represent the promise of springtime in amidst the cold and dark of November! In moments of despair, we are the words of hope that bring healing; in the situations where anger seems to prevail, we are the attitude of joy that turns things around; we are the forgiveness that erases conflict; the shalom – God’s whole peace – that reverses injustice; and above all we are the love of Jesus Christ that forever conquers hatred. We are the people who boldly say to a world caught in the chaos and confusion of a world that’s spinning out of control…
The Kingdom of God is Coming Soon!
Beloved, may our lives proclaim this news boldly and gladly until that moment when all is fulfilled and every word and breath will say in unison,
Thanks be to God!
Amen and Amen!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry