One of the things I love about preaching from the lectionary, or the three-year cycle of scripture, is I am often given a text that I would otherwise never choose. This is one of them. I have sat with this scripture all week, mulling over it. Whether it has been in the car as I drove back and forth from Rochester. Or waiting in hospital rooms. Every time I read it, I got depressed. Jesus says, there will be wars and insurrections. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and famines and plagues. But, before all of this, Jesus tells his followers, you will be arrested and persecuted. You will be handed over to synagogues and prisons, you will be brought before kings and governors. You will be betrayed by parents and siblings, relatives and friends, and some will be put to death and all of you will be hated because of my name. But, cheer up, Jesus concludes, not a hair on your head will perish and by your endurance you will gain your souls. Like I said, I have been mulling over this scripture all week trying to find some good news in it, but the closest I’ve come is that at least at the end of our time our hair will still look good. But that can’t be right. So, let’s look at it again.
It begins with Jesus in Jerusalem, with the disciples talking about the Temple, and how it is adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. We can almost see it in our imaginations. Beautiful and grand, filled with reminders of God, reminders of family celebrations, reminders of history and community. The grandeur was a comfort and a reminder of God’s presence. And as the disciples marveled at the Temple, Jesus says to them, “As for these things that you see, the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
The Temple was huge! It had taken 46 years to build. Herod the Great had decided it would be his legacy and he didn’t spare any expense. He built a huge rectangular retaining wall made out of quarried stones the size of box cars. He filled that with dirt and built a level platform on top the length of 5 football fields. In the middle of that he built the Temple itself out of gleaming white marble. And, he covered the eastern wall with gold to reflect the rising sun. To imagine all of that would be destroyed, that not one stone would be left on top of another, would have boggled the mind. It would have stunned the senses. But, 40 years after Jesus, that prediction came true. In 70 AD, after a four year Roman-Jewish war and a 6 month siege of Jerusalem, the Temple came down. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus described it like this: “As soon as the Roman army had no more people to slay or plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, Ceasar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple. The wall surrounding Jerusalem was so thoroughly laid level to the ground for those who dug out the foundation, that there was nothing left that could lead one to believe that Jerusalem had ever been inhabited.”
Jesus was right about the Temple. And if he was right about that, he may have been right about all of those other things he had predicted. He said there would come a time that those who followed him would be enemies of the state. That they would be dragged before kings and governors because of his name. He said there would come a time when members of their own families would turn them over to the authorities. That all of them would be hated. So, imagine this: Jesus is standing in our sanctuary and announcing there will come a time when everything we can see here today will be thrown down. The organ pipes will be twisted and the stained-glass windows will be shattered. There won’t be one stone standing on top of another. If we are anything like those disciples in today’s gospel lesson, we would say, “What!?!” And then we would want to know, “When?” And this is where we need to pay close attention to what Jesus is saying. Because people are always talking about such things. Almost from the beginning of the world, there has been someone predicting the end of the world. If you remember, quite recently, the Mayan calendar seemed to suggest the world would end in 2012. I was a hospital chaplain that year and as we approached, “The End,” I got asked about it almost every day. “Beware that you are not led astray,” Jesus says, “For many will come in my name and say ‘I am he and the time is near’ but do not go after them. 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.” He said to them, “nation will rise against nation, 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, that’s not the end either. Before all of this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you. You will be handed over to prisons and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. You will be betrayed by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends. And they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but that’s not the end either.”
You may have noticed that, if you have been paying much attention in worship, that during these last weeks of November, our scripture readings focus endings – the end of the world as we know it, the consummation of all creation, the end of time, the 2nd coming of the Lord. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He envisions the end of the ritual sacrifice which happened there, the tumbling down of the ONE THING that the Jewish people could be certain of. If the temple were ever destroyed, it would feel like the end of the world for God’s chosen people. And not only that….according to Jesus, peaceful societies will crumble into violence, and comfortable cultures will unravel into famine. Family ties will come undone, relatives will hand over family members to the authorities, and people will be thrown into prison simply for being believers. Your peaceful world, Jesus says, is coming to an end. Sobering stuff! Jesus doesn’t hold back. He tells the truth, in vivid language.
The problem is that, in almost every century, someone has read this vivid Gospel language. Then they look at the world as they experience it. Then they stand up and say, “The end is happening now! This end that Jesus predicts is happening right now… or, at least, next week.” In the past couple of years, haven’t we heard pundits – liberal and conservative – who keep warning us that the end of civilization is just around the corner? Some tell us that global warming is going to destroy us. Others tell us that ‘Obamacare’ is going to destroy us. Some tell us that people of a different faith will destroy us. Others predict that sinners, or strangers, or scandals will destroy us. But seriously – we can have a serious problem with a passage such as this. And here’s the problem: Jesus’ description of the end of the world – and what will lead up to it – can be applied to every century of every era, if we apply just enough pressure and creativity to the Gospel text. After all, Jesus says that, just before the end, we will see wars, famines, earthquakes, and people of faith betrayed and persecuted. Well, those things have happened in every century since Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected. And they are still happening. Sadly, I suspect they will continue to happen.
So, if we hear a text like this and we focus on a question such as: ‘when the end will come? When will it all come crumbling down?’ we may be missing the main point. I’m not sure that Jesus described the end of the world so that you and I can stockpile food, move to a bunker and live in fear. When the Lord spoke these words, he knew what he was trying to convey. Inspired by the Spirit, we need to listen as best we can. And I am sure that a vivid Gospel passage like this one speaks to us of many truths, on many levels.
Today, let me focus on just one: I think that Jesus describes the end of the world in vivid language because, in every century, ordinary people have moments when they feel like THEIR WORLD is falling apart. And he wants to remind us that, through the mystery of his dying and rising, we will see a new beginning coming out of every painful ending. We can trust that painful endings can lead to a new and more abundant life.
In the past 12 months, I’ll bet that everyone here today has experienced some kind of painful ending. Some of your dreams have crumbled. Part of the world that you have built may feel like it’s fallen apart. Some of your hopes got dashed. Something – or someone – you thought you could always count on, could always trust, has been taken away, has crumbled, leaving you breathless. Jesus reminds us that the way to approach these painful endings is trust – trust that God can create something new out of the most desolate place. Your spouse dies. Your child gets sick. Your marriage ends. Your job disappears. You fail the test. You struggle with addiction. You get into legal trouble. Someone told you that you don’t have what it takes…. It feels like the temple in Jerusalem – your touchstone with God – is falling to the ground. It feels like your world is crumbling around you. Then God says: Every cross leads to Easter. Every passion leads to resurrection. Jesus died…then he rose. And you will too. That’s the center of our faith- not a building, but a belief that our relationship with the Risen One leads us from death to new life. Believe it. Live it. Cling to it. Share it and show it to your friends, neighbors and even your enemies through your words and deeds.
In these terrifying verses there is indeed good news. There is indeed hope. We are reminded that God will be with us through whatever destruction comes to our lives as we know them and not even the hairs on our head will be out of place. When it feels like the world is crumbling around us, God will protect us. When we are afraid of what comes next, God will be alongside us. And as we rise up again, and shake the dust from our feet, God will be supporting us. So, the question for us doesn’t need to be, “when will the world that we feel so comfortable in come apart?” Because the answer is “it can and will happen far too frequently, but God will never abandon you.” For the ancestors of our faith to hear about and then experience the destruction of their Temple likely felt like too much to bear. That God had abandoned them. But we are hear 2000 years later still telling the same stories, hearing the same Good News, and finding the hope of God’s constant presence.
My Beloved Community, things will change in our world and in our lives. We will experience destruction and at times it will feel overwhelming. But we are can assured that never will we have to experience it alone or apart from God. That is the best Good News I can think of. Let us live into the Good News. Let us share it with those in our lives who are feeling too much destruction and not enough of God. Let us share it with the world by being a people of resurrection, of hope and new life. And brining that new life to all of those places in the world that need it the most. For God will be with us today, tomorrow, and to the end of our days. Amen.