When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “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.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ 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.” Then he said to them, “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 before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So 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. You will be betrayed even 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 not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
There are moments in our life when we lose all orientation. The inevitable moment in which there is something that should be and is not. The loss of loved ones, those bright flames we knew that kept us warm and showed the way. The loss of health, the end of peace and the beginning of worry. Great catastrophes, the destruction of a nation’s concept of safety, the continual attack on innocents in schools across the country. There are pillars that hold up the world as we know it, and when those pillars disappear we have to make a choice – will we give in to despair or pursue a new future, stay in a place of disorientation or chase after a new understanding of the world we live in.
We have previously looked together at the exile of God’s people. The build-up of injustice between neighbors and in systems of the ruling class allowed for a great deal of evil to be perpetrated in Judah. The exile to Babylon left them with the choice to be vengeful – asking God to do the unspeakable to their enemies – or else left them mourning the loss of their security. Yet, from these two obvious choices, a third one sprouted up, the impossible hope of a return from exile, the impossible hope of redemption for God’s people. Those who held onto the idea that God was not done with Judah, not done with any of the Children of Israel, and that somewhere down the line they would return home, and they would find orientation once again.
The people were able to return to Judah, and under the imperial edict of Cyrus the Great, they were permitted to rebuild the Temple. Cyrus was not some great benefactor who saw the light in the case of Judah, but a shrewd tyrant. In giving displaced peoples funds enough to rebuild their temples, and through placing strategic officers in high positions, he made sure his new subjects would not be interested in rebellion.
The tactic worked, and Judah was so impressed that he became the first foreign ruler to be given the title, “מָשִׁיחַ” or Messiah. The exuberance of the people returning from Exile saw this man, this person who had given them back their temple, as a ruler who was worthy of a title only given to priests and Davidic kings until now. They looked at their Temple and their Walls and away from the abuses which Cyrus executed against the oppressed of the Persian empire. The taxes the broke the backs of the poor, the officials who were more interested in the foreign courts of Persia, all erased because a new center of orientation was created – a new Temple that the people could gather around.
Cyrus died, and then Persia was conquered by Greece. Alexander the Great began a program that would establish a Greek-speaking and Greek acting empire. The people of Judah were not an exception, and under the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes Judah and especially Jerusalem became like many other Greek cities. The Temple became a center of Greek Worship, and those who opposed were silenced through any means necessary. Following a lengthy revolutionary war, the Jewish people liberated themselves from Greece and established a new dynasty – a family that became gave a priest and a king – two Messiahs – that the people could look up to.
There was discontent among the people, they saw in the brutal uprising of the Maccabees another problem. If God wanted to bring peace only through these rebellions, then the only thing that would come again and again is more blood. So the belief began to form, among pious people not content with endless wars, that someday God would give a true anointed to God’s people. That a final victory could still be one, after which peace would reign. These people waited for God to inaugurate a kingdom of righteousness, and they believed that God – through individuals like Daniel had revealed a hidden secret. This revealing was understood through a single Greek word that over time would become loaded with meaning – revelation, ἀποκάλυψις, or as we call it today an apocalypse.
Those who ascertained these secrets formulated a great many ways to know the secrets of God’s work. They described monsters and signs in the sky. Warriors made of metal and fire. Dark creatures locked beneath the pillars of the earth and wrapped in adamantine chains. The complex symbolism of the Apocalyptics was never what it seemed – it was simultaneously literal and metaphorical, a conception of realities that cannot be described and of present events that demanded to be interpreted.
I have on my shelf in my office a collection of various Jewish texts that anticipated the coming of God into a new and glorious age. There are thirty-three such texts in the two-volume set alone. Each one looking out at the world in which the author lived, and simultaneously looking past it to a reality that was beyond them. To a reality where God was fully in command, where no one questioned what was right because that was all they knew. A world without tears or violence or unpleasantness, but only the good gifts of God and the fullness of communion with all believers.
By the time of Jesus, this worldview was common among the Jewish people. It was irregular, as in the case of the Sadducees, to not believe in some aspect of God’s immediate return to redeem God’s people. For Judah, the expectation was that God would come and destroy Rome, the oppressive regime that had stolen their sons and daughter and turned them into the foodstuffs for a military-industrial complex that was cruel and calculated. For the people Jesus speaks to in our scripture today, they each had their own take on what would happen in Judah, and they had a definite idea of what God’s anointed would look like when they appeared.
Jesus spoke against the views of almost every one of them though. The end would not come in the triumph of Jerusalem and the destruction of Rome – but would only come after Jerusalem was demolished and Rome victorious. When the Temple was plowed over and had a temple to Zeus built overtop of it. The Messiah would not be a great king or priest or warrior who would kill God’s enemies, but a humble teacher who would die for them.
Jesus’ words stand out in our text because, as in the time of Jesus, we have things that we cannot imagine losing in our life. People we love, places we depend on, ideas that give us a constant place to return to and find peace. All these things inevitably do disappear. We learn we grow, our opinions and views change. The buildings we meet in inevitably crumble, and eventually, even the greatest cathedral turns to sand. Hardest of all, friends loved ones, and ministers in our life eventually grow old and die. We reach a place of disorientation, we lose track of our footing, and we all ask for a sign.
Jesus’ message to us it that we will never know when the world will be turned on its head. We do not know when we will see war, rebellion, oppression. We do not know when we will get a diagnosis that sends us reeling or a phone call that destroys our heart. Jesus asks us to be alert, to be prepared but does not ask us to become worried about what is to come, but neither does Jesus ask us to be disinterested. The love that people had for the Temple is not what Jesus speaks against here, nor does Jesus speak against our desire for security and peace. What Jesus asks of us all is to be prepared when security disappears from us, when the world is turned upside down, so that we are not mislead in the aftermath.
Jesus warns that many will falsely come in Christ’s name when the Temple falls, all claiming that this is the final sign of the end times and some even claiming to be the one God has anointed to lead the people through them. Think of every major disaster that makes the news cycle. Within an hour ministers begin flooding the airways with messages – “This is the sign – this is the thing – follow me and we’ll be the ones to make it.”
On a more personal scale, there are always those who try, sometimes unintentionally, to manipulate us in times of grief. Those who tell us, “God is testing you,” “It’s all part of the plan,” “Don’t be sad!” “Be thankful it isn’t worse.” These are all common messages which serve one of two purposes – erasing the pain of the grieving because it makes those around them uncomfortable, or else manipulating the grieving into legitimizing the views feelings of those around them. The grieving are easy targets for those who want to control others.
Yet Jesus tells us something else. That even if the world should end, we can confidently follow Christ into tomorrow. When we hear of disaster, there can still be healing. When the Temples that we orient ourselves around are demolished, new ones will be built. Jesus insists that no matter what hardships we face – war, disease, betrayal, family dissolution, even death itself – that God is with us. Christ looks to the grieving and gives assurance and blessing, taking nothing to advantage himself in the process…
We follow a God who suffered with us. We follow a God who knows death and betrayal. A God who mourned the passing of friends. A God who knew all hardships of disease, of pain, of suffering, and of loss. This God does not look and tell us to, “endure,” as if that is an easy thing to do. This is a God who asks us to do so with the assurance that, just as Christ was not destroyed in death nor God in the loss of the Temple, we shall not be destroyed in our times of distress. The message today and always, no matter what the age or the signs of the time is simple, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you – even to the end of the age.” – Amen.