When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus 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."
he tricky thing about reading apocalyptic texts is to remember that they are always written after the event they seem to predict has happened. They are not predictions of things to come in the far-off future of the reader. They are the remembered stories told by the author to an original audience to help make sense and meaning out of a calamity that is currently unfolding or has recently unfolded.
The Gospel of Luke was most likely composed sometime between the year 80 and 100 A.D. In the year 70 A.D. Rome lay siege to Jerusalem and the Second Temple was destroyed. It was an event that rocked the Jewish tradition, and by extension, the early Christian communities. The center of religious identity had been destroyed. The repository of tradition, knowledge, and sacred objects had been lost. Jewish and Christian communities all over the empire lived in uncertainty and fear of further persecution from the authorities. They lived with the anxious knowledge that at any moment their neighbors, their friends, even their own families could turn them over to the powers that be. They lived with the dread knowledge that imprisonment, torture, even death were real possibilities, hanging over their heads like a sword.
It is to this reality that the author of Luke writes. Into this world of fear, anxiety, and dread, the author remembers this encounter, this saying of Jesus, and shares it as a source of strength. To this community left to grapple with the rubble of the Second Temple, Jesus’ words today are a reassurance against the real uncertainties of their lives.
“Do you see this great temple?” Jesus asks. “The day will come when not one stone will be left standing on another,” his words echoing through almost a century to a scared community of his followers, huddled together around a table in someone’s home, as they broke bread together.
“The day will come when you will be persecuted and arrested. The day will come when your family and friends betray you, and you will be handed over, and they will put some of you to death. The day will come when you will be hated because of my name,” Jesus warned.
“But do not let yourselves be distracted and do not let yourselves be led astray,” he continued. “For though you may die, you shall not perish, and if you endure, something far greater awaits you.”
Now, admittedly, this may not sound all that comforting. Jesus does not promise that his followers will be without struggle, or pain, or suffering. What Jesus does promise is that there is another possibility at work. It is the promise that the present trajectory of things is not immutable.
Author and noted religious scholar, Reza Aslan, is quoted with saying, “It is the job of the historian to say what is likely, and of faith to say what is possible.”
Humans are remarkably predictable, and we have thousands of years of human behavior to draw upon as we look at the future that is before us. What’s more, we are imperfect and broken in many varied but consistent ways; when presented with the same opportunities, we will make the same mistakes over and over again. There is no new sin in creation, just the same old sins in a repeating loop.
When times are good, we neglect the poor and we despise the needy. We deafen our ears to the plights of the suffering and we blind our eyes to the injustices acted out in our midst. When times are bad, we isolate ourselves and lash out in our fear against those who are different. We make scapegoats of the foreigner, the one who is different from ourselves, and the person who cannot defend themselves. When times are bad, it is dangerous to be the person labeled “other.”
It is true in our own day. It was true in Jesus’ day. And it has been true in every era of human history. The community for whom the Gospel of Luke was written knew that it was true as well. They knew the reality of the world in which they lived. They knew what was likely in the future that lay before them.
The Good News that this community received, is that the likely outcome is not the only possibility. Indeed, the Good News that we receive today is that there is still yet another possibility in play. Jesus urges us to remain true, to endure, because there is still another possibility.
Do not be distracted by human fear, my friends, for in Christ there is a new possibility. Do not be distracted by portents of war and destruction, my friends, for in Christ there is a new possibility. Do not be distracted by hatred or by racism, by xenophobia or homophobia, by persecution or by insult, my friends, for in Christ there is a new possibility.
And what is that new possibility? It is the possibility that our brokenness be healed and we be made whole. It is the possibility of redemption and transformation. It is the possibility of new creation, of God’s Kingdom coming near to us.
What must we do find this new possibility before us? We must endure. We must trust in Christ.
But—ah yes, there is a but—trusting in Christ does not mean we get to lean back and take a nap. It does not mean we get to check out and go on long, brisk walks in the woods. It does not mean that we get to turn our backs on the world and lose ourselves in our gardens, or in a good book, or in developing opinions about craft-brewed beer. Trusting in Christ does not mean contenting ourselves in idleness with the expectation that God will do our work for us. That is not trust. That is hopelessness. That is despair. That is the absence of faith.
Endurance is not passive; it requires effort, it is active. Trusting in Christ does not abdicate us of responsibility. Trusting in Christ gives us the courage and confidence to stand up to the brokenness and sin of our world. It gives us the courage to oppose hatred and oppression wherever it is found. It gives us the courage to overcome fear and isolation. It gives us courage to reach across division and offer healing to society’s wounds. It gives us courage to look one another face to face and eye to eye until we can see that it is the same breath that animates us, the same spirit that fills our lungs, for we are all children of God.
The first Christian communities did not shrink away from the world. They did not hide beneath their beds in fear or settle only for prayer taken in the quiet escapes from reality. They stood boldly in the face of uncertainty and persecution, and fed the poor, cared for the sick, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner. They stood firm before betrayal and even death, proclaiming boldly the Gospel message, the Good News that there is a new possibility for all of creation.
The new possibility offered to us in Christ is not that the world will be changed to our own liking. The new possibility is that we ourselves might be transformed and so transform the world. If we can but trust in Christ, if we can but endure, then we will find something far greater, we will find that the Kingdom God has indeed come near to us.
Preached by Adam Yates