God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
I don’t know about you all, but I have a case of liturgical whiplash this morning. Last Sunday we heard Jesus in the Lukan version of the beatitudes, giving comforting words to his disciples: “Blessed are the poor, blessed are you who weep.”
Now we’ve jumped ahead 15 chapters in Luke’s gospel, and the tone is very different. Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and then goes full apocalyptic: “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.”
This is not the only frightening end-of-the-world passage in the Bible. There are similar descriptions in Matthew and Mark, as well as in Daniel and other books in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the most famous example of this kind of apocalyptic literature.
It’s oh-so-tempting to hear these passages and immediately try to map them onto our own experience. We hear about wars and natural disasters, and we think, “Hey, we have wars! We have natural disasters! Jesus must have been predicting this very moment in history!”
But before we try to find the apocalypse in our own time, let’s try to put ourselves back in the first century, listening to Jesus speak these words.
Imagine that you are there in Jerusalem, standing in the shadow of the Temple, that great building which is the heart of Jewish religion and culture. This passage comes shortly after Jesus has entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, welcomed as a king—the events we usually recall on Palm Sunday. Now, Jesus points to the Temple and says, “There will come a time when this monument is torn down, when not one stone will be left on another.”
What an ominous message. This great structure, the physical representation of Jewish identity even under the Roman empire, will be torn down—destroyed so completely that not even the foundations will remain.
The people listening to Jesus ask him, “When? When is this going to happen? How will we know that the time is coming?”
In response, Jesus says, “Before the end, there will be wars and disasters. But even before that, you will be arrested and persecuted, put on trial, betrayed, and even killed.” Yes, some of you will be put to death because of your faith, because you follow Jesus Christ. And yet, in the midst of all this bad news, this terrifying threat, Jesus says—“Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Standing in the shadow of the Temple, on his way to the cross, Jesus gives a grim warning of what his followers can expect. To be a disciple of Jesus, to confess that Jesus is Lord, means that you will be betrayed, arrested, even killed. Jesus is warning his followers: this is not going to be easy. In fact, this is going to be very, very hard.
Bear with me for a short history lesson, because there are major historical events that influence the accounts we read in the New Testament. We know that Jesus died somewhere around the year 30 or 33. Pretty much as soon as the first resurrection appearances happened, Jesus’ disciples began sharing the stories of his ministry, his teachings, and of course, his resurrection. These stories were passed from person to person and from community to community, probably by word of mouth at first. Eventually, they were written down, and some Christians began to organize those accounts into what we now know as the gospels. But the books we have in our New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—took decades to reach their final form. Mark is probably the earliest gospel to be completed, sometime around 70 CE, more than three decades after Jesus’ death. Matthew and Luke were later still, and John was the final gospel to be composed.
So: we imagined ourselves there at the Temple, listening to Jesus just a few days before his death. Now I want you to imagine yourself several decades later, after the gospel of Luke was completed. You are part of a Christian community. Maybe you weren’t one of the eyewitnesses who was there with Jesus, but you know their stories—stories of the cross, of the empty tomb, of the resurrected Lord.
Now you are hearing the gospel of Luke, one of the orderly accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. You are hearing about what Jesus said and did, now perhaps fifty years after the resurrection.
Why put ourselves in the shoes of those reading this gospel for the first time? Because in the time between when Jesus stood in the shadow of the Temple and when the author of Luke wrote it down, there was a catastrophic war—the First Jewish-Roman War.
Beginning in the year 66 CE, a rebellion broke out in Judea. Over the next several years, the Roman Empire responded to the Jewish rebellion, driving the rebels back to Jerusalem, where the city was besieged in 70 CE. After seven months of siege, the Roman army broke through the walls, torched the city, and destroyed the Temple—that very same Temple Jesus is referring to in our reading today.
“As for these things that you see,” Jesus says, pointing to the Temple, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” For the original audience of this gospel, these words were not a prediction; they were reality. The Temple had been thrown down. The whole city of Jerusalem had been destroyed. For them, the question is not, “When will this occur?” but rather a broken and terrified, “Now what?”
What do we do when the Temple has been destroyed? What do we do when disaster strikes or our enemies seem to have triumphed? How do we keep going? Where do we find strength and courage, when it seems that all is lost?
Jesus tells his disciples, “Yes, the Temple will be destroyed. Yes, there will be wars and disasters. Yes, you will be betrayed and arrested and even killed, because you follow a Savior who was betrayed and arrested and killed.”
And yet. And yet. There is a reason. It is worth it. Jesus promises his followers that the journey will be difficult. But he also promises them, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” He promises them, “You will be arrested and brought before the powers of this world. And this will give you an opportunity to testify.”
We can imagine hearing Jesus say these things, there in Jerusalem, looking at the Temple. We can imagine what it was like to hear them before they came to pass—before Jesus himself was betrayed, arrested, and killed; before the Temple was destroyed.
We can imagine hearing these words as the first audience of Luke’s gospel, a community that has seen their Lord crucified, a community that has seen the Temple thrown down, until not one stone is left on another. We can imagine these words being an all-too-real description of the struggles we are already experiencing, and a call to have faith in spite of everything.
And, yes, when we hear this passage, we hear it resonating in our own time, our own lived experience. Like every generation of Christians before us, we have heard of wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famines, plagues and disasters. We know fear and anxiety. Of course these warnings feel like they were written just for us.
All we have to do is turn on the news to hear about Russia’s war in Ukraine, or famine in parts of Africa, or floods in Pakistan. We see homelessness impacting many of our neighbors, especially in Los Angeles. We have all experienced a plague (nowadays we call it a pandemic), and we know the destructive potential of fires and earthquakes. Jesus’ words seem perfectly suited to our own times.
“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. 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.”
What do we do when it seems that the world is ending? What do we do when the earth shifts under our feet, and the sun seems to darken, and the things we thought were certain are thrown into doubt?
Jesus tells his followers: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” What do you do when the world is ending? You testify. You bear witness to your faith.
After all, when times are easy, when we’re comfortable and safe, our faith doesn’t have to testify. When all is well with the world, our faith is not challenged, our identity as disciples is not put to the test.
No, it’s when the rubber meets the road that faith becomes real, tangible, meaningful. It’s when we are challenged and tested that our faith proves itself. It is under pressure that the strength of faith becomes evident.
We follow a crucified Lord. Our discipleship, our faith, is made for the difficult times, the challenging times. To put it bluntly, I think a comfortable Christian isn’t much of a Christian at all.
It’s when we are put to the test that we have the opportunity to testify. It’s when we are betrayed and abandoned that we most clearly stand with God, and God with us. It’s when the world seems to be ending in chaos and darkness that our faith shines.
When it feels like the world is ending, we are filled with fear and anxiety. We worry about what the future may hold. Jesus tells us to stand firm and endure in the present. Testify, in the present. Let your faith be evident, in the present. The future is God’s.
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ: you have been given an opportunity to testify. Testify to your faith. Testify by feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the imprisoned. Testify by loving your neighbor—and, yes, even your enemy. Testify through your prayers and your compassion and your humility.
Testify in the present moment, because this present moment is what we have been given. Do not worry about the future. Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance, you will gain your souls. Amen.