23rd Sunday after Pentecost
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. Event