Luke 21:5-19 – From End to Endurance

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.

The temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive buildings in the world during the time of Jesus.  A few years before Jesus was born, King Herod the Great had razed the temple where it stood and begun a massive rebuilding campaign that spared no expense.  Herod’s newly built temple was incredibly large and well-adorned.  The perimeter circumference of the building measured about two-thirds of a mile.  Its walls stood about 150 feet high and were constructed out of enormous blocks of marble weighing several tons each.  There were ten gates by which one could enter the temple’s outer courts, each one covered in silver and gold plate.  The two entry doors into the temple stood forty-five feet high, and were cast completely out of Corinthian bronze.  The eastern front of the temple itself was plated with gold so that the rising sun would reflect off of the massive building, setting the landscape ablaze with shining light.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold, a “temple of immense wealth”.  Herod the Great built that temple to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of the day, and he absolutely succeeded.

It is no wonder that the disciples were caught staring in sheer amazement at this temple – you might say that they all had an edifice complex.  Its enormous stones were bigger than any they had ever seen, and the surrounding complex included sprawling courtyards, colonnaded courts, grand porches and balconies, covered walkways, and monumental stairs – you know, the kinds of things you just don’t see every day as you follow Jesus back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.  Their amazement makes Jesus’ response to them all the more shocking, as no building in the world would have seemed to be more permanent, more divinely blessed, more essential to its city than the temple in Jerusalem.  Did Jesus really just say what we think he said?  Not one stone here will be left upon another?  All will be thrown down?  Doesn’t he know that this is the temple?  This is God’s building!  God’s own house!  Would God really allow such horrible destruction to happen to his magnificent temple?

To Jesus’ disciples, that notion would have been unthinkable.  There are some things that are just always there, and always will be.  There are some things in our world (or in our lives, for that matter), that are simply permanent, and we trust that they will always be there for us.  These things are the strong foundation upon which our society, our lives are built, and for them to be suddenly wiped off the face of the earth would be nothing short of catastrophic.  That’s what that temple meant to Jesus’ disciples.  It wasn’t just that it was the most impressive building in the world to look at.  More than that, it was their closest point of contact with God.  It was the foundation of their society and their belief system.  It stood not only at the center of the city, but also at the center of how they lived and worshiped.

So, for Jesus to casually predict that the temple will be utterly destroyed – not one stone upon another? – was cataclysmic.  If the temple wouldn’t survive, then surely nothing else would!  Everything everywhere would be destroyed!  This chapter of Luke’s gospel is often referred to as the “little apocalypse” because it contains a discussion of the end times, complete with a prediction of universal destruction and disaster.  All will be thrown down!  The very fabric of the world was to be torn apart and shredded until nothing is left.  This is biblical apocalypticism at its best (or worst, in fact, if you happen to be alive when these things take place).

Now if Luke had written his “little apocalypse” today, it would probably be a best-seller.  Apocalyptic stories are quite popular in our day and age.  Countless movies have been released on this subject, including the recent 2012, which is based on the ancient Mayan calendar that predicts the end of the world in 2012.    There are plenty of others if you’re planning a viewing party, movies like After Earth, The Book of Eli, The Day After Tomorrow, and Pacific Rim.  If you throw in apocalyptic literature like the Left Behind book series, it seems we’re riding quite the carousel of worldwide destruction, doesn’t it?  Not one stone will be left upon another?  We are pretty familiar with that.

And we can also relate to it.  We can relate to it because it speaks to our deepest, most frightening insecurities.  Apocalyptic stories are so popular because they somehow appeal to that feeling inside all of us that we aren’t so secure after all.  We live in a world of real terror, real tragedy, a world in which the tallest buildings we’ve ever seen really do come crashing to the ground, a world in which wars and rumors of wars greet us wherever we go, a world that at times seems not at all safe or secure.  We live in a world where things that are supposed to be there for us sometimes just fall apart.  Sometimes people who we thought we’d be sharing our whole lives with, suddenly aren’t there anymore.  The foundations upon which we build our lives, sometimes are shaken to the ground, and yes, Jesus, you’re right.  Sometimes not one stone is left upon another.

Throughout the ages there have been Christians who are content to survey the destruction around them and within them and conclude that they were living in the end times.  They mine the Bible for passages that sound like they support their predictions, and then proclaim with prophetic certitude that the end of the world is imminent.  You see this, incidentally, every time you get that email explaining how President Obama is the antichrist, or catch the tail end of that strange television program that highlights world events as predictors of the apocalypse.  It’s the same thing that Christians have been doing for thousands of years.  Maybe what we really need to do instead is listen.

Listen to what Jesus tells his disciples (and us): “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. For 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.”  Jesus says that these tribulations will eventually become personal, as his followers will be persecuted, imprisoned, betrayed, and even killed.  This horrible vision continues for many more verses, and yet at the end in verse 28 (which isn’t included in our reading for this morning), Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  If Jesus is right (and we have no reason to believe that he isn’t), all of our worrying and fretting and predicting about the end times is really a distraction from what really matters.  What really matters, he says, is not the when and where of the end, but rather what God is doing even in the midst of terrible things.  It’s persistent love even in the middle of the calamity.  It’s the blessing of God coming near to you even when you don’t know what to say.  It’s the redemption that has been promised as a gift from God to you.  It’s the God who is able to turn an end into an endurance.

Several weeks ago Heather and I woke up to discover we had no power.  The house was pitch black, and immediately we got up to check on A.J. and Alex just to make sure they were okay.  Alex was sound asleep, but A.J. was awake, and very aware that something was wrong.  His room was completely dark and silent, and he was a little scared.  He knew that’s not how his room was supposed to be.  When we explained to him that the power was out, so none of the lights would work in the house, he got very quiet.  I think he realized that everything in our house that we depend on day in and day out – the lights, the clocks, the fans, everything – could suddenly and without warning just stop working.  In his mind that was an apocalyptic moment.  I could see it sinking in as he was trying to adjusted to this new reality in which things are not quite as permanent as he would like.  But I’d like to think that he was comforted, that it wasn’t so bad, because his parents were there with him in the silence and the darkness, just telling him that we were with him, and would be even if the power stayed off all night.

For all of us living in 2013, the odds that we’ll witness the end of the world are infinitesimally small, and in fact, according to Jesus, the where and when of the end times shouldn’t even be on our radar.  For us, the day that really shakes our foundations to the core, is more likely to be the day of the cancer diagnosis, or the day of the surgery.  It’s more likely to be the day of that crushing phone call or the day of the funeral, the day that the divorce papers are signed, or the day that you find yourself holding a pink slip.  These are the days when we’ll feel like the world is crashing down around us, the days when it seems like the things that should always be there for us are suddenly gone.  It’s a simple fact of life that for me, and you, and every human being on the planet, that day will come.  Not one stone will be left upon another.

But you know what?  We live in the hope of great comfort, the hope that those days won’t be as bad, because Jesus will be there with us in the silence and the darkness, and will be with us even if the darkness seems like it’s going to last forever.  Jesus says that in those moments we should stand up and lift our heads, because our redemption is near.  If Jesus is right (and we have no reason to believe that he isn’t), then we as Christians live in the sure and certain hope that even in the darkest, most destructive, most frightening moments of our lives, God is with us, and always will be, turning our end into our endurance.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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