I had my tonsils removed during my junior year of high school. While I was in the hospital, my high school choral teacher paid me a visit. He brought me a paperback book he’d picked up at a garage sale, to help me pass the time while I waited for my throat to stop hurting. It was some futuristic novel about a group of people who survived a nuclear attack – the sort of thing that would make a great summer movie these days – and as I read it, I became deeply interested in the story. It was a real page-turner. Just as I was nearing the end of the book, when all the loose ends were starting to come together, I discovered that the last four pages of the book were missing.
We don’t like things to be unfinished, do we? We don’t like half-baked pies or ideas. We aren’t too fond of running out of paint just before the last wall in the room gets a coat. No one likes a runner who stops just short of the finish line. We like to know the ending. We like completion.
So it isn’t surprising that, when Jesus starts talking about the way things will be “at the end of the Age,” his disciples want to know “When, Lord? How will we know? What will be the sign that these things are about to take place?” But it also probably isn’t surprising that Jesus doesn’t give a cut-and-dried answer.
To put today’s reading into perspective, we need to backtrack a little. A couple of weeks ago, Jesus was still on his way to Jerusalem, a journey that began back in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel. We have followed him along the way, and listened along with his disciples as he taught about the Kingdom of God. But the readings for the past couple of weeks skip over an important high point in the story. While we weren’t looking, Jesus entered Jerusalem as people shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palm branches. Here we are, on the next-to-last Sunday of the church year, and we’ve been following Luke’s story faithfully. We’re in the final pages. Today’s lesson puts us smack in the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and within a few days, he will complete his journey to the cross, where he will die for my sins, and for yours.
Jesus spends much of this final week with his disciples in or near the temple, worshiping and teaching. Before we hear his words, it might be helpful to understand a bit more about this temple in Jerusalem, the place where faithful Jews came to worship, and the center of Jewish identity.
Remember that Solomon had built the first temple, and it had been a thing of grandeur. Solomon’s father, King David, had collected items for the temple throughout his life, and Solomon used the building materials and golden objects from his father’s collection to erect an awe-inspiring structure. It replaced the tabernacle that had accompanied the Israelites on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land. The Ark of the Covenant rested in Solomon’s temple, just as it had in the tabernacle. When the temple was finished, Solomon dedicated it with burnt offerings and prayers, and God’s presence filled the temple with thick smoke. The glory of the Lord was real, and evident to the people of Israel.
But they did not stay faithful to God, and the nation of Israel was divided, then carried off to Babylon. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and left as a heap of rubble. It was out of that rubble that Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the temple when they returned from exile. The Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed, and the Urim and Thummim were gone, but many of the golden lamp stands and sacrificial bowls were brought back from Persia, and the temple was rededicated. But the presence of God, the glory of the Lord, did not fill the temple as it had before.
Fast forward a few centuries, to the birth of Herod the Great. Herod was known both for his brutality, and for his building projects. Herod was born around 74 BCE in Edom, south of Judea.Herod practiced Judaism, but even though Herod may have considered himself of the Jewish faith, he was not considered Jewish by the Jews of Judea, particularly the Pharisees. Herod was little more than a puppet king, serving Rome and his own ego with more devotion than he offered to God. His greatest building project, the temple at Jerusalem, was more of a monument to himself than to the Lord of Abraham and Isaac.
And it was quite a monument. The first century historian, Josephus, tells us that the structure was impressive. Herod had leveled the old temple and laid a new foundation of stones so immense, that some weighed well over 100 tons. The largest foundation stone was more than 44 feet long, 11 feet wide, and 16.5 feet high, and it weighed somewhere between 500 and 700 tons. The temple gleamed from the top of Mount Moriah, white stone and gold making up every visible surface. The temple itself, inside the 35-acre compound, probably only took about three years to build, but the whole structure required more than forty years of labor, and may still have been under construction at the time Jesus walked there. The outer court could hold up to 400,000 people. It was huge.
But the Temple created a problem for practicing Jews. Yes, it was the temple of God, but it was also, quite obviously, a monument to Herod himself, designed to rival the temples built to pagan gods. Just as there is no record of God’s glory filling the reconstructed temple of Ezra and Nehemiah, we have no indication that God’s presence was ever evident in Herod’s temple.
It is this temple where, a few verses before today’s passage, a poor widow threw her two coins, all she had to live on, into the offering box. It is this temple where Jesus drove out the money-changers and pigeon vendors. It is this temple where Jesus and his closest followers are walking as he warns them of the time to come.
Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 21, verses 5 through 19.
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.”
“How will we know the end is near?” the disciples ask Jesus. Well, if we had to boil down Jesus’ answer into one sentence, it might sound something like, “Things are gonna get a whole lot worse before they get any better.” His warnings of natural catastrophes, wars, famine, and other signs that the end is near do not offer much encouragement. And it gets worse. Not only will there be terrible things happening throughout the world, terrible things will happen to those who follow Jesus. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be betrayed by family members, arrested, persecuted, hated, and some will even be put to death.
Keep in mind that, as far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is only talking about the destruction of Herod’s temple, not “the end of the world as we know it.” Some scholars think that we should limit our interpretation of this passage to just that: the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, an event that would have already taken place by the time Luke wrote his gospel. Luke’s inclusion of this conversation would have served to prove that Jesus was a true prophet, predicting events that had, in fact, happened. But if we read a few verses further into chapter 21, it becomes clear that Jesus is talking about more than tearing down a building. Things are gonna get a whole lot worse before they get any better, and we are talking about a very long time. Centuries. Millenia. We don’t know how long.
Every time the media brings us news of another disaster, we may wonder, “Is this it, Lord?” Perhaps those thoughts crossed your mind last week, as the devastation in the Philippines topped every broadcast, and images of people picking through the rubble appeared in every newspaper. After a while, rubble just looks like rubble, doesn’t it? Until one item catches our attention, and we are reminded that real people are connected to this great loss. For me, one of the most moving images was that of a mass grave being filled with black plastic coffins. Each unidentified body had a portion of the femur removed before burial, in hopes that later, when the urgency of caring for survivors has diminished, DNA testing may help identify those who lost their lives in the storm.
While we may think we are safe from religious persecution here in America, Christians in Egypt and China fear for their very lives as they boldly continue to openly worship God. The Voice of the Martyrs organization estimates that Christians in more than 60 nations suffer persecution because of their faith in Jesus. The suffering that Jesus predicted for his disciples is still going on throughout the world.
But Jesus says, “Not yet.”
Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.”
Jesus says that, when we are called to testify in court because of our faith, we don’t need to prepare an elaborate defense, because he will give us “words and a wisdom” that our opponents will not be able to contradict.
Stand firm to the end, Jesus tells us. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
In the light of this encouragement, we only need to ask two questions:
How shall we endure?
What does Jesus mean when he says “you will gain your souls” ?
How shall we endure? Make no mistake, Jesus is not telling us that we must do this in our own strength or by our own force of will. Just as an athlete trains for endurance, we must also train for spiritual stamina to withstand the trials that must come, but we do not do this on our own. We endure because we have been redeemed. We endure because we have believed. We endure because we are children of God, completely dependent on God’s grace alone. This is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians, in a passage we will read again next week:
“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”
And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul quotes a hymn from the early church:
“The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”
How shall we endure the suffering that comes with being a follower of Jesus Christ?
By being a follower of Jesus Christ.
For it is in following Christ that we gain our souls. The word Luke uses here describes the essence of who we are. Some versions translate the word “psyche” as “very life.” By your endurance you will acquire your own very life. Jesus offers us more than mere existence. He offers us life that is full, rich, abundant, and eternal.
Such life, such endurance, is God’s gift freely given to all who believe, to all who claim Jesus both as Savior and as Lord. No matter what trials we face, no matter what disasters overtake us, we have the power to endure to the very end if we accept God’s gift to us. That gift of unshakeable faith will see us through whatever may come, whenever it happens.
The time may be short or long. We don’t know. All the signs Jesus described to his disciples have been showing up for the past 2000 years. There have been earthquakes, famines, wars and insurrections. Christians have been persecuted, and continue to be persecuted throughout the world today. All that’s left of the temple in Jerusalem is a fragment of wall, now called the Wailing Wall. Just as the destruction of that temple testified to the truthfulness of Jesus’ words when the Gospel of Luke was written, so does our faith bear witness to this truth: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Christ has died that we might have life. Christ has risen, that we might have eternal life. Christ will come again, that we who endure may enjoy eternal life, abundant and full, as we reign with Christ in glory forever and ever.
You can claim this promise of enduring, abundant, eternal life for yourself. Will you accept the invitation Jesus offers you? Will you turn your life over to him, so that you can endure to the end, following Jesus through whatever trouble you may face? Will you receive the life that Jesus wants to give to you, a life of peace and wholeness, a life of joy, a life that has been changed, so that you are free of fear and able to endure? Now is the time.
Let us pray.
O Lord, open our hearts to your grace. Make us new. For those of us who have not made you their Lord, grant the willingness to surrender to you. For those of us whose hearts need re-kindling, light your flame in us that we might endure to the end, and gain our very souls. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.