Luke 21:5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6"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." 7They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" 8And 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. 9"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." 10Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12"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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Reading the Signs
Fall has come late to my new home in Valparaiso, Indiana. It is at times of year like this that one does not have to use much imagination to understand why some of the area's early settlers decided to call this city by a Spanish name that means "vale of paradise." The splendor of the fall and the colors of red, orange, brown and the ever present evergreen create a feast for the eyes. This visual banquet is marvelous, but it is also temporary. Already the leaves are falling. I know that this weekend, the monumental task of raking the leaves from the 10 large maple trees that populate my yard will begin. Soon the trees will be bare, their beauty a memory, and winter's icy blast will quicken the step that still lingers for the wonder of God's paintbrush. Fall is a signpost of what is to come.
But even the worst pessimist does not think that fall is the sign of a permanent winter. We all know that as sure as fall gives way to winter, so too will winter melt in the face of the spring, which in turn will give way to the warmth of summer. Such is the way of seasons the times as we know them. They cycle ever onward and are for the marking of days and weeks and months and years. We know how to read the signs of the seasons. We have been reading them for a long time.
The evident seasons are one thing to read, but the changes from epoch to epoch of history are another. What of the signs of these changes. At times the words of the bible, the words of Jesus himself, proclaim these signs as there for the reading as well (just continue reading in Luke's gospel after today's text for an example of this). At other times, we are warned that the days and weeks are coming, but at an unexpected time, and thus we should stand ready to meet them at all times (and we'll get a firm dose of that medicine in the season of Advent come this December).
But in our text for today, the disciples puzzle over Jesus words of warning. The beauty that they see, signified by the splendor of the Jerusalem temple, seems so much more permanent than the trees that change with the season. Yet Jesus warns that it will all pass away. What will this grand destruction mean? Is it the start of a new epoch of history? Is the age of Messiah and Israel's vindication upon them? If so, then the destruction of so important a national symbol seems to bode ill for the whole enterprise. Puzzled, the disciples as Jesus what it all means.
Jesus answer is surprising. The wars, the destructions, the persecutions, all will take place. Lots of the kinds of spectacular events associated with "the end of the world" will happen. But the end is not associated with those things. They are almost like the colors of the fall. They will happen and will continue to happen (as they have for nearly two thousand years). But these signs are not to be read as the time when history will change from one era to another. THAT change is also happening, but not with the spectacular cosmic events expected.
Changing the Story
Israel, at the time of Jesus and for centuries before, had national stories. Chief among them was the story of the Exodus. This was the story of their origins as a people. It was a family story, dealing with their ancient ancestor, Jacob. It was a patterned story: including an oppressive nation (Egypt) with an oppressive king (Pharaoh) not to mention God's intervention and the people's vindication. It was a repeating story: Egypt could also be Babylon and Syria, Pharaoh could also be Nebuchadnezzer and Antiochus Epiphanes, God still intervened and the people were vindicated time and again.
The way that Israel told the story in Jesus day followed the same pattern and expected the same result. Rome was the new oppressor, Caesar the new Pharaoh, and the expectation was that the intervention of God and the victory of the people were near. As the story had been retold, it had changed and grown. Certainly the Maccabees had raised expectations when they had taken matters into their own hands, though with God's help, as they defeated the Syrians. That era, 200 years before Jesus, also had employed imagery of the end of the world to explain the cosmic significance of political events.
With this story also came the ability to see the pattern and predict when it would happen again. The rebuilding of the temple was seen as a sign that God was about to dwell with the people again. The presence of John the Baptist, a new prophet like Elijah raised expectations that Messiah and the victorious army of Israel's resistance were about to reappear. The stage was set for God to do it all again.
And in a sense, with Jesus, God was doing exactly that. The story was repeating. In another sense, however, the story was being reframed. It was no longer going to be part of a cycle. This time, God's intervention was different. No longer was this the story of Israel alone. Now the story would include an intervention within Israel, within the people of God that would restore her vocation as "light to the nations." It would be for all peoples. The story would not revolve around the symbols of national pride and idolatry: the land, the temple, the ancestry. Instead, the symbols are transformed as the promise is fulfilled. They are returned to their rightful place in the national narrative. The people are no longer exclusively blessed, but are blessed to be a blessing to all nations. The land is hallowed as the source of healing for the whole creation. The temple is replaced as God's dwelling is no longer within a building, but within humanity in Jesus Christ. The more the story is reframed, the more it echoes with the themes of the prophets, both in warning and in promise.
Good News in the Midst of Lingering Questions
Of note in the middle of all of this reframing of the story is that Jesus never does answer the question, "When will this be?" He talks around it. He talks of signs, but not of the end. He talks of persecutions, even within families, but says that comes way before the end. He talks of endurance, but never states endurance to what end. We are so apt to get caught up in the images and the themes that we almost do not recognize that Jesus gives us the slip once again. He will not be pinned down on this. But that leaves me asking, "Where is the good news in all of this?" Are we simply to brace ourselves for suffering? Are we waiting only for the promise of the future? What is God doing for us in the face the cycles of tumult that whirl around us?
The first answer to that question is found in Jesus himself. When he suggests that we need not "prepare a defense in advance" because he will give us the words to say, he is suggesting that he is with us and will not abandon us. Indeed, his resurrection and ascension are not seen as his absence from the disciples in Acts, but rather they are emboldened by his presence. This leads us to the second and perhaps most important answer to what God is doing. God is already establishing the new age among us.
Here is the paradox. The new age comes not with wars and tumult, but in the quiet of a night. The new age comes not with a violent uprising, but rather with the birth of a child in Bethlehem. The new age comes not by resisting the forces of empire, who control with the threat of death, but rather with a journey through death to new life, which God, in Jesus, undertakes to destroy death and its power. The wars and tumult, even in our day, are the dying cries of the kings of this world. The God of the universe has subverted their power and sewn the seeds of the new kingdom, the new reign of God, within our world, within our finitude. For those with faith to see and courage to endure, both gifts of God's spirit to us, the tumult of the world becomes both more and less than what it is.
To be honest, the wars, the violence, the cosmic signs are indeed terrible. All humanity suffers, oppressed and oppressors alike. God too, suffers with us. This tumult, of which our lesson today speaks, assumes terrible power in the face of such honesty. But it does not have ultimate power. It cannot control Jesus, and it does not control those who are named and claimed by God in baptism. Though it may kill us, yet it does not harm us. God's love is stronger still.
So, we are not fooled by the endless cycles of violence in our world. We take them for what they are, the death throes of our own sinfulness, on a grand scale. We struggle against them even as we know we are in part responsible for the suffering they cause. But we see God's action hidden apart from them, and hope for the reign of God, promised, already begun, not yet fully present. We hope not in out great cities, our beautiful churches, our military might. We hope in the crucified and risen one, our ever present Lord, Jesus Christ.