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 on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
The disciples have gathered together with Jesus. They’ve probably shared some bread, fish, and wine while sitting around and talking about the latest news from Galilee and the recent happenings in Jerusalem. Peter, ever extraverted, decides to change the conversation to the majesty of the temple: “Oh how lovely it was, adorned with remarkable stones and the gifts dedicated to God. Have you ever seen such gold in your lives?” The other disciples nod in approval, while Jesus remained silent. Bartholomew furthers Peter’s claim: “The temple of God is indeed a witness to God’s majesty in the world. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could have such a place!” They all begin to agree with one another, affirming the glory and might of their God, the God of Israel, worthy of such a temple.
But then, in sharp contrast to their excited exclamations, Jesus speaks up, “All of these things that you see, the temple in all its glory, the days will come when not one of these stones will be left upon another; all of them will be thrown down.”
The disciples have been around Jesus long enough to know that when he says something like this, its important to pay attention. “But how could this be?” they wondered; the temple was a sign of God’s glory. So then one of the disciples, perhaps Peter, asked on behalf of the whole group, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
What a question. Its stories like this one that help to remind me how similar we all are to the disciples. Because that question is the same one I would’ve asked. Okay Jesus, things are going to get rough, when? What will happen to let us know that this is about to take place?
How appropriate and funny is it that Jesus’ first warning about the apocalypse is directed toward the would-be-prophets who predict the end of the world? Just within my lifetime I can think of a number of examples of the self-affirmed prophets who claim to know the exact date of the approaching end of the world. And even though Jesus has clearly warned us against them, when they come forth with their predictions, they never fail to get a hearing, media presence, and air time.
And people listen to them! Droves of people go to the bank and withdraw their life savings, bunkers are dug and filled with emergency supplies, and some even take their own lives rather than accept the coming doom and gloom predicted by these would-be prophets. Jesus looks out at his disciples, and therefore every one of us, and declares, “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.”
There always seems to be some other form of allegiance in the world that appears better than what we learn to live into from God’s Word. Some affiliation more fruitful, some path through the trials of life that seems more certain and secure. We would rather rely on reason than faith. We would prefer to deal with material possessions than with spiritual growth. The tragedy of the history of God and God’s people is that we have continually been a people running off like that, generation after generation, in pursuit of other, perhaps easier, gods.
After this first warning, Jesus continues his diatribe regarding the eschaton: “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 famine 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.”
I have often heard non-Christians remark about how easy it is to be Christian. Those with a limited knowledge of what it means to be a faithful people often charge the church as being a means of escape from the harsh realities of the world. “It must be so easy to be Christian, you don’t have to worry about what really goes on in the world, just waiting for your heavenly reward.” However, in sharp contradiction to these claims Jesus very bluntly puts forth how very difficult it is, and will be, to be Christian. In a way, being Christian, is in some sense, an escape, not our of life, but right into the depth of it; from meaningless into meaning, from futility into purpose, from bondage into freedom.
The Good News of Jesus Christ has always been paradoxical in its ability to disturb the ways of the world. Those with privilege look on it with suspicion, those with power look at it with disappointment. The Jewish leaders were shaken by it and fearful. Rome outlawed it. The first disciples all suffered persecution and condemnation. Jesus did not get killed for loving too much, but for turning the world upside down; for changing the perspective of what it means to be first and last, for defeating death, and removing power from the powerful.
“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.”
When Jesus addresses the disciples, describing for them the very trials and tribulations that they were to face he makes it clear that these are the hours of opportunity. When the world shouts No, the church responds with a resounding Yes!
Our faith is not a creed, not a way of thinking about life, not 5 steps to make a better you; it is the I and Thou of a God who calls us by name, addresses us, seeks us, a moment of meeting, the time for hearing and becoming. Our faith is about confronting the problems of the world, living into them, and transforming the world for God’s kingdom. The Bible, God, and our faith is never on pause. The time is now!
What Jesus describes in this passage is what we often call the apocalypse. What kinds of images come to your mind when you think about the apocalypse? Death? Destruction? Zombies? Though these are the popular images often associated the apocalypse, apocalypse deals with a revelation, which discloses the realm of God behind the world of historical and interpretable events.
Timing is important when we talk about revelation from God. What Jesus describes, the events surrounding the suffering of his followers will happen in the future. There will come a time when Christians are called to testify to their faith when everything around them will argue the contrary. The apocalypse is coming in the future.
However, most of the events that Jesus described took place within the 1st century of the church. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the disciples were called before synagogues and governors to witness to their faith. They were rejected by the world and suffered because of their association with Jesus Christ. Nations rose against nations and wars took place. The apocalypse happened in the past.
What becomes real for us today, though, is that God’s revelation, the apocalypse, is happening right now! What Jesus described in his apocalyptic descriptions helps to show how what is going on is mixed with what is really going on. Events set in the larger context of God’s purposes in the world. We have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory and therefore we are surrounded by symbols, signs, and mysterious elements regarding what is really taking place. As strange as this may seem to us as enlightened, modern, and rational people, it is a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God.
“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 on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
How easy is it to be Christian? Apparently, its not. What is at stake for us in this passage is the commitment and call to be faithful witnesses under unusual stress and frustration. For us, here in Staunton, it might be hard to imagine suffering for our Christian identities. But faithfulness and endurance under threat and disapproval (and even penalty of death) are the qualities of discipleship during the time of witnessing. Disciples, and that means all of us here, are not exempt from suffering. If there is any doubt of this period of testing and testimony is still present, you need only look to what recently happened in the Philippines, or the dozens of Christians who were recently executed in North Korea for having Bibles, or the suffering of members within this church right now. Some of you might know of the suffering within the church, perhaps its even happening to you, just look around.
Jesus’ address to the disciples regarding the apocalypse, the revelation of God, calls us to reflect on our own discipleship. I have been told again and again that if people are not complaining about me in the church I serve, than I am not doing my job. Being Christian implies a willingness to be pushed into the discomfort of discipleship in order to live into the new reality that Christ initiated with his death on the cross.
Are we almost Christians? Are we content to arrive on Sunday mornings in order to go back to work on Monday without any change in our lives? Are we comfortable with seeing all of the suffering around us and letting it pass by our vision without stopping to question why? Are we ready to witness God’s kingdom transform the world without our participation?
Or are we fully Christian? Have we felt the love of God in our hearts and we are ready to respond to that love with our commitment to faithfulness? Do we sit in the shadow of the cross while awaiting the glory of the resurrection? Are we ready to witness to the goodness of God even amidst our own suffering?
I love the question the disciples ask: “When is this going to happen?” But there’s another question I feel compelled to ask: “Why is it going to happen?” If our Christian lives are comfortable and easy, perhaps we’re not doing enough. If the amount of suffering the first disciples went through was part of God’s revelation, then maybe we should be going far enough to disrupt the powers of the world. What would it take for us to believe so fervently, that we would live such faithful lives worthy of persecution from those around us?
We have to know that what Christ is talking about is the end. And we have to know with equal knowledge that it is also the beginning. That the God of grace and glory is bent on rescuing his own from the misery that finds us in life, and continually working toward that salvation. That God is committed to saving us with the Good News according to Christ, and eagerly doing it by means of every life that will give itself away to him and his kingdom.
Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? The apocalypse, the revelation of God, is now.