The bright sun stunned the disciples as they strolled out from the majestic temple onto the bleached limestone. Hand-chiseled, these giant stone blocks measured eight feet on a side. A grown woman could walk two or three paces per stone, and watch hundreds of people milling in the courtyards and patios outside the temple. Rising far above the streets, these massive boulders were hewn from limestone cliffs.
They. Were. Big.
The stones were here to stay, and the delicate, gorgeous temple made you gasp. As this was the holiest place in all Israel, the disciples were surely in a state of awe. Someone said, “Look, what large stones and what large buildings!” Everyone marveled at the grandeur.
So you can imagine the disciple’s dismay when Jesus asked, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
All will be thrown down? Really? Who invited Apocalyptic Jesus?
All will be thrown down? What happened to “Come to me, you who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”?
Well, buckle your seat belts, good people of God, because Advent is around the corner, and Apocalyptic Jesus is at the wheel.
Who does he think he is, talking about the temple’s demise when he’s at the temple?
Can we relate to the disciples’ frustration? We love our houses, cars and clothes, our health, our wealth. We like the occasional shiny building, the thriving city, the world’s most powerful military. They make us feel safe, these things.
We’d rather not hear that moths destroy and rust consumes, that our possessions are short-lived, temporary like mist. We don’t want to lose our material status. This economic system works – for some – and we move mountains to prevent its crumble. We have a dark fear: Eventually we will die, and we’ll go back to God with nothing. Everything we’ve built on earth will stay here, and we’ll be gone.
Mortality is a scary thing, and talk of the end makes most people fidget. But the bulk of the gospels come from messianic and apocalyptic Jews who spent their days waiting for the end.
That’s why the upcoming Advent readings are full of end-times prognostication. Our spiritual ancestors expected the end within months, and they were anxious to know when all of this would go down.
For example, the Essene community that followed John’s gospel and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls moved as far away from civilization as possible. They were camped in desert caves by the Dead Sea, literally training for a cosmic battle. And like it or not, these people are part of our spiritual story. They asked with pained anxiety: How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?
As Jesus forecasts the temple’s destruction, the disciples also wonder: How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?
The gospel writers must have agreed on the temple story’s importance because Luke tells it in today’s gospel, Mark tells a similar tale in Chapter 13 of his gospel, Matthew in Chapter 24, and John alludes to the temple destruction in Chapter 2.
As Matthew and Mark tell the tale, the disciples must have been nervous. They catch Jesus at the lunch break. Sitting at the Mount of Olives, they stare across the valley at the temple. They’re probably munching on bread and olives. Peter, Andrew, James and John ask Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Jesus’ response is less than helpful. He tells them, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place.”
Thanks, Jesus. We ask you when, and you tell us bad stuff will happen. How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow?
Come on, Jesus, we really want to know. We’ve got plans to make! How do we live in the present when we do not know the future?
This is a disturbing reading, and perhaps it’s unwise to release the tension. That’s not what church is for, by the way. Easy answers make for good bumper stickers, but real life is more complex.
In place of an easy answer, consider what Jesus offers all of us: the profound truth that God is still in charge. God calls us to love with radical abandon. This is less of a dream, more of a concrete movement.
We don’t know what comes tomorrow, but we know God calls us to love neighbor as self and to work indefatigably toward just society and loving community.
How do we live in the present when we don’t know the future? We partner with God, giving all that we have.
God has work for us to do! And Sunday morning is just the start.
Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the last are first, the proud get scattered, the lowly are lifted up. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the sick get healed, the poor are blessed, and we are all beloved children of God.
Jesus tried to start a revolution. But it depends, in part, on us. Are we in?
When we read today’s story in the context of Luke’s full gospel, Jesus drops the temple bomb right before setting his face toward Jerusalem. “All will be thrown down,” he says, perhaps referencing his own death.
And it was so. The Roman army would plunder Jerusalem in the year 70. Soldiers would pillage the temple, murder women and children, and destroy everything Israel held dear.
Yet death never gets the last word. Jerusalem rises from the Roman ashes. Jesus dies a brutal death at the hands of the military state, but that’s just Friday. Sunday rolls around and takes the stone with it. Resurrection strolls out of the empty tomb, and God is still in charge.
Remember though, that Jesus doesn’t promise easy living. Jesus does not say that the temple remains, that we avoid death, or that pain goes away.
But Jesus does promise that God is with us to the end of the age, God is still in charge, and we can trust in God when we can no longer trust anything else.
What do we do today when we don’t know tomorrow? We try to figure out what God is up to in the world and we seek, humbly, to get on board with that project.
That’s not a simple answer, but it’s a posture we can strive to adopt. Martin Luther adopted this posture when asked what to do if he thought the end was coming tomorrow. His advice? “Plant a tree.” In other words: Invest hopefully in the future.
Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting? Consider mothers waiting to give birth, with a baby growing inside. When will she deliver? What will happen to the child?
Consider parents waiting to hear back from a job application. How will he pay the mortgage? When will she know?
Consider the teen applying for college. Where will she spend the next four years of her life? Where will her friends go? How will her family cope with her empty chair?
Consider the cancer patient, dying from the inside out. When will he die? Will it hurt? What will he say to his kids on the last day?
Have you ever prayed in a time of uncertainty, in a time of waiting?
Consider the poetic beauty of today’s reading from Isaiah. To the people who knew exactly what it meant to lose a temple, God says, “See, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. So be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”
How do we live today when we don’t know tomorrow? We draw strength from God, who invites our participation and endures long after the cities and buildings and stones have crumbled. We adopt a posture that asks not what God can do for us, but calls us to bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer. We love neighbor as self and we strive for just societies and a stable planet- new heavens and a new earth. We pray without ceasing, and we trust in a mighty God from whom all blessings flow.
This is the revolutionary Good News of Jesus Christ. Are we in?