Luke 21: 5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus 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 defence 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.
This passage (the one set for this 2nd Sunday before Advent), which is similar to passages in Mark and Matthew, has a clear overall message but it has stirred endless debates about the detail, and timings. The longer section of ch 21 (not just the first verses here) is primarily focused on the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, which Jesus can “foresee”. Jerusalem is the city of God, with the magnificent Temple built by Herod as a sign of God’s presence and promise to his people. 500 years earlier the first Temple had been destroyed along with the city by the Babylonians, and in AD70 the Romans would do the same, with great brutality. The Romans would crush any insurrection; that’s what they did!
Luke was probably writing to Christians in the years after this cataclysmic disaster. If the Romans had destroyed the city and Temple of God, can you really trust in the God whose people and place have been so over-run? How do you explain it? Is it judgement from God?
This is complex for us as we are now 2000 years on from that event and it has no apparent significance for us. We see the Church having “triumphed” over Rome, not vice versa! There are three horizons in view for Luke, one the Roman attack, the next the ongoing time of history and the third, the time when God will come again in power and glory, the Day of the Lord, which Christians thought was imminent, now Jesus had risen. Luke is writing in part to help the first Christians come to terms with the call to live in this world, waiting for whenever it will be that Jesus returns, which is unlikely to be immediate. This also is complex for us, because 2000 years later we probably are not exercised by when Jesus will return, and we have seen and heard of the various “prophets” who have claimed to know, and the various Messiahs who have claimed to be the returning Jesus. We are too sceptical!
Broad-brush, Jesus calls for perseverance and endurance; some at least will be persecuted, even killed for their faith; there will be opposition from synagogue (fellow Jews) and from the state. Despite the Resurrection of Jesus, there will still be war and insurrections; still be earthquakes and famine and plague. This we do understand as it is what we experience today in the world; what we may find harder, is why Jesus / God does not step in to stop these things, for the sake of those who suffer. That tension is found even in this passage where Jesus says some will be put to death, yet not a hair of our head will perish! An answer may be that we recognise the reality of suffering, yet, in the Resurrection we see that even death cannot destroy who we are, and we are raised in new birth conformed to His glorious body.
Remembrance-tide falls in this period just before Advent. For Christians we remember the realities of this world, particularly those who have died, those whose lives were blighted; we remember, in the shadow of Advent, that season when we remember God coming among us as a child, a man who suffered and was killed; and thirdly we remember his promises of the ultimate coming of His Kingdom, where all will be restored, in justice, with peace.
Revd Peter Reiss