Luke 21:5-19 - The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
5 When 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.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and, ‘The time is near!’[b] 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.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there 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. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words[c] and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
The Gospel this week has taken a turn for the apocalyptic. I'd be lying if I told you this was a Bible study "go to" passage for me. In general I'd tend to lean toward the cheery Psalms and homely shepherd fables, and away from the pestilence and fratricide.
This is a tricky passage, there's no doubt about that. It is not helped by the fact that the designated reading stops mid-way through this apocalyptic prophecy. Read on to the end of the chapter and you'll see that it's difficult at times to know exactly what he is referring to. At times, relatively immediate events, such as the destruction of the Temple, at other times the end-of-days appearance of the Son of Man. Amongst the many confused thoughts and questions this inspires in me, one thing I observed is how this most mysterious and frankly, frightening, speech of Jesus' was sparked off by a bit of casual eavesdropping. One mundane conversation about the beauty of the Temple is overheard and Jesus is off on one about the end of the world! I work for the Anglican Church and I'm pretty much on a constant tour of beautiful buildings. If I'd been reminded of the impending end of the world every time I'd made a comment on a nice stained glass window this year, right now I'd be living in a bunker surrounded by a couple thousand cans of tuna and wearing a tin foil hat. But perhaps a timely challenge to the safety harness of our religious tradition is exactly what we need from time to time.
The Temple will be destroyed, says Jesus. This was the tangible sign of God's presence on earth. It was the great symbol that the Jews clung to as they reassured themselves in a politically volatile and oppressive era that God was with them. Turn on the news, watch refugees of every creed, bloodied, scramble in the dusty ruins of their city. Think about the hopelessness as rebels and army and government forces turn upon each other and a foreign superpower bears down upon them to add fuel to the fire. Think about how far away God seems as they cry and scream. The Jews would go through exactly this experience from 66-70 AD as their cities were flattened by Roman forces, as extremists burnt their own food supplies to move the moderates to take up arms and starved Jerusalem in the process, as zealots executed the Jewish leaders who pleaded with them to surrender in the face of certain defeat... They did this because they were a proud people and the Temple in the Holy City was the House of the Lord, and they could not imagine an expression of the covenant so radically different as to be based around synagogue worship and teaching of the Torah. They could not imagine a world where we wouldn't even be sure what happened to the Ark and where Hollywood would make fun movies about Indiana Jones looking for it.
What if all our buildings fall to the ground? What if our children become so biblically illiterate and indifferent that the scripture disappears out of modern life? What if the generations to come forget about the sacraments? When Jesus' followers asked what would be the sign of the destruction of the Temple, he responds as though they've asked him about the end of time. That's because they assumed that when the Temple came down it would be the end of time. Jesus doesn't describe "the sign", but he does tell them the much more frustrating fact that everything will happen over a long period of time, and that they will witness lots of terrible things first and that actually it's more important to focus on not being led astray from him than to try to predict the future. Along with all the awful atrocities we’ve seen since the day Jesus made that speech, we've witnessed the development of a new Judaism and a little movement called Christianity. Maybe instead of giving into the doom and gloom as the wave of secularism invades with same force as Vespasian, we take heed of Jesus advice on expectation management: tough times are coming, but the end will not come all at once. Jesus has not given us permission to give up yet and we must not be afraid of a different future.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.