Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about our future. It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome. How were they to deal with this situation? Luke says to listen for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and use Jesus himself as a model. Luke’s appeal is that as we live out of the wisdom which God gives, and not out of fear, we may let our responses to the hype and horror of accumulating disasters not be determined by the one-liners of media editors or religious demagogues, but by the same Spirit who is now the center of our lives.
Last week we focused on Haggai and the effort to build the second Temple, the first, Solomon’s, having been utterly destroyed in 586 BCE by Babylonian invaders. Under Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire who died in 522, and then under Darius, first cousin to the assassinated rightful heir to the Persian throne, the leaders and wealthy classes of Jews who had been relocated to Babylon were allowed to return to their promised land and begin to rebuild. Some forty two thousand Jewish pilgrims made that journey home. What they saw of what was left of Jerusalem broke their hearts and challenged their best efforts. But they persevered and built a new city and a second temple over where the old city and temple lay buried.
Construction of the second temple was slow as resources were scarce and initially shoddy but what they built would serve as the site for Jewish sacrificial worship for the next 500 years. It was this same second temple, gloriously remodeled and expanded by Herod the Great in the year 19 BCE, that fulfilled the expectations of the Prophet Haggai that it would be even more grand than had been Solomon’s Temple. When we read this passage in Luke it’s helpful to recall that this grand and glorious renovation was only a decade old when Jesus came on the scene.
Where the other Gospels relate this story nearing the conclusion of Jesus’ life and ministry you get the feeling that they are on the outside looking at the Temple. But with Luke we get the sense that Jesus is speaking to a gathering of his followers on the inside. For this gathering this wasn’t ancient history, it was current events. The changes that had occurred in the Temple had only recently been completed. They were aware of the people whose gifts had made it the beautiful sight it had become. Some, very possibly, had worked on the renovation project.
Some people were talking about the temple and the fine stones and votive offerings with which it was adorned. He (Jesus) said, ‘These things which you are gazing at—the time will come when not one stone of them will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ ‘Master,” they asked, ‘when will it all come about?” What will be the sign when it is due to happen?”
He said, ‘Take care that you are not misled. For many will come claiming my name and saying. “I am he”, and, “ The Day is upon us.” Do not follow them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not fall into a panic. These things are bound to happen first; but the end does not follow immediately.’ Then he added , ‘Nation will make war upon nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and famines and plagues in many places; in the sky terrors and great portents.
‘But before all this happens they will set upon you and persecute you. You will be brought before synagogues and put in prison; you will be haled before kings and governors for your allegiance to me. This will be you opportunity to testify; so make up your minds not to prepare your defense beforehand, be cause I myself will give you power of utterance and a wisdom which no opponent will be able to resist or refute. Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you. Some of you will be put to death; and all will hate you for your allegiance to me. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By standing firm you will win true life for yourselves.
No one argued with Jesus when he stated that this newly expanded and renovated edifice would be destroyed. They could look around and still see remnants of Solomon’s Temple serving as the foundation of that which was new. The wisdom he shared with his listeners: ‘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’, wasn’t some divinely inspired prognostication of impending doom – Jesus was stating a timeless fact – even something as spectacular and immense as this Temple, something as wonderfully embellished and appointed as this temple will not endure. It is important to remind ourselves that this text has nothing to do with predictions of the future, and any interpretation which treats it so is fatally flawed from the out set. Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about our future. It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome. How were they to deal with this situation? Luke says to listen for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and use Jesus himself as a model. Luke’s appeal is that as we live out of the wisdom which God gives, and not out of fear, we may let our responses to the hype and horror of accumulating disasters not be determined by the one-liners of media editors or religious demagogues, but by the same Spirit who is now the center of our lives. Stay in touch with the depths, the Spirit who, to use John’s terms, advocates what Jesus was about.
How easy it is for us to be drawn off track. Look at the response of those around Jesus. The first thing they want to know was when this destruction will come about and what will the signs be that it’s about to happen.
When you get out of the highway you see big trucks displaying diamond shaped signs declaring what hazardous materials they are carrying. The placard may be white, red, green, blue, black or orange and it will have a symbol and a number displayed. Those are United Nations code for certain chemical compounds. Around town here we see 1203 a lot – that’s gasoline. The driver of the truck will have in his glove compartment an Emergency Response Guidebook that tells all about the materials and their dangers. We called it the How Far to Run book. When Jesus pointed out that even something as massive and magnificent as the Temple would not endure the test of time his audience were more interested in when and how far to run. So now look to the end of this brief passage. What does Jesus say to his hearers “By standing firm you will win true life for yourselves.” What a contrast this draws – between this massive building and the relative significance of one person’s life. Which one will last? Which is of greater importance? Which will endure the test of time? And of course, what might take your attention away from what is truly important?
Jesus helps his followers to ask what in life offers security? If not even this massive stone structure will endure what else might compete for our attention to what truly matters?
Jesus’ lists personalities that seek a following and tells his followers:
“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.
He then identifies national and international conflicts:
“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
He points to natural calamities and says:
there will be great earthquakes,
and in various places famines and plagues;
Then he points to possible celestial events:
and there will be dreadful portents and
great signs from heaven. 12
And then, getting down to earth and says of their immediate future as his followers: “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
And here I’ve got to believe he had a great smile on his face as he said: “This 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.
But then, serious again, he adds: 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.
The passage continues with reports of harassment and victimization of the minority Christian movement both in Jewish contexts (‘synagogues’) and broader Gentile contexts (‘governors’) . Luke will tell us about some of this in Acts. Not even then are the hearers to be panicked into irrationality. In a saying which Luke has already brought in another form in 12:11-12, people arraigned to give account of their faith should trust they will be able to say what they need to say. Of this same thought Mark says ‘it will be given you what you should say’. The other version of the saying speaks of the Spirit supplying the words or being the advocate. Luke replaces those with the promise that Jesus himself will give his oppressed followers irresistible wisdom. Luke isn’t suggesting that persecuted Christians will simply ‘bowl over’ their opponents and escape scot-free. Jesus’ own trial or those we read about in Acts don’t suggest such ‘success’. Rather Luke tells us that if we remain in that primary relationship where Jesus gives you his wisdom it will be an irresistible force. How does he end that passage? Oh yes, By standing firm you will win true life for yourselves.
There is indeed something irresistible about love, even when it is crucified. Luke is realistic: he and his readers will know of family conflicts and betrayals; they will have experienced hate. Where events whip up panic, there is a lot of hate to go around. Anyone who advocates the way of Jesus should expect to be on the receiving end of some of it.
Remember the saying about the hair? It recalls the notion that even hairs of our head are numbered. This seeming contradiction between lives lost and hair saved is Luke’s way of reminding us to live out of trust in God. Luke is not suggesting that Stephen’s body, for instance, remained untouched by the stoning. He is telling us that our future is in God’s hands whatever that might mean. Ultimately we believe it means we will be taken into the heart of the God, the God who loves and, therefore, even in the worst adversity, that is where we can place our faith.
Trust in God has profoundly personal implications. Instead of “prosperity,” the passage is straight forward in declaring that the faithful will find life difficult. Faith does not lead to material success or comfort. Faith and endurance result in wisdom and life. Faith will keep the church from giving in to despair in the midst of the instability of life but will not guarantee comfort. Jesus does not promise the church outward success, ever-growing numbers or full coffers. He explicitly warns the church that its ministry will be arduous and risky. Charles Aaron says that in Jesus’ radical call to faithfulness he declares that all the usual symbols of stability will fail us. Based on trust in Jesus’ authority, and resulting in no external validation, this faith will carry the disciples through tumultuous times and upheaval of all aspects of life. Even though the earthly Jesus has gone, the Risen Christ is with the church in its ordeals. Jesus calls the church to trust this presence, even in the midst of the collapse of every other symbol of stability and reminder of the presence of God.
The passage also speaks to another persistent tendency in the contemporary church which has important political, social and religious ramifications. In Luke Jesus does not withdraw into individualism. He still weeps for Jerusalem and longs for its liberation. He is prepared to be inventive to tackle the madness of fear and hate and the fanatical theologies it generates. He keeps our feet on the ground about abuse and oppression. He stands in a tradition which tackles enmity in a way that is not put off-center by hate or fear, but informed by the stillness and wisdom of the Spirit.
Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure and his call to the disciples to have faith in the midst of chaos addresses the persistent assertion that events in current history point unmistakably to the arrival of the “last days.” For two thousand years this persistent notion has been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked. Jesus consistently declares that we don’t have a clue to what the idea of end times even means. What is clear is that the church is called to continue its ministry without knowing the details of what is called “the last days”. Those who insist on the nearness of the end are simply expressing their wish to be rescued from the danger and uncertainty of life. Luke calls us to continue our ministry with endurance. The instability and perils of life will continue. The church trusts in God in the midst of that uncertainty. Our endurance, our standing firm, will not necessarily be vindicated soon.