By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 17, 2019
Luke 21:5–19 (ESV)
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 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 pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
There are several themes that seem to make the rounds in Christian circles. As the calendar approaches the last month of the year, the Advent of Christ is the theme most of us remember. And then there is the passion and resurrection of Christ. But the third most popular theme is usually the second coming of Christ. This is not surprising, because the story of the second coming really attracts our attention. We want to know when that day is. We anticipate that day with either fear or hope.
If you have noticed I am not one to place a great deal of attention on the second coming of Christ. I believe the day will come but I do not focus on it. That might annoy some people, but I have my reasons. The first and most important is that I do not feel that fear is spiritually healthy, and much of the eschatological discussion often focuses on fear. The other reason that I do not focus on the various end times theological discussions is because many of the stances seem to stretch scripture in ways that I do not feel are the most honest. In many ways it almost feels as if many of those that promote the end times theologies are more interested in selling books or tickets to movies than encouraging a true relationship with God. This is my opinion and I know that at times my opinion is not popular and that is fine, because theology is something that can have different perspectives, as long as the central theme remains that same. The central theme should always be focused on the Gospel. Which is that the kingdom of God is at hand, and the access to the kingdom is provided through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today’s passage is one that most people associate with eschatology, or the theology of end times. It is not surprising since the language used by Jesus is very apocalyptic. This style of communication is one that is filled with extreme symbolism, and hyperbole. This was often used by the ancient prophets as well as many first century disciples to cause us to stop and think. Even today people use apocalyptic themes when they discuss aspect of current events that they would like to see changed. Those that listen to the message can see the seeming exaggerations and decide to disregard the message because they see the one carrying the message as being less than truthful. But apocalyptic language is to point out the extreme consequences that might result from inaction. If we were to watch the news, we can hear the use of apocalyptic language frequently. The danger of this type of language is that it can be overused, and people can become desensitized to the message.
We often look at these sorts of passages through lenses based on our own perception and we forget that during the time that the words were written the perception might have been different. In the first century, they had not yet experienced many of the things we take for granted. As the days shorten and the night lengthen, they were not making Christmas lists, because they had not yet realized that God had come to live among them. They were instead preparing for the feast of dedication, that week-long celebration focusing on the temple of God and the miracle of God providing hope in the middle of the darkness.
After our two thousand years of history since Jesus walked among mankind, we can take a jaded view of religious life in the first century. We might fail to see that they were passionate about their faith. The religion of Israel was probably at its peak during the time of Jesus. For centuries we have regarded this time as the dark ages of Jewish history, we often think of it as being the end of four hundred years of silence. This is not really the truth, just as saying that the dark ages in western history is not the most honest representation of history. The medieval period of European history was some of the most impressive eras especially for the church. It was during the Dark Age that the great cathedrals were constructed, and it was during this time frame where the Church had the greatest influence in the lives of the people. The first century was like that in Jewish history.
Today’s passage begins with admiration of the temple of God. It is difficult for us to image the greatness of the temple. Josephus, one of the Jewish historians from the era of the Roman occupation explained the temple in this way:
The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.
I have never seen a building covered in gold. The idea of a building with golden siding seems almost unimaginable. I am unable to even wrap my head around the wealth within a religious organization to finance such a structure. For this to happen or to even be possible would mean that this building was very important to those within that culture. And it was extremely important. Their lives revolved around this structure, because it was this place where God and humanity communed. It was in this place where it was believed that God himself sat between the wings of the angels upon the lid of the Ark. We could debate if the Ark of the Covenant was actually in the holy of holies or if it was lost to history, but they believed that it was there and because of that belief they literally thought this was the one place the one and only true God dwelled on Earth.
Every day offering and sacrifices were brought through the gates, to be placed upon the alter. The smoke from these offerings could be seen rising into the sky. That smoke was filled with the acrid smell of burning flesh and the sweet aroma of the incense reminding all that approach of sin and grace. This one structure held the attention of the Empire.
This time in Hebrew history was probably the golden age. People cherished their temple; it was a beacon of hope and promise. But even during this religious golden era, there was an undercurrent of corruption that cause many to pause. There was a reason that John the Baptist was out in the wilderness crying to the people to repent. There was a reason that there was such a curiosity of the people asking for signs for the coming kingdom. They were anticipating the day when God would reveal the ultimate plan. Some believed that that day was at hand, so they studied scripture looking for what to expect so they would be ready for the advent of their coming king.
When Jesus was teaching, many believed that that day had come. They believed that at last they would see God lead them into the greatest era of history where Israel would be the light to the world, the hope of nations. Yet there was one problem, they were not free. They lived under the heavy-handed rule of overlords. They could worship freely, but how could Israel be the light to the gentiles if they did not have authority?
Apocalyptic language flowed, because no matter what people believed they knew that things were going to have to change. And that change would not come easy. What are the signs, how will we know what to expect? But Jesus took this beyond anyone else. Many anticipated the coming age would have war, but very few considered that the temple itself would be central to the battle. That structure was the beacon of hope, yet Jesus claimed that it would be utterly destroyed.
This got people’s attention, because how could something so massive and spectacular cease to exist? New questions began to be asked, at first what were the signs of the messiah, now suddenly they wanted to know the signs of the coming end of all they held dear? Jesus says:
See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 
Very comforting right? What is Jesus really saying? There are going to be people that are going to use language to excite and terrify you. There are going to be people that will urge you to be driven by raw and blind emotion. Do not listen to them, do not go after them. Do not let your lives be so driven by emotion that you forget the most important things. Do not be terrified.
He goes on to say that nations will rise against nations, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences. There will be terrors, and people will even be taken before officials and imprisoned. In short Jesus is saying life is going to royally suck. You will experience things that will make you question every aspect of your life and your faith, and this will happen because of Him. He says all of this, and then he says the most important thing, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”
This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Jesus speaks of these things as if they are good. He speaks about it as if it is something to look forward to. Is he raving mad or do we need to change our perspective? Just this week a meme has been going around the internet again that I have seen before. It is a simple statement that says, “Faith is not about everything turning out okay. Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.” That statement is something that has stuck with me as I was studying this week, because I think that is at the core of what Jesus is speaking about.
The people of Israel in Jesus’ day may not have had everything they wanted but they were not that bad off. They had their faith, and their faith was very efficient. Their temple was the envy of the empire and it was extremely profitable. They were in a place where they could worry about luxuries instead of survival. They were looking for signs of the coming kingdom, not because they were desperate of hope, but because they were comfortable and desired more. And when their comfort was challenged like Rome taxing them more than they would like, they began to speak of rebellion and separation instead of how to attract people to faith. They desired judgement on those that opposed them instead of grace.
They stood at a crossroad where they could choose which direction to turn. No matter which way they walked there would be consequences. There were people on one side saying we must do this, and they were trying to convince others to support their position. Jesus said do not listen to them. Then they were people on the other side of the road saying do that, and Jesus says do not follow them. What exactly were they supposed to do? Like so many things we assume that the answer lies within this or that, either/or. Jesus is saying, this will be your opportunity to bear witness.
The witness is something beyond human understanding, of left or right. It is on a different plain altogether. The answer is to follow Him. Within every great movement of church history there was a decision made to not listen to the status quo at the time. It could be the rise of the monastic movements, the reformation, or even the beginning of our own faith tradition of Friends. People were given an either-or choice, and they chose something altogether different. When St. Francis began his movement, he could either become a priest or join the family business, he stripped down and rejected both and took a different opportunity. When Martin Luther was presented with a choice, he said that he must listen to the word of scripture and walk accordingly. When George Fox in his spiritual seeking was presented with the choices of the Church of England or the Congregationalists he went out to the field with his book of scripture and he listened to a different voice.
We each, at this moment, have a choice. We each stand at a crossroad in life. We are each looking at the future before us with some sort of dread. If we choose this way this might happen. If we chose that something else might happen. What should we do? The answer is neither. The answer is to seek God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength. The answer is to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others. The answer is not left or right, it is not black or white, it is not this or that. The answer is to follow Christ.
We can look at the theologies of the end as something to fear or something to hope for. We can look at our world as something to dread. We can listen to the news and think all is lost or we can see it as times have never been better. I ask where is your faith? In what are you placing your hope? Is your faith in the things of this world or is it in the one that overcomes the world? Do we live in terror or do we see our day as an opportunity to bear witness of Christ who came and lived among mankind, who taught us about life with God, who took on our sin and shame and died on the cross. Do we today as an opportunity to be buried with Christ in the grave, and to rise again when all hope is seemingly gone? Today is an opportunity to live not in fear, but in faith. Will you take hold of that opportunity?