Our Gospel reading for this morning picks up where our Old Testament reading from last week left off. Last week we heard about the construction of the Second Temple. In our reading for this morning, Jesus foretells its destruction.
Jesus’ warning about the destruction of the Temple startled the people who heard it. They naturally wanted to know when it would happen. Jesus could have answered their question. Jesus could have told them that it would be about forty years. But he doesn’t. Why not?
I think he had two reasons. First, if Jesus told them it would be forty years, they probably would have gone on with business as usual. After all, forty years is a long way away. Jesus didn’t want them to wait to make whatever changes might be necessary in their lives. Jesus called his disciples to new life beginning that day.
A related reason was that Jesus didn’t want them to get bogged down on the topic of the Temple. Jesus had bigger things in mind.
So instead of answering their question about the Temple, Jesus shifts into full apocalyptic mode. Jesus tells them about his Second Coming, when the kingdom of God will be established in all its power and glory. We only get part of Jesus’ speech, which goes on for the rest of the chapter. But we get enough!
Passages about the end times are always confusing and a little scary. In our passage and elsewhere in the New Testament, we hear a LOT about the trials and tribulations that will precede the coming of God’s kingdom. Some of the trials are so grim that we may hear passages like our Gospel reading as bad news.
But this is good news. Bad things will happen, but the story ends well. God wins.
In our passage we get just a glimpse of the happy ending. In what may be my favorite part, Jesus promises that “not a hair of your head will perish.” I need that! Jesus adds what is surely more important—“by our endurance, we will gain our souls.” That is good news!
Isaiah reinforces the goodness of this good news. Isaiah tells us that God will create new heavens and a new earth, and it is going to be fabulous. Isaiah tells us to be glad and rejoice forever in what God is doing. Jerusalem will be created “as a joy.” Its people will be “a delight.” I love thinking about God taking delight in the new creation and inviting us to share it! That is where we are headed.
Every time Jesus talks about the coming kingdom of God, he is inviting us to live in the happy knowledge that love and joy are our destiny.
But our Gospel reading does more than tell us about what will happen to all of us at some undisclosed time in the future, helpful though that is. We can also read this passage as a kind of parable, a graphic image of what it means to put our full trust in God even now. And it starts with stripping away everything that is not God.
The stripping away begins with the Temple at Jerusalem. The Temple was the single holiest spot on earth. When the first Temple was dedicated, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10-11). That is one holy place! But in time, people began to treat the Temple with a kind of superstitious awe. It was as if the Temple itself became an idol. And so the Temple needs to get stripped away. Jesus warns his hearers that it will soon be destroyed.
There is no Jerusalem Temple today. But it is possible for us to make an idol of our religious institutions just like they did. We can get so attached to our way of doing Church that we run the risk of losing sight of God. The Church and everything we do here has value only to the degree that it connects us to God. If the Church ever begins to stand between us and God, it will have to be stripped away.
Next Jesus warns us not to put too much trust in our leaders, especially the ones who make the grandest claims, who say “I am he!” I am the only one who can solve all your problems. We want strong and effective leadership in all of our institutions. But if we begin to trust our leaders instead of God, our trust in them needs to be stripped away. So Jesus tells us, “don’t go after them.”
The same is true for nations and kingdoms. Patriotism is a virtue. We rightly celebrate service to our nation. But our ultimate loyalty is not to the United States. Our nation is not God. If we forget that, the nation needs to be stripped away, just as happened to the people of Israel for nearly two thousand years. And so Jesus tells us nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
Come even closer to home. We all need family and friends. We rightly worry these days about the breakdown of communities and families, and the growing isolation of so many Americans. As Christians we are called to create the beloved community.
And still our ultimate trust has to be in God, not in the people we love. Sometimes even our family commitments have to be stripped away, and so Jesus reminds us that people may be betrayed by those closest to them.
The last thing to be stripped away is our personal safety. So Jesus warns us that we may be arrested and persecuted, betrayed, executed, hated.
By the end of the passage, Jesus leaves us with nothing. Nothing, that is, except God.
And the lesson is simple. Jesus invites us to place our ultimate trust only in God. This, too, he puts in a graphic way. Even on trial for our lives, Jesus tells us not to prepare a defense, but simply to trust that God will give us the words and the wisdom we need.
So how can we put that lesson into practice in our lives? What does it mean to live in the hope of God’s kingdom and trusting entirely in God in the meantime?
Well, starting at the end, I’ll continue to prepare sermons and generally plan for the future. I will continue to love my family and my country and my Church.
But our passage is a stern reminder of where our ultimate loyalty must rest—in God and God alone.
And that is good news.
If we look for salvation in the wrong places, we are doomed to disappointment. And the fact is, the Church cannot save us, and no leader can save us, and our nation cannot save us, and even the people we love cannot save us. We need God.
And in this passage, Jesus assures us that God remains trustworthy even when everything is collapsing around us. The life and joy and peace, the salvation, that comes from God does not depend on our institutions or our personal loyalties, all of which may fail us. Our true life and joy and peace, our salvation itself, depends only on God who is trustworthy and true.
And so my prayer for us is that we can continue to value all the good things in our lives, but that we will put our ultimate trust in God. And I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan