THE READING for many congregations on the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost comes to us from the latter chapters of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Often termed as an end times revealing, this lesson provides a view of conditions that certainly have occurred in the past, and we predict will yet occur… even in our own time.
And as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he (Jesus) said, "As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."
And they asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?"
And he said, "Take heed 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 this must first take place, but the end will not be at once."
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 pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.
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.
This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.
You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake.
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:5-19)
Be Not Led Astray…
In Luke, we find this discourse stems directly from Mark 13:1-23, and is also recorded in Matthew 24:1-3. Here Luke retells the scene from Mark that occurred on the very steps of the Jerusalem temple. On that day, which happened some 50 years before Luke’s writing, Jesus indicated to the disciples that our wondrous earthly temples are not immune to decay… neither those we build, nor those we inhabit.
We note that our Lord spoke these words to his followers as he approached Golgotha, the place of the Skull…. where upon the cross he would be mocked as “King of the Jews”. We also know that historically, Jesus predicted these things that had already begun to unfold before the writing of Mark’s gospel, which was made available at about 65-68 A.D. The events came as revealed truth to the fledgling churches of Mark. They already witnessed in part the prophecy that continued to rumble on into later decades. The revelation thus confirmed their experiences, and the church senses later became heightened when the writers of Matthew and Luke also penned their gospels.
You see, after the crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord, the first sign of widespread prophetic fulfillment occurred in the continued rise of political tensions. About 68-70 A.D., the Romans finally made war against Jerusalem.
The war was set against temple powers. Conflict raged about struggles concerning Jewish national identity, military control, flow of Imperial money, and not withstanding… religious zealotry. These thorny issues brought the Romans to stamp very hard on the nation of Israel. For the church in the midst of this timeframe, historical rejection of Christ by the Jews had resulted in such as the death of James. For the early church then, this added to the drama of a very turbulent time. These and other earth shaking fault lines widened tensions as dramatic Roman persecutions of both Jews and Christians began.
We know that when Rome pounced, Jews of the temple cult were assailed and zealots were killed mercilessly. The persecutions began with the siege of Jerusalem under Emperor Titus as he sought sure destruction of the temple. Afterward, the Roman forces relentlessly pursued the remnant, rebellious Jewish forces who yet wished to throw off the mantle of Roman power.
The tumultuous time shook the governing Hebrew culture to its core. The unrest ended with the suicidal deaths of those partisans cornered in the fortress at Masada (70AD). Only the religious Jews who had dispersed widely throughout the Empire and became influential escaped the purge. To save themselves from further destruction, they pointed the Romans to the Christians as the primary cause of unrest. The persecutions of Nero upon the church is stark evidence of this factor..
What Goes Around…
A decade or more after these historical and apocalyptic events, Luke warned his churches through the rewriting of Mark’s gospel message. Though likely a Gentile himself, our author maintained the language of Jewish apocalyptic prophecy. In the retelling of the Markan divulging of Jesus’ conversation, Luke emphasized that “end times” were yet echoing hard upon his contemporaries. Luke pointed out firmly that Jesus, the Christ of God… had prophesied to them of the hard things they as Christians would suffer for his name's sake.
Our author, working in the Spirit, wrote that Jesus just prior to his crucifixion had encouraged the disciples… to have courage and continue their work over against all cultural opposition. Using the words of Jesus as provided by Mark, Luke directed the church forward even knowing that because of congregational infancy some would falter… and fear would likely reign in certain places. The truth of the prophecy had already been proven decades before, and had continued across the Roman Empire.
Luke stressed to all of the church that the out pouring of the Holy Spirit was crucial. Evidenced by the fall of the temple cult and its power-inebriated influence, Christian endurance though the tumult was seen to come only from divine wisdom and strength. The Word which had been placed in the hands of the fledgling Christian church was key to its survival. Contrary to the communal dispersal of the Jews and the decline and disappearance of many synagogues, by Christian patience and perseverance, such churches as the audience of Luke were privileged to survive and even grow. They did this task by holding tightly to their possession of the saving faith that had been bestowed upon them.
We find today in this text then, that we who are called as witnesses are also empowered by this text. We are summoned first to likened ourselves to those scattering disciples who were with Jesus upon the steps of the temple. Secondly, and more importantly… we are to be like those of the early church that received power from the Holy Spirit from on high. Our Lord’s divine power was indeed given to them… and is also available to us, so that we may also endure birth pains. We die and begin again… in Resurrection-style!
Certainly by the Spirit’s power and guidance we shall endure a millennia of persecutions… those of such force as seen around the church in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
Know this! We people of God who are called forth in Christ have been tempered and proven though Roman, European, Asian, American, and world wars. We see that today many Christian have already fallen victim to persecutions in Syria and many other lands. Had we not been told by Jesus that even though heaven and earth pass away, his words do not pass away… the church may easily be covered by the dusts of time.
However, the text we read this week reminds us to pray for a future when neither the real, nor spiritual Jerusalem, will any longer be trodden down. We join with those who have walked in faith before us if we shall declare the good news of salvation in Christ… and look forward to a future day.
Certainly we know in faith that through times of war and pestilence, both Jews and Gentiles turned to the Way and worshipped of the Lord. In the same path, this is a sure and certain hope that we are already delivered even as divine judgments come upon the world.
Take note that the temple wall remnant yet stands in Jerusalem as stark testimony of divine justice. We are shown evidentially that corporate and personal sins do not pass without punishment. Unfolding history proves that investing in cultic power and politics will not deliver us through these turbulent times. Only faith given in Jesus Christ crucified and Risen delivers us!
Be drawn to realize that we are now a growing remnant empowered by the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness and strength have been given to us through the waters of Holy Baptism. In receiving this gift we often stand amid and against family, friends, and the society around us. Though we receive persecutions sometimes felt as great earthquakes, both real and symbolic, that shake the very foundations of our humanly-perceived learning, we are yet called as witnesses. Indeed, we are asked to tell of God’s saving grace through Christ.
Remember that we have been commanded to witness this truth even though we may be shunned as antiquated and weapons are brandished before our faces. Wars and rumors of wars, famines in food and morality, and colliding columns of apostate church hierarchy shudder… spill forth again and again. Facing demonic onslaught upon the earth, we of the Christian faith therefore need to cling faithfully to the Word of God rightly interpreted. This we must rightly do in response knowing that we have been given the grace of eternal life freely from God.
Therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, come to know in the Spirit that this is our divine gift bought with the sacrifice of Jesus, the Father’s only begotten Son. Jesus warned his followers of these principalities and powers. We therefore believe his words and prepare a sure defense in the Holy Word… knowing that though crucified, dead and buried, Jesus is yet Risen, Risen indeed.