As we continue through the gospel according to Luke today, we find Jesus still in the Temple in Jerusalem, speaking and teaching and generally causing a ruckus.
You’ll see why in a minute.
As we listen to this often-misunderstood story from Scripture, I want us to listen closely for what God is doing and where God is.
Scripture: Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘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.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘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.
‘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.’ 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 plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I know. It’s not the most encouraging piece of Scripture at first glance. With all the destruction and deception, no one is embroidering that on pillows anytime soon.
You know there’s always a ‘but’ coming.
If we dig down a little deeper, to the level of symbols and what they mean to us, then I think we’ll find this hits a little closer to home than we realize – and there is a life-giving message to be found even in the hardest parts of Luke.
So let’s zoom out and take a quick look at the history of the Temple. After all, this conversation starts with a few people casually humble-bragging about the temple’s décor and gorgeous artworks, all dedicated to God.
So if you go all the way back to the earliest parts of the Bible – the stories from Genesis and Job – you’ll notice that there is no one physical place where people go to worship God. There is no temple, no pews or gates, and no ornate carvings. There are just people, praying on mountains and encountering God.
If you follow God’s people through Genesis and into the book of Exodus, then you’ll see the beginnings of what we would call ‘organized religion.’ After the part with Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues, when the people are rescued from slavery in Egypt, then the tabernacle was built. The tabernacle was a series of large tents which formed what became essentially a mobile temple that the people carried around with them.
And for the first time, it was believed that God had a physical home on earth – the tabernacle. That was God’s dwelling place.
Fast-forward several hundred years. The tabernacle has been moving around ancient Israel, eventually settling in a place called ‘Shiloh.’ King David wants to build a more permanent home for God – but God tells him to wait, and that project is completed instead by King Solomon, David’s son. He builds and dedicates the first Temple in Jerusalem, and God’s glory comes to rest in the Holy of Holies – which was believed to be a direct connection to the throne room of God.
Fast forward another 400 years, and the people were absolutely convinced that Jerusalem would never fall – after all, God wouldn’t let the Temple be destroyed, because it was God’s home on earth. It was the people’s access point to God.
They were wrong. In 586 BCE, that Temple was leveled by the Babylonians, and the ark of the covenant and everything else in it were carried off or destroyed. Large numbers of people were exiled to Babylon, and the people were really close to believing that God had abandoned them altogether.
But that wasn’t true, either. Even in exile they found new ways to pray and worship, and a group of exiles returned about 50 years later to rebuild the Temple from scratch.
If we fast-forward another 500 years, then we catch up to the story we heard today.
Fun fact: Herod, the Roman Governor of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, is known in many Christian circles as a paranoid and ruthless dictator. But in many historical circles, he’s known as a builder and an artist – and one of his projects was a renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem. So many of the ‘beautiful stones’ and ‘gifts dedicated to God’ were probably Herod’s doing.
But still, the Temple was a sort of giant visible sign that God was present with God’s people. It was the center of the Jewish faith, and the place they went to worship, to learn, to gather and discuss.
So what does all of this have to do with Jesus – and what does it mean for us?
Despite some apocalyptic imagery, Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world. He’s just talking about the temple in Jerusalem, and he turned out to be right: the second Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans following a revolt in the year 70 CE. But he also raises a much bigger question: where do we look for God? What are the signals that God is with us?
When natural disasters, terrorist attacks, coups and revolutions, and other innumerable scary things happen, they’re often interpreted either as God’s punishments for some perceived slight or as proof of God’s absence. But Jesus is telling us rather emphatically that that’s not how this works. God is not raining down chaos because we aren’t praying in the exact right time or place, or because of Mardi Gras. (Honestly, if you read any history at all, you’ll know that humans are capable of much, much worse than even what we’ve seen on the news this week.)
Rather, Jesus’ point is that the center of our faith is not the building or the stuff – because even when all that goes up in flames, God is with us right in the middle of all of that chaos, empowering us with words of grace, with encouragement for the folks getting trampled on, with the resources to welcome strangers and build a community of love and reach out to the people who need that community the most.
Have you ever noticed that so many of the objects at the center of our Christian faith are the things we use every day?
Bread. Water. Juice. A table set for a feast. A candle.
This wasn’t an accident, friends. In fact, it’s kind of the point.
The presence and love of God cannot be contained in an object or a place. The sacred moments we have here – in communion, in baptism, in worship – are meant to be brought with us. Every table is, in some small way, an extension of Christ’s table where all are welcome to feast. Every bubbly creek and bathtub and rainstorm is an opportunity to remember that in baptism, Christ washes away every sin.
We can’t point somewhere and say “God is right there!”
None of us knows exactly what’s coming – or when.
But no matter what comes, the promises of God stand: that the Holy Spirit will give you the words you need when you need them. That God knows you down to the number of hairs on your head, and will never let you go. That one day, Christ will come again to make all things new, and to gather us in to the fullness of the kingdom of God.
And no matter what chaos and pain and absolute insanity we encounter, that is good news indeed.