EYE ON THE PRIZE
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “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.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 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.
9 “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 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 “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 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
This passage occurs in the temple courtyard immediately following Jesus’ encounter with a destitute widow. Ever mindful and ever pointing to what is truly important, Jesus has held up the widow as a woman of value in a world where who she was and what she did was dismissed. Compared to married women, compared to men, and compared to the noisy donations of the rich, she was of no account. But even as Jesus was challenging such values, some of his listeners were distracted by the majesty of the Temple. Jesus’ followers had just missed his point.
It is disconcerting and nearly impossible to take in the reality of the gospel. Jesus’ core message was the greatest commandment: Love God and Love neighbor. Jesus taught, If you love me, love the ones I love and love like I love. Such love extends through all of time, it extends through our deaths and it is manifest in the most unlikely of places. This kind of love is eternal and it is the kind of love to which Jesus calls us . Notice and care for the marginalized. They are all mine. The disciples, however (as are we), were easily distracted.
We may struggle in real life to figure out how to love well but the orientation for our lives is set before us. What is more difficult is the jarring corollary. The natural world, all that we build, all that we can see and touch is not eternal—-and will pass away. We do not get to keep anything in the natural world. Though it is what we know and what we cling to, ultimately, moth, rust, thieves and death will consume everything in the natural world. That leaves us terrifyingly vulnerable so all too often,we avoid keeping our focus upon what is truly eternal, we do important things off task—-like building temples. Or in this case admiring them.
There is nothing wrong with building a temple but if the building becomes the focus, we miss the gospel. Unfortunately in real life, we have the same difficulty. It is easier to raise money for a building than it is to raise money to maintain it, much less raise money for the uncertainty of loving our neighbor. We like concrete definable outcomes. We like results. Religiously,, we like clear definitions of right behavior. Loving offers none of those things.
The Temple was a vehicle, not an end to itself. Jesus tells the disciples the house of God, the symbol of God’s presence in Israel would be completely destroyed. It would not last. It could not be counted on. How do you hold on to faith when the physical bedrock of your belief—-your temple and your nation no longer exists. This harsh reality had already occurred by the time the gospel of Luke was written. These were hard times and it was hard to know what to hold onto. It was hard to know which of the rising prophets to follow. It was hard to stay focused on what is eternal.
When we thoroughly grasp that the things we hold onto in the natural world will be lost, anxiety if not a crisis in faith ensues. The disciples were plenty anxious. They wanted to know when and they wanted to know what to look for. These are all too human questions but unfortunately foreknowledge and the possibility of disastrous consequences rarely changes the unfolding tsunami of life. As often as not knowledge does not mean control.
The idea of aging and disability is a whole lot different than the visceral reality. We can know about it but it doesn’t stop the inexorable decline. We discover we cannot count on our mobility or our memory. The intellectual knowledge that our parents, our spouses and any of our loved ones can be suddenly struck down can never prepare us for the pain and grief of those losses. In such times, most people wonder if it is worth it to go on—-or if it is even possible. The Jews of the first century lived in the middle of such catastrophic chaos. We, like the first century Israelites, must face our radical vulnerability when everything we had counted on collapses.
In vivid apocalyptic language, Jesus goes on to describe all kinds of calamities. Most read these as terrifying prophecies but these are ordinary—-not extraordinary events in every life and in every generation. Every generation has had wars and rumors of wars. Every generation has had terrible natural disasters, plagues and famines. And as long as we insist upon trying to secure our own safety, we will seek power and position over loving and regard. Nations will continue to rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. In our private lives, we will be misunderstood, unfairly treated and betrayed. Many will die. Jesus warns of the unreliability of imagining we can escape such things. We should not be surprised. None of these experiences mean God is not present but all of them threaten our sense of safety in the world. We often confuse the two. We want to know why instead of dealing with what is.
Ironically, our trying to answer unanswerable question can distract us from doing the work of loving. We often spend time trying to decide who deserves their fate, who is collateral damage, what kind of God would allow such things—-and forget to notice the widow. The asking and struggling with these questions is not the issue; the issue is ‘do our questions help us stay focused on the work of loving?’ Are we doing important things—-but things that again, are off the task of loving. Jesus wants us to keep our focus on what is eternal—-loving God and neighbor. Everything else is secondary.
Live like you are loved (no matter what happens to you). Live like love matters. And live like love will prevail. Such an orientation gives life— even in a concentration camp. God’s presence and creative spirit is always with us. It is in no way dependent upon out physical circumstances. Such a life is our testimony. We cannot possibly prepare ahead of time for what we should do. But we can practice pointing toward God. God brought order out of chaos in the creation and he will bring order out of chaos in our personal and corporate lives. Such a faith seems preposterous when the temple is rubble—-when ordinary differences so rapidly become adversarial, when our churches are in decline, when people we have relied upon, die, when our entire world is threatened by the poor stewardship of our environment. All that we know may be going the way of the temple. But Jesus came to show us that loving God and neighbor is possible in a world that crucified him. Jesus wants us to endure and to have hope.
I’m not sure if it is possible to actually teach such things. But we can see the picture that Jesus has drawn by his living. Step by step in life, we endure, trusting that his way is the way that leads to life. It has nothing to do with our physical safety. Our faith gives us no such protection. It has everything to do with gaining our soul—-everything to do with seeing God by staying focused on the eternal.
Give us the courage to stay focused on the eternal—-even when life is hard and inexplicable. Let it be so.