What would you do if your entire world was turned upside down?
That’s the question our encounter with Jesus today forces us to answer.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus preparing His first century followers, fellow Jews, for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The first disciples needed to be prepared for this event because, for pious Jews, the prospect of the temple being destroyed was a cataclysmic possibility, an unthinkable tragedy. Losing the temple had the potential for totally turning their worlds upside down.
Go to our lesson for today, Luke 21:5-28, please. (We’re only going to focus on verses 5 to 19 this morning.) The passage begins: “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’”
The disciples admired the temple in much the same way we Americans admire the White House, the Washington Monument, or the Statue of Liberty. All are symbols of our country and what we’ve been taught it stands for. And while we may sometimes be cynical about whether Americans truly believe in the positive things this country stands for, every American would be horrified at the prospect of any of these national symbols being destroyed.
If you can imagine the sense of horror you would feel in the event that someone bombed the Statue of Liberty, then you will experience a small fraction (and only a small fraction) of what the disciples felt when Jesus said that every stone of the temple would be thrown down.
I say “a small fraction” because the temple was much more than the symbol of the Jewish nation. The temple was the place where God dwelt on the earth, in the Holy of holies. For Jesus’ first disciples, all pious Jews, the absence of the temple, if they didn’t place themselves fully under Christ’s lordship, could have have seemed to mean the absence of God.
Jesus had to shake His disciples from their superstitious attachment to stones, mortar, and jeweled walls in order to prepare them for upcoming events.
One of those events was His crucifixion, which would happen in just a few days. Mark 15:38 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” In other words, at the very moment when Jesus offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, the impediments that once would have prevented us from experiencing oneness and intimacy with God were destroyed. The veil concealing God from sinful human beings was shredded by God’s grace, given in Christ. All who turn from sin and trust in Jesus are one with God.
At that moment, the temple became irrelevant. Now, nobody would have to make sacrifices to get close to God; the Savior Who sacrificed Himself on the cross makes God known and accessible to all who hear and trust in the Gospel! Jesus was warning the disciples of this fact so that when the walls of the temple came down, their world wouldn’t be turned upside down. They could stand firm.
Of course, whenever we’re given what we consider bad news, which is what Jesus’ pronouncement that the temple would one day be destroyed seemed to be to the disciples, we want explanations. That’s why the disciples ask Jesus in verse 7 of our lesson: “Teacher...when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
So, Jesus gives them signs and explains that before the destruction of the temple, which, we know, did happen at the hands of the Roman Army in 70 AD, many events would happen first. Jesus says that there would be turmoil and false messiahs. There would be wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and even fearful signs from the heavens. In other words, life on Planet Earth would pretty much unfold as it has since Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then, Jesus warns those first-century disciples: “But before all this [before the temple comes down], they [the enemies of Christian faith, the Romans and the Jews] will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”
Now, Jesus isn't here commending ignorance. He's not saying, "Keep stupid about God and the Bible or the faith that you confess on Sunday mornings." He is saying that as we spend time with God's people worshiping, hearing God's Word, and receiving the sacraments, and that as we spend time daily with God reading and soaking up His Word for ourselves, confessing our sins in Jesus' name and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit as He transforms us, we won't have to prepare to face those who attack Christ or our faith in Him. If we try to plan what we're to say, we'll be using our own limited reasoning and wisdom and we'll be refuted for sure. But if we're steeped in God's Word and filled with His Spirit, our words will be irresistible, irrefutable.
But here in our lesson, Jesus was saying, within decades of His crucifixion and resurrection, the Mediterranean region awash with more than 500 believers who staked their reputations and lives on affirming that they had seen the resurrected Jesus, powerful witnesses to the truth of the Good News about Jesus, disciples would be dragged before authorities and condemned for their faith. The disciples might well have wondered what they had signed up for, when Jesus told them: “Everyone will hate you because of me."
But it’s a truth that the first Christians would learn and pass along to other believers. It’s something they needed to know when their worlds were being upended. The apostle Peter, writing in about 64 AD, told the Christians of Asia Minor: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
Persecution, shunning, hostility.
We Christians who live in America have been largely insulated from such treatment over the past few centuries--partly because we’ve done such a good job of doing exactly what Jesus told us not to do, hide our light, the light of Christ, under a bowl, keeping our faith in Christ on the QT, not rocking the boat by making disciples or praying in public (like when we go to a restaurant). But even here in the United States, we face opposition for our faith in Jesus.
I received an angry message from an atheist friend this past week who basically said that I was living a less than useless life, that all I did to help this country was pray to a god who isn’t there. We’ve all likely been told these things and if we’re not, maybe we need to seek out friendships with atheists and agnostics to give them the chance to say such things to us. It's only when we make ourselves available to hear the world's criticism of our faith in Jesus that we have the opportunity to share the Good News about Jesus with them. And there is a rising and ignorant venom against anyone who bears the name of Christ.
That’s only to be expected. When people think that this world is all there is to this life and that there is no god but us and that we human beings should have our desires gratified, believers who challenge these faulty assumptions will be unwelcome. For much of the world, a Christian in the neighborhood is like a skunk at a garden party. Or worse, Christians who declare that Jesus is Lord are seen as enemies of the state and disturbers of the peace, as they were in Rome, as they are today in places like Syria, Iraq, and even by some among whom we live each day.
If we authentically seek to follow Jesus, we will face opposition. We will be taunted and ridiculed. We may be passed over for promotions because there’s no place for Jesus in our workplaces. Jesus wanted the first Christians to know all of this. He wants us to know this.
Listen: In the face of such realities, we can’t rely on buildings or liturgies, kings or princes, presidents or prime ministers, parties or political philosophies, countries or armies to save us, to give us life.
Only God can save us or give us life.
And God only does that through Jesus Christ. Jesus couldn't be more explicit. He says in John 10:30: "I and the Father are one." And He says in John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."
We have good news!
Jesus says at the end of our Gospel lesson: “...not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.”
Jesus is not here promising that bad things won’t happen to believers, of course. He is promising that when we entrust our whole lives--not just some of our lives and not just when it’s convenient, we are saved from the death that is worse than earthly death, eternal death, the death of eternal separation from God.
He's saying that we're to stand firm in just the way He stood firm when dragged before Pilate and before the high priest. Jesus was subjected to hatred, rejection, violence, false accusations. Jesus never fought back. He never met fire with fire. But He stood firm. That's what you and I are called to do.
Standing firm with Christ means standing for Christ and not for ourselves.
It means doing the will of God when we want to do something else.
It means caring so passionately about the neighbor who rejects Christ that we keep praying for him and her, keep sharing Christ with him and her, even when they attack us.
It means clinging to Christ and not to the things of this world, no matter what.
At the beginning of this message, I said that Jesus’ words force us to answer the question, what would we do if our entire worlds were turned upside down?
The answer is simple, yet always challenging to live out: Even when our worlds are upended, keep holding onto Jesus Christ and His promises.
It boils down to this. When we hold onto Christ, we have life. When we don’t hold onto Christ, we are dead.
As Jesus puts it elsewhere: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). That’s a promise worth believing even in a world turned upside down!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]