Living the Apocalypse from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
5Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6“As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
8Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
10Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11‘‘There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will provide you with an opportunity to testify.14Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19By holding fast, you will gain your lives.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
A couple of years ago, I visited a couple of Cathedrals. Leah and I were blessed with the opportunity to travel to Ireland on a combined trip with the English and History departments at Presbyterian College. We flew into Dublin, which is home to both Christ’s Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
They date back to an era when communities banded together to erect massive monuments to the glory of God, stone testaments to the bedrock of their faith, and filled them with finely carved statues, ornate stained glass, and beautifully crafted furnishings. I took pictures of altars, pulpits, baptismal fonts, and even some of the doors just to show my woodworker friends what our spiritual ancestors had built out of faith in God. I am still awestruck at the memory of how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God.
But the thing is, those cathedrals, in spite of their beauty and the faithfulness out of which they were constructed, are not thriving communities of faith. Christ’s Church in downtown Dublin has enough room for almost a thousand people, and finds itself an echoing expanse to the sixteen or so worshippers it greets each service. “Jesus said, ‘As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.’”
It’s not a matter of the glory of the temple. It’s the glory of God that gives our worship, and indeed our lives, its meaning. But the Jerusalem temple, the European cathedrals, even our own Protestant denominations, are what we have used to order our worship for so many centuries. The craftsmanship evident in those structures are a testament to the way God has been active in our history, and to the devotion of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. It is an intimidating prospect to think that “the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another.” We are very anxious when our Lord tells us that “All will be demolished.” After all, isn’t the kingdom of God established for all time?
So we ask, alongside the disciples, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?” How long should we participate in these systems of worship if they’ve got an expiration date anyway? Doesn’t it make sense to go ahead and cut bait if these things are all temporary? Maybe invest in whatever’s coming next? When will we know that it’s no longer worth it to worship in the place and manner of our ancestors?
Jesus responds, but I don’t think he answers the question we are asking out loud. I think he answers the question behind the ones the disciples voice. Their question is about a timetable, when is the end? What will show us that the Apocalypse is about to happen? How can we prepare our defenses so that we can outlast all the outsiders who don’t know you? Their questions are all about the end of the only world they think they’ve known. Apocalypse, to the people who ask these questions, is about the dread of the end of the world as we know it. People who ask these questions, people like us, and often we ourselves, are searching for a way to be in control.
But we are not. God is.
Because the glory of the temple doesn’t matter. The glory of God, who’s presence is with us even after the fall of the temple, is the important thing. Because no matter how many times we’ve used it the other way, apocalypse doesn’t mean a violent end, it means a revelation of God. Living the apocalypse means that God is sharing something of his identity with us.
So Jesus warns us against the anxiety over the end of how we understand the world. When will the God I worship and serve pay me back and reward me for being a good person? Jesus sees through the pretense of asking for a sign immediately, and lovingly brushes past the question the disciples ask out loud and goes to the fear that motivated them to ask it. He warns them that others will come who will play on those fears, who will claim that God will do what we want, that God’s purpose is to prevent human suffering. Preaching an easy God that leads us to an easy life.
But we don’t worship an easy god, we worship a Great God.
An easy god would fix all our problems and never expect us to change our hearts and minds. An easy god would keep a naughty and a nice list of those to bless and those to punish. An easy god would be content to let us figure things out on our own until things got out of hand, and then choose whether or not to be involved. An easy god would focus on making sure that god’s chosen people, which since this is our easy god, means us, would want for nothing and be carried along by rainbows and unicorns.
But we don’t worship an easy god, we worship a Great God.
So Jesus paints a rather discouraging picture of the future of his followers. We can easily identify with the global suffering Jesus names: wars, rebellions, nations and kingdoms fighting, earthquakes, food shortages, epidemics, terrifying sights, and great signs in the sky. Catch the right night on the evening news, and you can check off the whole list in half an hour. It’s not a big jump to say that since all these things are happening, we must be living in the end times.
But I’d imagine those are nothing new. The disciples saw and heard these same things even before Christ came into their lives. Jesus is not just describing the world as it will be, he’s describing the world as it is.
He does this because the comfort of the person and work of Jesus Christ is not in his ability to make all that is bad and ugly go away, it’s in the assurance that when we go through the bad and the ugly, we do not do so alone. The wonder of the resurrection is in the promise that even though the temple may be demolished, and the cathedrals may crumble, and our denominations may die, God’s presence is still among us, reforming us always to be closer approximations of the image in which we have each been created. The revelation of God’s self to us is not one that prevents the crucifixion, but one who goes to it willingly, with a loving power that cannot even be contained by death.
But until such a time as the reign of Christ comes to its full expression, when God’s promise to Isaiah that no one will ever hear the sound of weeping or crying again is carried out, we must continue to have faith in the Great God who creates, redeems, and sustains us, rather than settling for the easy one that we create for ourselves.
Because, to paraphrase Jesus, there’s a whole river of hurt headed our way, not because that is God’s intent, but because the kingdom of God is breaking through the darkness. But the violence of that breakthrough is not cause for fear, but for testimony to the heavenly light that ushers in the morning.
“But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody, and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict”
That’s one of those passages in scripture that reminds me that being a Christian is hard, following Jesus’s teachings is perhaps beyond any of us alone. This one is difficult for me because I’ve never had my faith questioned in an adversarial way. I’d imagine very few of us have been hauled into court because of our faith. But moreover, I have the blessing of being good at words. And this passage challenges me to set that talent aside and not rely on any clever turn of phrase.
“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom.” If we are striving to defend ourselves, we are still holding on to our own control. We are preparing ourselves out of our own strengths, and it is all to easy to forget to include God’s strengths in those plans. God’s love is always reliable, God’s involvement in our lives is always reliable. God acting according to our plans...Not so much.
So rather than trying to grasp on to our own words and wisdom, which is limited by our human scope, Jesus urges us to trust not our own defenses, but in God’s ability to make himself known through us. Have faith that Christ will speak through me? It’s so much easier to decorate my language with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God, to shape my words into a temple.
But our faith is not a matter of the glory of the temple, and we don’t worship an easy god. We center our faith around the glory of a Great God, who is even now breaching the divide between us. God’s glory shines through us because God has chosen us to live the revelation of the LORD.
“These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
Our job, as Christians, is to testify to how God is actively involved in the world. Our task is to respond to a frightening future with the faith that God holds us in her hands like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child.
Because what if these are not failures of God to protect us from harm, but opportunities for us to prepare each other and the whole of creation for what living in the kingdom of heaven is like. We must take our actions into a world ruled by fear and demonstrate the liberation of a faith in Christ Jesus. Because we have seen the resurrection, we have seen glimpses the kingdom of God, we have lived the promise of a new creation, and we know that the fears of the world, though real, do not have the final word.
Being hated is not the final word, being executed is not the final word. Neither are betrayal, or contradiction, or arrests and harassment. Epidemics, food shortages, and earthquakes are not the final word. Nations and kingdoms fighting are not the final word, and neither are wars and rebellions.
The final word is the peacemaker who stands in the middle and refuses to let force rule the day. It’s the person who has enough food sharing it with the one who does not. It’s the political prisoner who will not lie to save herself from persecution. The final word is not of argument against an opponent, but love for one’s enemies. The final word is forgiveness in a family torn apart. The final word is “Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”
The final word is Grace.
Because when we live the apocalypse that Jesus describes in this passage, we are not living the end, we are living the revelation of who God has shown us he is.