Magnificent buildings can cause us to stare in awe. Tourists travel hundreds and thousands of miles just to say they have seen the Eifel Tower, Buckingham Palace, or the Colosseum in Rome. They are wonders of human effort and ingenuity. But as we all know, they are no match for the forces of nature: fire, water, and wind, nor do they always withstand the destructive force of man in times of war. Nothing man made does.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are standing before Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. It is helpful to know the history of any building to understand its significance. The original temple had been built during the reign of Solomon, son of King David at the height of the power and wealth of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. It took twenty years to build and stood in Jerusalem, as the magnificent center of the known world. It became the single most important place of worship for the Hebrew people. Here and only here were the people’s offerings and sacrifices to be brought and presented to God.
But the reality was not quite as perfect as the symbol. With the death of Solomon, civil war divided the children of Israel into two smaller and weaker nations. Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Alternative places of worship were created because of the political division between Israel and Judah. Pagan Canaanite worship crept into their worship of the God of Abraham as people sought to increase their odds by appeasing whatever gods they thought might exist. Business became more important than religion. Prophet’s warned of the consequences of abandoning God and oppressing their neighbor, but warnings were not heeded. Eventually, the northern kingdom of Israel was captured and scattered among the nations by the Assyrians, and finally, the Babylonians after a long and miserable siege of Jerusalem, destroyed the beautiful temple Solomon had built to glorify God, and the elite from Jerusalem were taken into exile in Babylon.
However, the story does not end there. Babylon is captured by Persia and roughly 70 years (one lifetime) after the destruction of the temple, Cyrus gives permission for it to be rebuilt. It was a hard and difficult job. Instead of a powerful king, the new builders were a band of refugees who had been allowed to return to their homeland and their religion. Their efforts were thwarted by neighbors and mocked by other nations who oppressed them, but once again, Jews had a single place to come and make their offerings and sacrifices to God. The temple remained a poor representation of Solomon’s temple until the rise of Herod the Great. Herod was king by Roman degree not by Jewish law, but he was a practicing Jew. One of his great projects was an attempt to restore the second temple to the magnificence of the first and he did so right under the observing eyes of Rome. It was both beautiful and massive, surrounded by courtyards for people to gather in for prayer and healing. On feasts days, such as Passover, estimates are that up to one million people a year visited the temple.
It is on the grounds of this building that Jesus and his disciples stand. Jesus has been teaching by telling parables to the crowd that has gathered around him. They are apparently located near the treasury box, or what we would call the offering plate. Some people in expensive clothing have made large offerings and a poor widow has dropped in her penny which certainly caught Jesus’ eye. He understood the sacrifice and generosity her offering had required. But others were busy looking at the ornaments on the temple and were oohing and awing at their beauty.
Never missing a teaching moment, Jesus prophesies about the future of this magnificent building. Jesus tells his disciples, don’t be overly impressed. The day is coming when not one stone of this building will stand on top of another. When Matthew tells this story, he assumes a symbolic nature to the conversation comparing Jesus to the temple and his death and resurrection to its destruction and being rebuilt. But Luke, possibly writing later than Matthew, is fully aware of what happens to the temple in 70 AD, when it is destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish War. Luke uses the story as an illustration of the authority of Jesus who correctly prophesied the destruction of the temple.
When the disciples hear Jesus say that the temple will be destroyed they are probably terrified. Matthew has members of the temple elite make fun of Jesus for saying “He will destroy the temple.” But in Luke, Jesus is addressing his own disciples who are fully aware that the temple was destroyed once before in the most depressing and horrifying moment of their history. Jesus is saying it will happen again and they want to know when. Will we have to go through the same experience our ancestors went through?
Jesus does not answer their question. But the question of “when” still fascinates us even today. We try to make Jesus’ words that follow into some neat timeline. But Jesus is not mapping out a timeline. What Jesus says is “Do not be afraid.” Oddly, he then gives them a dozen reasons why they should be very afraid by telling them what real life looks like.
First, be aware of false prophets and only follow me. There have been many people though history who have claimed to be “the Messiah” only to be shown to be incredibly human and flawed. In my lifetime I can think of Jim Jones and David Koresh who misled people with disastrous results, but there are other kinds of false prophets among us as well. Hollywood and the fashion industry who Photoshop photos and starve fashion models convincing us that normal is tall, pencil thin or muscular, with flawless skin and perfect hair and teeth. Advertising designed to sell all sorts of products tries to convince us that happiness is about money, sex, and power and only if you use their product or watch their show or follow their advice will you have access to those things. Jesus referred to false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They sneak in pretending to be your friend, but in the end they devour you.
Do not let war terrify you. What is more terrifying than war? We have been very fortunate. We have experienced some isolated acts of terrorism from outside enemies and disturbed locals: Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and others, but not since the Civil War, have we known anything that compares to what Europe, the Middle East, and some others areas have experienced. Photos from the Ukraine can bring us to tears. As horrible as this is, it is part of the normal human experience.
Do not be terrified of natural disasters. Perhaps the only thing more terrifying than war is natural disasters: Hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanos, plagues, famine. My parents and grandparents survived the dust bowl in the 1930’s. I have seen the destruction caused by Carla when I was a small child, later Beulah, Camile, Ike, and Katrina, and Harvey, yet what I experienced was only the edge, the aftermath. I’ve had to do some clean-up, but never lost everything. Then we have all experienced the COVID pandemic. As horrible as they are, natural disasters are a part of the normal human experience.
If this wasn’t bad enough, Jesus then gets personal. He tells his disciples they will be betrayed by loved ones, they will be arrested and tried, and they may even be killed and they will certainly be hated by some. But don’t be afraid not even one hair of your head will perish.
For most people, Jesus has just spoken utter nonsense. But for those who believe in the Resurrection and who believe in Jesus’ promise that we will experience resurrection with him it makes perfect sense. Our death is not the end. Our death is not horrible. Our death is not defeat. Our death is but a door to a new adventure and not one hair of our head will have perished in the process.
In God’s economy, even suffering can be resurrected as joy. That does not mean we should seek suffering for suffering’s sake. That was a misunderstanding popular in the Middle Ages. Jesus tells us that each day brings suffering enough for that day. We do not need to seek it or anticipate it. And we do not need to fear it. The troubles and heartaches of this life open the door for us to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and Jesus says you don’t even have to be a great preacher or evangelist. You don’t have to have a well-crafted talk with scripture references pointing out Paul’s path to salvation down the “Roman Road.” You just have to allow the spirit to fill you and guide your speech. Sharing both our joys and sorrows with one another is what this life is about.
I don’t have to ask you if you have experienced any tragic events in your life. The answer for each and every one of you is yes. Some of you more and some of you less, but it is the nature of life as a human being to experience pain and suffering. It is part of the way our bodies and minds tell us what is harmful to us and teaches us to avoid dangerous situations. It is how we react to our suffering that makes all the difference. Jesus tells us to use it as an opportunity to tell others about the kingdom of heaven.