Luke 21:5-19 CEB
Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. 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.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
Jesus 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. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 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. You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.
Seen any tourists lately? It shouldn’t take us long after all being here in Thermopolis, where there are plenty of sights to see with our Rainbow Terrace and Hot Springs not to mention our town being a stop on the way to Yellowstone. Have you seen any out and about, taking in the sights? Out there next to their RVs and campers, ready with cameras in hand to capture the natural beauty that we wake up to every day. Tourists can be so much a part of things, it could be that we’ve even stopped noticing them from time to time! Jesus, however, does not forget about these open-mouthed tourists taking in the sights, for they included his own followers, gawking at the majesty of the Temple in 1st century Jerusalem. He interrupts their sight-seeing to refocus them on why they are here. Jesus reminds his disciples and us, in turn, that we all get distracted. We can all lose focus, whether over the grandeur of the House of the Living God or because of the bad things in our world. We can get so caught up in them that we forget what we are here for, to make disciples and join with them to transform this world.
Our scripture reading starts with Jesus in Jerusalem during the last days of his life, and while he has not forgotten why he is here, his disciples seem distracted. To be fair, the Temple in Jerusalem was impressive enough in the ancient world that even after the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE that couldn’t stop folks from describing its majesty. It’s understandable then that the disciples are gawking. Jesus brings their attention back with a sharp word and even foretells the destruction of the very wonder they are distracted by, saying, “‘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.’” A bit harsh but perhaps necessary, as there is no time, and Jesus needs his followers on track and prepared for the time that is coming, helping them to endure in a world that is about to fall apart.
Yes, beautiful and wonderful things can distract us, but as Christ’s discourse shows us in today’s scripture, we can also be distracted by terrible things. We can be distracted by “‘wars and rebellions,’” natural disasters, famine, disease, terror and calamity enough to drown the heavens, and let’s not forget false prophecies of the end times to boot! We can get so distracted by these things, sure that trouble in the world around us is a sign of something else, that we forget Jesus’ own words just before he gives the disciples this terrible list, “‘Watch out that you aren’t deceived.’” All of these things are not signs that Christ’s return is near, they are distractions. We can get so caught up in predictions and the timeline of Jesus’ return, that we can neglect the brokenness in creation and in the people around us. Don’t be distracted! Those words echo down the centuries and millennia to us today.
Jesus wants his followers to hold firm when the world falls apart. “To what end?”, we might ask. Let’s look at the final verse of our reading this morning, the one that closes out how the disciples should respond to all this trouble and turmoil. In the NRSV translation, it reads “‘by your endurance, you will gain souls.’” That one makes it sound like if we, as Christ’s followers, stay cool and collected, we will be able to win over new adherents to the faith. The NIV translation hits a different note by declaring, “‘stand firm and you will win life.’” Now, standing firm will preserve life, but whose life? Finally, our translation for this morning, the CEB, seems to make it clearer, “‘by holding fast, you will gain your lives.’” The message seems to be that if we endure we will preserve our lives, that “‘not a hair on [our] heads will be lost.’” Maybe that’s the reward for following Christ, we will be saved while the world falls apart!
Except, think about when Jesus delivered these words to the disciples. He has arrived in Jerusalem, where he knows and has told his followers that he is destined to suffer and die. Would he really spend time, then, telling his followers how to preserve their own lives while he is about to lose his own? I mean maybe this is all our faith is about, saving our own lives, whether from death or suffering or from some terrible eternal fate. I would argue though that there is more to it than that. Earlier in this same Gospel of Luke, Jesus told his followers, “‘Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it’” (Luke 17:33 CEB). I also cannot help but think of Christ’s words in the Gospel of John, “‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’” (John 10:10b NRSV). You see, we can also get so caught up in preserving our own lives in the midst of all these evils, that we can forget about the lives of others and indeed life itself. Perhaps what Jesus declares to us, as we come face-to-face with him today, is that to endure we must speak life into these very places where suffering and death seem to be winning. Can we hold onto the hope that life is bigger than what people can see in those times and places? Can we hold fast to the belief that love is always worth living and dying for?
Look at the one who is speaking to us today. Jesus continues to speak life. He speaks life to his disciples. He speaks it to the Pharisees and scribes. He speaks it even to the Romans. This word of life peeled out loud and strong from an empty tomb two millennia ago, and I think we can still hear it if we listen. We must listen, despite the distractions, good or bad. Maybe this is why Jesus speaks this seemingly depressing news, that others will “‘take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to [...] prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.’” These are the places where they will have “‘an opportunity to testify’” by echoing those very words of life in their midst. Not words of hate or anger. Not even words of self-righteous indignation to condemn our opponents with. No, this is where we need to open our ears and hear life in order to speak it. Jesus promises these words will be a gift, as he will “‘give you words,’” the kind of life-giving words that a troubled world can scarcely comprehend. What power these words will have! After all, they come from our Living God who called forth all creation with a few simple words. What new creations will spring into being when we resound with our God’s words of love today?
Can we pull our eyes away from the other things that distract us today? Yes, they can be awe-inspiring, and yes, these things can also be terrible to behold. You know something though, I can think of nothing more truly awe-inspiring though than someone willing to live a life of love and transformation. I can think of no one more inspiring than someone who, even in the face of opposition and opponents, can continue to speak the merciful and compassionate words of life. Jesus did this, and rather than letting us simply gawk at our Lord and Savior, Jesus invites and even empowers us to do the same awe-inspiring work of bringing life into those very places where things seem to be in chaos.
Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, he predicts the end of one thing, not everything. Jesus calls his disciples’ attention to things that will endure, even as systems and empires rise and fall. It is something worth sacrificing our own lives over. You see, when we stop being distracted by troubles and focus on Christ, we do not lose sight of the troubles of this world. Rather, it is through Christ that we can answer brokenness. We can answer broken creation and broken people. We can declare life by serving, giving, advocating for those without a voice, and by seeking peace and reconciliation. We have hope that life is bigger than death and suffering, for our very Savior overcame both to rise to life and raise us with him.
Here we are today, and so what distracts you? What keeps you from hearing Jesus? What holds you back from echoing his words of life? Today is always the perfect day to reorient and refocus ourselves on God. Today is the perfect day to follow. Today is the day to declare to the world that there is still hope because God lives and so there is good to be found in this world. If in no place else, it can be found in the ways we live and move here and now. Where can you speak life today? Can you speak through participation in Table for All? Can you echo life’s words in Coats-4-Kids, the Food Pantry, Cookie Jar Auctions, Meals on Wheels, and the other places in our midst where love breathes and grows? These are the places where we transform the world. These are the places where we make disciples. Let us not be distracted by the world, but rather bring it life, and bring it abundantly. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman