Nov. 13, 2022
There’s a lot going on in today’s gospel passage. It may not be obvious to you upon reading just this section that Luke is writing in, say, the year 90 about Jesus who was ministering in the year 30, and prophesying about the destruction of the temple that would happen in the year 70. So, Luke is remembering that Jesus predicted a cataclysmic event in whose aftermath Luke’s readers are now living. We have three different time periods; Four actually, because it reads kind of like a story about the end of times, in part perhaps because that is how Mark and Matthew both use the story in their gospels, but also in part because in the consciousness of the first church the destruction of the temple was indeed a certain kind of world ending, faith crushing, life shattering, conclusion. What could it mean that the home of God and the symbolic center of faith and identity for you and everyone you knew had been leveled to the ground? Certainly, it meant in a way that the worst had happened and the end had come.
But, as I read Luke the connection to the “end of times” here is not as literal a one as it is in the other gospels. Luke’s references to current realities continue. Disputes with the synagogues, persecutions from the government, imprisonments, and even executions were all realities for the early church. (So were some of the more apocalyptic “portents” that are mentioned.) Luke, I think, is telling his people here that they are living in the thick of what Jesus said would come. The fact that Jesus called it ahead of time reinforces Luke’s sense of Christ’s legitimacy and the reasons that his readers and church have to trust that “though they may die they will not perish,” and “by their endurance they will gain their souls.”
Reading the passage again for this morning I noticed something I hadn’t before. It begins with observations of the temple’s grandeur. They were observing the beautiful stones, which were also massive, by the way. Though the bible knows Herod as a monster, I’ve read that archaeologists and historians know him as a builder.[i] The temple’s development was his greatest project, areas of which were still in progress as Jesus replaced the money changers with his classroom after entering into town back in chapter 19. According to the ancient historian, Josephus, such large sheets of gold covered the exterior that from sunup to sun down the building radiated light for miles and miles such that those who had come to see its glory could hardly bear to look directly at it. Like St. Peter’s in Rome, though of course much earlier, it was built to reflect to power and glory of God.
The passage says that they were admiring how the building was adorned with “beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” It’s the “gifts” that I want to dwell on for just a moment. It’s possible that what is meant are gifts that reflect extreme wealth and honor – like possibly the gifts that one visiting king would lay before another. But, our passage today follows another story in which Jesus sees a poor widow offering to the temple two small coins, coins which represent all that she owns, and he calls this gift greater than all the others. It crossed my mind that as his followers admire the temple in all its grandness they also have in mind the lesson of this widow and the greatness of an offering that is given from an abundance of heart rather than power or resources. Maybe in the temple’s grandeur there are other such gifts and acts of generosity and devotion. Maybe that’s part of what makes it shine for them, that within its walls (and by its very walls) the whole gamut of human striving for the divine is represented in both beautiful and broken ways. Maybe in the religion of the place the disciples have seen some of the best of human devotion even if it’s laid in the same pot as what is less commendable. …And, maybe what Jesus is saying is that the whole swirling mix of it will come crumbling down, must come crumbling down.
And, when it does, “don’t be afraid.” Don’t be fooled. Don’t be led astray. When the house is burning, and the building crumbles, and the waves overwhelm don’t live in fear. All of it is just an opportunity to speak your faith. All of it is an opportunity to testify to the truth. And, when faced with that opportunity still don’t worry because Jesus himself will provide the words that you need. What you need of God will be given to you by God.
This, I believe, is what makes Christian faith so beautifully hopeful and powerful, while being also so confoundingly elusive and unknowing at the same time. It is liberating because it invites us to release our strangleholds on life’s controls, and disorienting because it asks us to receive God’s life instead. It frees us from the ceaselessness of human doing for the contentedness of human being by asking us to surrender to what is more than we can imagine. And it offers peace – a peace that passes understanding – through the exercise of trust, which parts deep within us don’t know how to do (or aren’t sure they want to do.)
Bible scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson talks about “learning Jesus” because “knowing Jesus” sounds a bit too finished and complete. And he describes the life of faith as a kind of suffering, saying, “Part of the suffering of discipleship derives from the fact that our trust and obedience are directed toward a being who, as the Living One, always moves ahead of us… We suffer because we are always in transition, always in a condition of stress, always free at every moment to stop or turn back or close our ears. In learning Jesus, therefore, we must above all have creative fidelity if our faith is to be authentic. We cannot rest content with the understanding of Jesus that was ours as children, or even the understanding of Jesus that was ours yesterday… Our fidelity is not to our past understanding but to the living Lord, which means that our learning Jesus continues as long as we live.”[ii]
What I’m getting at is that faith’s challenge is also its greatest source of hope and empowerment. Its “suffering” as Johnson calls it, or “disorientation,” as I’ve called it is the necessary cost of having a resurrected and still living, still acting, still speaking, still ministering Jesus. If faith were about acquiring facts or even a certain level of insight about a Jesus of history it would be easy, but it would also be less meaningful. (We could build up exactly what we need and then mark that box as done.) But, Christian faith, as Luke wants us to see it, is not about the temples we build or the sacrifices we make within them (as beautiful as they may or may not be;) it’s about receiving the word that Jesus is still speaking; it is about a living God living within us, coming to us as grace and using us in the lives of others for grace.
Many people in the past have told me that their faith essentially consists of being a good person. That’s what God wants of them, they say. But, while I’m sure that God is pleased by the goodness in each of them, Luke is telling us that what God wants is something a bit different than that. The call to be a good person is not the calling for which the martyrs died. Jesus leaves this temple that he’s speaking about today to suffer and die in its shadow, not so that people might learn to be good, but so that in rising from death he might share with all the life of God that lives forever in him.
This is exactly what happens in volume 2 of Luke’s gospel known as the Book of Acts in an event called Pentecost, which is also known as the birthday of the Church. It’s when the resurrected presence of Jesus who is the embodiment of God’s love, is made known within the people as and through the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. That was the core experience of the bible’s Christians: the discovery that the life of God was being lived actively within and among them, which meant therefore that God had them, was with them, and would be with them, through every new movement and surprising manifestation of God’s Spirit.
Luke warns his church of false prophets to lead them astray, trials to test them, and persecutions to destroy them. Our context is different today, our worlds are far apart, but like Luke’s church we too are bombarded with much that would misguide us and deaden our souls. You might think for yourself about the most potent forces in your own life. Maybe it’s loss, or illness, or a hurt of some kind. Or, maybe it’s a sense that you are no longer needed or maybe you feel that you are devoting too much time to that which doesn’t deserve it. Maybe it’s the false promises of affluence or the constant stress of work without knowing that you’ve got enough to cover the costs. Maybe it’s political or civil despair. Maybe it’s something else; there’s no shortage of options.
What I know is that when we look to God in earnest we know that we need more than our own devices. We need God’s word of hope, not human assurances. We need God’s faithfulness, not human striving. We need God’s Spirit, not just mortal life. Thank God that is exactly what we are given.
[i] New Interpreters Bible, Volume ___, Page ___
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus, page 74