I have a pretty bad habit of trying really hard to keep up with the news. It’s hard, because so often what comes across in the news is bad—or at the very least, makes me anxious. Whether it’s all the ruckus around the impeachment inquiry, or the next stage in the war in Syria as Turkey has broken the ceasefire, or the coup that ousted the Bolivian president last week, the news presents the world in a very terrifying light.
But it’s not just these big worldwide things that cause anxiety. We all have seen over the past few recent years the way the weather has been affecting our farming community. So many parents are under the pressure of multiple extracurricular activities so these kids can get a leg up in college applications or whatever next step they’ll have. The community itself has changed drastically, as our elders have noticed. And unfortunately, Jesus’ words of warning from today’s text had me end up really focusing in on those anxious things this week.
See, Jesus walks through the Temple in Jerusalem. For some context, immediately before anyone started talking in our reading today, Jesus has just witnessed the widow who put her last two pennies into the Temple treasury, and lifted her up as an example for the rich people to imitate. And instead of taking that to heart, the crowds turn their eyes to the Temple and point out to Jesus just how magnificent it is.
And really, it was. Like, the Temple in Jerusalem at that time was an architectural masterpiece. The Temple was some 150 feet high. The Temple Mount, the huge platform where the whole Temple complex was, was bigger than the Roman Forum—the most important public space in the Roman Empire. The whole complex was ringed with 100-foot walls. A first-century historian named Josephus claimed the whole Temple was covered in gold, to the point where you might be blinded by it on a sunny day. In every way, the Temple reflected the glory of God. So it’s little wonder that the crowds would just make a comment about how amazing this place was!
But instead of agreeing, Jesus responds—“Yeah, see, all this? It’s all gonna come crashing down. Nothing will be left.” Then he goes into talking about the destruction of the Temple, predicting this scary imagery of wars, famines, plagues, and earthquakes. It’s a fearful set of images that bad things will happen—and not just in the world, but in the lives of Christians too. He warns his followers that they will experience persecutions; they’ll be hunted down by the authorities, some of them put to death. But, he points out, this will be an opportunity to testify.
This scary imagery that Jesus gives is what’s called an “apocalypse,” which has gotten a particular meaning over time with all kinds of associations. Specifically, there is a tendency to look at Jesus’ words—his predictions—and try to identify them in our time. It might be tempting to look at the wars in Syria and Ukraine, or the natural disasters of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or wildfires, and think “this is it!” It’s not anything new, though. Christians have been trying to associate whatever disaster happening in their day with the End of Days since Jesus ascended.
But while it’s nothing new, it also misses the point of what an apocalypse is for.
See, it’s hard for us to imagine, but Jesus’ world was incredibly different from ours. All the things he was predicting—wars, famines, plagues, earthquakes—they were all really common in the ancient world. Full-on wars between nations was the normal state of affairs, with peace being just a breather between wars. Before modern harvesting technology, famine was common since everything had to be harvested by hand, and everything depended on the rains. No antibiotics and no vaccines meant the ancient world would regularly get hit with diseases. And the whole Mediterranean Basin is prone to earthquakes, sometimes very destructive, on a regular basis.
So if the “signs” Jesus was giving weren’t anything out of the ordinary for his hearers, what does this mean? If there’s nothing to look for as a signal that the end is here, what is Jesus telling us?
It means the world has always been and always will be a crazy place. There will always be bad things happening that will make us think “surely now is the end.” It’s what people in the midst of the Black Plague thought. And the people in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. And in the global instability of the 60s. And, frankly, could be argued now. One thing that holds true throughout human history is that our brokenness shows up in big ways a lot, it grabs a lot of attention, and it can feel like this disaster is uniquely bad.
So our newspapers talk a lot about it. And the T.V. networks focus in on it. And our social media revolves around it. Until the next big disaster happens.
What Jesus is reminding us of with his apocalypse is that disasters will continue to happen in the world, because the world is caught up in brokenness. There will be a lot of noise around those disasters, and a lot will be made of them, and we can easily get distracted or disheartened or even lose our faith because of how bad those disasters can be. But—and this is the point of an apocalypse—Jesus is with us all the same. The brokenness of the world doesn’t mean that God has left us. The disasters that want to grasp at our attention are not a sign that we’ve provoked God’s anger.
Rather, in the midst of all of that brokenness, Jesus promises to be with us.
Jesus promises to be with us when gun violence makes schools, concerts, and even churches unsafe.
Jesus promises to be with us when war becomes so prevalent that it seems like background noise instead of the tragedy it is.
Jesus promises to be with us when the insatiable greed of some brings crushing anxiety and boiling frustration to the many.
Jesus promises to be with us when the world seems to be accelerating with every passing day.
What Jesus’ apocalypse tells us is that the disasters of the world should have no impact on whether or not we fulfill our vocations as Christians in the world. War doesn’t stop us from loving our neighbor. Famine doesn’t keep us from clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. Plague doesn’t stop us from healing the sick and tending the needy. Disaster doesn’t stop us from sharing the good news of redemption. We don’t have to let anything distract us from what Jesus has called us to do. Even when the world is falling apart around us, we should never tire of doing what is right.
Because Jesus promises us that even if our calling takes us into disaster, and the whole world goes sideways, and our work ends in our death, not one hair on your head will perish, because Jesus promises to be with us now, and in the age to come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.