November 13, 2022
Today’s gospel opens with how people around Jesus were gushing over how amazing the Temple looked. It was a spectacular architectural marvel, really. The Temple was over 150 feet tall, made with stones sometimes fifteen feet long. It was decorated with the kind of fervor and splendor you’d expect from the physical location of God’s presence on Earth. All around the Temple was the Temple Mount—a huge platform bigger than the Roman Forum—and that was ringed with 100-foot-high walls. The whole thing had taken eighty years to renovate. It was, honestly, an amazing sight to behold.
But all this gawking and fawning of the Temple happened right after Jesus had spent several chapters teaching about God’s gracious provision for the poor; about the justice of God that lifts the oppressed; about the call God gives to serve faithfully, not just to go through the motions of sacrifices. As soon as he heard the crowds complimenting the Temple, he issued the warning that it was all going to come crashing down. Not a stone would be left on stone.
He predicted how the Temple would be destroyed, an event that happened some forty years later when the Romans leveled it in a war. It was such a traumatic event—a defining moment in Jewish and early Christian history—that all four Gospels make sure to record Jesus’s interpretation of the disaster. The Temple was seen as where God touched the earth. It wasn’t just some building that looked amazing—it was the place where Jews could directly interact with God. So when it was destroyed, even early Christians were shocked and had to look back at Jesus’s words to make sense of it all.
The feeling of loss that they would have shouldn’t be too hard for us to imagine. Think of our church. I know we always say it’s just a building, but imagine if something happened to our church. If, by some horrible accident, the entire building came crashing down. And then, by some cruel twist of fate, the cause of its destruction wasn’t covered by our insurance, so it couldn’t be rebuilt. We would feel that sense of loss, of grief, maybe even wondering how God could let something like that happen.
When Jesus talked about all those terrible things that happen in the world—wars between nations, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and persecutions—he was talking to people who would experience real traumas and hardships in their lives. And he was reminding them (and us) of God’s abiding presence in the midst of all that trauma and suffering. He was pointing out that God isn’t just found in the good, the happy, or the beautiful of the world. God can be found in catastrophe, in personal tragedy, in trials both literal and figurative. Maybe especially so. And sometimes it might be harder to find God in those really dark times.
Documentarian and narrator of every nature show David Attenborough found it hard to find God in tragedy. He once angrily responded to a viewer who asked him to name God’s beauty in the wonder of creation in his documentaries by demanding to know where God was in the poverty-stricken children he saw suffering from preventable diseases in those beautiful countries. He couldn’t imagine God being around when there was suffering.
Writer and pastor Lillian Daniel wrote in her book When “Spiritual but not Religious” Isn’t Enough about the non-religious people she met who always talked about God in the sunset. Exasperated, she frustratedly wrote that of course you can find God in a sunset because it’s beautiful. But what about God in the hospice room? What about God with the family whose house just burned down? God isn’t just in those places that are nice and pretty and pleasing to us. God is in the muck and the hardship and the tragedy of our lives.
And really, that might be the place we really need to see God more: in the hard places.
We need to know that God is there when we’ve just endured months of a traumatic and angry election cycle where the war for ideas seemed too literal, and we might feel anxiety or fear about whoever won or didn’t win.
We need to know that God is there when we’re in the clinic and the doctor issues an earthquake under our feet when they utter the “C” word, and suddenly the lump isn’t so easy to ignore anymore.
We need to know that God is there when the argument got way too heated and empty chairs at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner feel like a famine.
We need to know that God is there when we’ve experienced a literal plague and the ones we’ve lost don’t make any sense.
We need to know that God is there when bad things happen. We need to know that bad things aren’t a sign that God has left us.
That’s what Jesus is speaking to today. He reminded the disciples that the destruction of the Temple didn’t mean that God was abandoning them. God wasn’t going to be absent in that catastrophe any more than God would be absent in any other catastrophe—war, famine, plague, or earthquake. Instead, he assured them that these things are going to happen. They’ll keep happening. The brokenness of the world guarantees that we will, more likely than not, experience bad things. But don’t lose heart, he says. Don’t be overwhelmed by it. Instead, endure. Don’t even bother to prepare a defense for people questioning your faithfulness in times of hardship, because Christ will provide you with the words. Trust in God’s abiding presence.
And Paul echoed Jesus’s words. While waiting for Jesus’s return and experiencing the ordinary hardships of living, Paul reminded the Thessalonians not to be idle—don’t wallow in the hardships, taking the difficulty of life as an excuse to be a burden to your community. And don’t be busybodies, reacting to difficulties and tragedies with despair and cynicism that cuts down the hope of your siblings in Christ. Instead, Paul said, keep at your work. Be diligent, because Christ has called you to the work of the kingdom and he doesn’t leave you to it alone—even and especially when the work must be done in the midst of tragedy.
Because tragedy doesn’t banish God. Disaster doesn’t mean God has left. Even something as traumatic as the holiest building on earth being leveled into rubble isn’t a sign of God’s departure. God is with you when things get really, truly difficult. Christ promises to be present with us always.
So go about your work. Keep loving your neighbor, even when the world is scary. Keep serving the needy, even when there is tragedy. Keep loving others, even when the ground under your feet keeps shaking. Because God is faithful. God doesn’t abandon you. God doesn’t leave you to it by yourself. God walks with you. Jesus is by your side. The Spirit holds you by the hand. Hardships are hard; never forget that God goes through them with you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.