“Do you see these great buildings,” Jesus asks his disciples as they exit Israel’s massive, magnificent temple. “Not one stone will be left; all will be thrown down.”
So begins a passage scholars call “The Little Apocalypse.” As brief as it is, like the Book of Revelation, it has the power to confound and even unnerve us, progressive Christians included.
When Jesus makes his prediction slash promise about the temple, the disciples are understandably speechless. They genuinely don’t know what to say.
I wouldn’t either if I were one of them. It would be akin to having a friend stand beside you at the Painted Wall overlook at the Black Canyon telling you that soon and very soon the massive stone face would be little more than a pile of dark rubble. Not as a random act of nature, mind you, but as a divine sign that one age was ending and a new one was beginning. Your mind would be spinning so fast your tongue wouldn’t know what to do with itself.
So Jesus’ friends have been rendered mute by his remark as they pass through the temple gates and back into the world.
It’s only later when they’re together on the Mount of Olives and are sitting directly across from the temple, Judaism’s most sacred place, that four of Jesus’ disciples are bold enough to lean in and ask him what he meant.
“Tell us,” the bravest begins. “When will this be? And what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” The other three are all ears.
Jesus’ answer is blunt but it’s not terribly direct.
First, he says, don’t fall prey to anyone claiming to have insider knowledge. If Jesus were speaking to 21st century disciples instead of first century friends, he’d say “Don’t read the brochures left on your doorstep. Pay no mind to the best-selling doomsday novels. Don’t listen to podcasts predicting the end. Don’t believe anyone who wants you to believe they have a heaven-sent decoder ring and have everything figured out.”
Don’t listen to people who need you to believe something, in other words.
Second, Jesus continues, don’t become alarmed by current events. There will be wars and rumors of war. Nation will rise against nation. Earthquakes will shake everything up. Famines will occur.
Don’t be alarmed? Really, Jesus? I get scared when the doorbell rings after dark.
It’s not just wars and rumors of war that can get to a person—and you know this. It’s that passages like this one can and do cause people of faith to wonder if we didn’t misjudge God and God’s ways. Does God really call for suffering and violence in the end? In the eleventh hour, does God cease being a gentle shepherd and instead choose to go all Rambo on us? Does God have a doomsday clock ticking in the background?
Both today’s passage as well as the Book of Revelations have the power to take what feels solid and sure in our faith and send that tumbling like the stones of the great temple. Talk of the end times can level a person’s well-constructed faith.
Six months after the pandemic began, I accepted an invitation to preach at our sister church in Grand Junction. There were only a handful of us in the sanctuary that morning; the rest of the congregation were watching the livestream from the safety of their homes.
Surrounded by empty space, we who had gathered in that roomy sanctuary resembled bandits with our masks and our suspicious eyes; when a threat is as invisible as a microscopic virus riding on a droplet of moist breath, anyone and anything can be the enemy.
Rather than pretend that this was just an ordinary Sunday, I was very intentional that morning about speaking to our present experience, acknowledging how difficult it was to navigate a pandemic, how uncertain and unsettling just about everything felt. How painful it was to have such an open-ended experience.
“This time we are in feels downright apocalyptic,” I said, hoping to validate how scary everything felt. Then I went on to say that the Greek word apocalypse refers to a divinely-ordained time when the unseen becomes visible, when what has long been hidden is at last revealed.
With this definition in mind, I said, the pandemic is apocalyptic in that it sheds light on painful realities that had previously gone unnoticed. Plain as day now were the tragic inequities in our health care system. Unveiled were the economic realities in many families, leaving them teetering on the precipice of financial ruin. Those who were refusing to mask up to safeguard others put a spotlight on the very real dangers of American hyper-individualism. And to those willing to see, the pandemic was even drawing back the curtain to reveal the deep rootedness of white privilege and white supremacy.
After the service that morning, someone rushed up even though as a safety protocol we had all vowed to leave the building as soon as worship ended. Behind his dark fabric mask, I could see he was quite anxious. “So you think we’re on the brink of the apocalypse too,” the man asked, his eyes darting nervously.
“It certainly feels that way, doesn’t it” I replied calmly. Then I reminded him of what I had said in the sermon, that the Greek word apocalypse means that what is hidden is revealed. Not as a punishment but as a gift. Not as an end but as a beginning.
We hear Jesus saying as much this morning: “This (and here he’s referring to the upheavals to come) is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus would speak this way. After all, the tomb that would soon hold him would quickly become a womb from which he would emerge, more alive than ever before.
Nothing could have been more precious to the Jews than the temple. Nothing holier. Nothing in their cultural and religious world was more enduring.
The temple was where every faithful Jew went to perform religious rites and rituals. The temple was where even the Gentiles went to pray. Inside the temple was the Holy of Holies, the one place on earth pure enough, perfect enough for God to find a home.
So to say that a time was coming when the temple would be destroyed, to say that even the most solid and holy of structures would be subject to leveling was a profound assertion. And profoundly upsetting. No wonder the disciples went mute upon hearing Jesus’s prediction.
It is human nature to assume that certain things, the structures of our faith included, are inviolable, that is, that they are solid, safe, and sure. That they are as strong as stone and as permanent.
Until the January 6th insurrection, I think many of us believed this to be true for our democracy, not holy like the Jerusalem temple but certainly a “structure” we have long revered and assumed was lasting. Now we know just how close we were to losing it.
It was Rome that destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, not God. But I can’t help but wonder if God isn’t concerned about the temples we build, monuments of all sorts, some of them unholy, because those structures serve some and imprison others.
Right now many tremble at the thought of Critical Race Theory being taught in our hallowed halls of education. Why? Because it will mean bringing into the light the truth about our nation’s insidious racist history, so long hidden, so long denied. The thought of this truth being taught, finally, feels to some like a terrible end.
The same might be said with the call to change how America polices itself. Do that, some say, and the end times will soon be upon us.
Not all the temples we have constructed point us toward God. Some become prisons, as I just said, godless structures that favor some and punish others. Surely as they stand, they inflict pain and suffering rather than foster God’s justice and hope.
Speaking to Xavi Saenz about the protestors who gathered recently outside Cedaredge Community United Methodist Church during worship, there because these individuals were positive God is offended by that church’s extravagant welcome and affirmation of the LGBTQ community, I said something you’ve heard me say before.
Thinking about the courage of that congregation, thinking about their very public witness to affirmation and inclusion, I said “God’s future is coming even to the Western Slope. For some, this is exciting. For others, this will be painful.”
The same could be said of the Transgender Day of Remembrance that Community Spirit is hosting later this month with Xavi’s help.
For some in Montrose County, this will be a significant gathering because it is apocalyptic in the truest sense of the word: it makes visible the lives and worth of those too long rendered invisible. But for others, a gathering like ours could easily be regarded as evidence that the end is drawing near.
There is no structure—physical or otherwise—that can stand forever. And probably no structure that should.
When our temples tumble, when the stones hit the ground so hard it sounds like an earthquake, it’s not evidence of God’s impending judgment, of God’s wrath soon to come. No, it’s a sign that God is birthing a new thing, a new way, a new people.
If you’re not sure you believe me, just remember what happened after the very worst happened. Jesus, God’s own son, was crucified and his friends scurried off in fear.
What happened next is beyond all imagining.
Instead of returning with punishment, instead of meting out judgment, instead of assembling an army of angels to go after all those who conspired or fled, Jesus finds his friends hidden away, and what does Jesus do?
Jesus gives them his peace. Not once but repeatedly. He doesn’t cast them away, just their fears, just their mistakes. And together they gather anew, setting the stage for Pentecost, that day when everything changes for Jesus’ friends and followers. And us.
How unfortunate that so many conversations and lectures about end times have fallen into the hands of the fearful, those given to imagining God has a weapon in God’s hand and is ready to strike down the masses. God is far too gracious to do anything but love us. Far too generous to do anything short of creating us anew.
God’s future is always coming. And if there is pain to be felt, it’s from the impending birth, not the violent devastation some have promised.
God’s ways begin and end in love. And upon this promise, we can and do build our lives.
Let us pray: Free us from all fear, O God. Liberate us into your love. Even as there are wars and rumors of wars, let us find our footing in your love, an unchanging foundation in a world dotted with change. Amen.