God will never leave us: A sermon on Luke 21:5-19

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

It is difficult to imagine what the Temple in Jerusalem looked like in Jesus’ day.

Today, only one small retaining wall of the original temple remains, although the Temple Mount itself is a holy pilgrimage site for three of the world’s great religions:

Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Today, the Temple Mount is a mix of ancient buildings and both new and old places of worship for three different faiths.

It is a beautiful and special place, but very different from in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day the Temple was lavish, huge, and resplendent.

The Israelites believed that the Temple was literally and figuratively the center of the world.

It was the place at the center of the universe where God literally lived, utterly dedicated to the God of Israel.

And so, the Temple was built on a scale meant to reflect the glory of God.

And every faithful believer was required to offer sacrifice to God at the Temple, at least once, but often more than once a year.

People flocked to the Temple—it was considered to be the sole place to worship and to be in the presence of their God.

The outer court of the Temple alone could and often did hold up to 400,000 people at a time.

The outer and inner façade of the Temple walls were plated with gold, so that the building shone brightly in the sun.

Many people were said to have shielded their eyes at their first site of the temple, it shone so vividly.

The exterior corner stones were elaborately carved and decorated.

And inside, the place of offering literally glittered with ornate adornments and sacred vessels of silver and gold.

The Temple was lavish and huge and glorious, the literal and spiritual center of the universe for the people of Israel.

And at the time that today’s gospel of Luke was written, all that beauty, all those riches, all the glory of the Temple.

It was already completely gone.

Some fifty years after Jesus’ death, and up to thirty years before the gospel of Luke was written…

In the year 70AD, the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem, looted and plundered the Temple and then razed the Temple to the ground.

For Luke’s original audience, some thirty years later, some of them may have personally witnessed and mourned the destruction of the temple.

Some of them may have seen the smoking ruins of the Temple with their own eyes.

For others, to hear of the destruction of the Temple may have been to hear the terrible story of what had happened to their people.

The loss of something precious and irreplaceable that they themselves would never know personally.

The loss not only of their place of worship, but the destruction and subjugation of their people,

the collapse of their entire universe, their faith, their relationship to God, and their place in the world.

Luke’s audience would have heard Jesus’ words in today’s gospel with a great deal of personal pain.

Knowing, as they did, that the destruction of the Temple that Jesus foretells in today’s gospel, had already, and devastatingly, taken place.

In today’s gospel, Jesus gives voice to the painful reality of God’s people.

To the loss, the fear, the uncertainty that people experience in their lives.

Today’s gospel is not a prophetic description of destruction to come.

It is a pastoral response for coping with the painful loss that has already happened, and for coping with the difficult things that may yet happen.

It is tempting to hear in the apocalyptic overtones in today’s gospel and others like it—

to hear about such destruction and loss and then to try, out of fear perhaps, or an inability to cope, to try to control it…

… by looking for signs and symbols, to try to prepare or to predict, or to immediately assign blame for the bad things that happen to us.

Today’s gospel is not a manual for interpreting the apocalypse or the end times.

It is not a way to predict or to blame.

In fact, Jesus says quite clearly in today’s gospel, “Do not go after such things.”

“Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The Time is near!’ Do not go after them.

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified.”

Do not go after those who predict the end or see signs of imminent destruction in all the bad things that happen.

Instead, today’s gospel is Jesus’ words of comfort to God’s faithful people, that despite the loss and pain we experience in our lives.

God will never leave us, God will never stop loving us.

For those of us who remember September 11, 2001, we have some personal and painful experience with this.

On the Sunday after September 11, 2001, the churches were full.

The churches were full not of people wanting to know what signs they had missed or predictions of what bad things might yet happen.

That kind of thinking came later.

No, the Sunday after September 11th, the churches were full because people needed to hear words of comfort.

We needed to hear that God was still with us, in spite of everything.

We needed to hear that we were not alone.

We needed to hear that despite all we had suffered, despite the pain we felt, we were still loved.

That’s what the people of Israel needed to hear after the destruction of their Temple.

It is what we as God’s people need to hear whenever our own lives are turned upside down.

This is what we hear in today’s gospel, from Jesus own lips.

Jesus doesn’t try to blame others or to predict the reasons for the bad things that happen in this world.

Oftentimes there is no one to blame, there is no good reason for the tragedies that happen.

And nowhere does Jesus say that if we are only good enough or faithful enough, bad things won’t happen to us.

Instead, Jesus acknowledges, tenderly, that we all of us experience pain and loss in our lives.

And Jesus gives us words of comfort and words of strength.

Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I will give you words and a wisdom” whenever you are persecuted.

We will never be alone in the midst of sorrow.

Jesus says, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Jesus says these things, in today’s gospel, just days before Jesus himself is about to suffer and die on the cross.

Knowing, as Jesus does, that he himself is soon to perish, and yet by doing so, will make possible the redemption of all of God’s people…

There is an added poignancy and power to Jesus words.

Jesus isn’t just saying these things in today’s gospel as a way of placating the fearful and the despondent.

Jesus is also saying these things to himself.

Because he knows, himself, he is soon to know, how true they are.

Jesus needs to remember and remind himself and to trust also in the truth of these things.

To know that he is not alone.

To know that God is with him.

To know that God can and will bring life out of death, bring renewal out of destruction.

The beautiful vision of Malachi that we hear in our first reading today, of the sun of righteousness rising with healing in its wings…

this is what God’s kingdom is like.

This is the kind of life out of death, renewal out of destruction, that Jesus is talking about.

That Jesus believes in.

And this is also what we believe in as God’s people.

This is what God is doing and helping to bring about in this world, this is our inheritance and part of our work as people of faith.

This is what God is doing with our help, this is what we have to work towards and look forward to as God’s people.

This is what Jesus tells us today.

He gives us the words, the tools, the strength and the courage, to remember, to believe in and most importantly—to share—always God’s vision for God’s people.

No matter what.