In the month of November the Church has us ponder the Four Last Things: death judgment, heaven and hell. As the golden gown of autumn gives way to the lifeless look of winter we too are encouraged to see that our own lives are on a trajectory that leads ultimately to autumn and then the winter of death. But for those who have faith this passage to death leads ultimately to glory. Scripture says, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17).
In today’s gospel the Lord Jesus gives us a kind of road map of life and calls us to have a sobriety as to the passing and perilous nature of this world in which we live.
There is an historical context in which our Lord speaks. There were political rumblings in Israel in the early 30s AD that would eventually lead to war. Hatred of the Romans is growing among the Jews. The Zealot party and other factions are building power. Jesus, in this passage, prophesies that war will come and lead to Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction. Everything that they knew was going to pass away. By the Summer of 66 AD a three and half year war ensued that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the death of 1.2 million Jews. Josephus records the war in great detail in his work The Jewish War.
That is what this text we read today meant historically. But we also need to know what it means for us today. So let’s look at the text from that perspective. The Gospel can be seen in three major sections.
1. PORTRAIT OF PASSING THINGS – The text says, While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here( the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” – Notice how they admire the temple and its beauty. But the Lord reminds them that, glorious though it now is, it is all going to be thrown down. We too must hear that whatever glory we see or experience in this world will not ultimately last. It is all going to pass away. The Temple is a portrait of passing things. Just as it was in splendor and now is gone, so too everything we see now and admire will pass. This is a sober truth we must come to accept, even if it is difficult. Other scriptures remind us of this truth. For example, The world as we know it is passing away (1 Cor 7:29). And again, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever (1 John 2:17). Hence this world is passing and we too are passing from it one day soon. Note however, for them as well as for us, one world was ending, but another was beginning. The Old Testament, Old Covenant order of the Temple was ending but the New Testament age of the Church was beginning. It was already breaking forth, even as the old was coming to an end. And so for us, we should not lament the end of this world or even our death, for a newer great world of heaven awaits if we are faithful. In fact, through the liturgy and sacraments that new world is already breaking forth if we partake of it.
2. POINTS OF PASSAGE TO PROMISED THINGS – Having been informed at the passing of all they see the apostles ask for signs that will precede the coming end to the temple and all things they know. We too can learn from what Jesus teaches them and apply it to our lives. Jesus warns them of four perils on the passage to the promised land of the New Testament of the age of the Church. We too will experience perils in our journey to the Promised Land of Heaven.
A. FALSE MESSIAHS – The text says, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!– Do you want Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life? Then you’ve got to get rid of false messiahs. There are just too many people giving worldly things and people greater authority in their life than Jesus Christ and what he teaches. Fads, fashions, philosophies, all those people, things and philosophies we submit our lives to in hope that we be happy. The danger is that something or someone is reigning in your life other than Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is someone in power we admire, or someone in the media whom we give authority and allow to influence us inordinately. Perhaps it is political positions that we allow to trump the scriptures and the teachings of the Church. Perhaps it is just our own convictions or ideas that over-rule God’s teachings. A false messiah is any one or any thing that is telling you how to organize your life other than Jesus Christ. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in your life false powers and influences have to go. Too many people look only to science, popular culture, economics, medicine, education, politics and the like. It is not that we can’t use these things but they are not the messiah. None of these things or people every died for you. Only Jesus did that. The power to save you is in the blood of Jesus Christ. It is not in the statehouse, courthouse, or White-house – it’s in the blood, the saving blood of the lamb.
B. FIERCE MILITARISM – The text says: When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. A war was looming for those ancient people. And we too are in a war, a battle. Before Christ can reign unambiguously in you the false powers in you have to be defeated. They will not go without a fight. The world, the flesh, and the devil can be expected to wage a fierce battle to keep their power. Are you in a battle? Too many Christians have lost the sense of battle. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you(James 4:7). And yet too many not only do not resist him, they welcome him. Scritpure also says, Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God(Eph 6:14). And old hymn says, I’ve seen lightning flashing, and hear the thunder roll, I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, which tried to conquer my soul; I’ve heard the voice of my savior, he bid me still to fight on. He promised never to leave me never to leave me alone. On our way to the promised land of heaven we will encounter necessary battles. Battles for what is right, battles against sin, battles for proper priorities.
C. FAR-FLUNG MARVELS – the Text says: There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. In the time of Jesus and the era just preceding the war there were in fact many earthquakes, droughts and even heavenly signs. Historians of the time speak of a comet and strange views of what we know today as the Aurora Borealis. But what of us? For us What are earthquakes of life? Earthquakes involve the shaking of the ground! The shaking of that which is most stable and basic to us. What are you basing your life on? What is the foundation of your life? For most of us the foundations of this world are things like, Money, Politics, Friends, Family, our own skills. All of these things are shaken in life and all of them will eventually fail. Our talents and personal powers fade as we age, family members and friends die, move or fail us. Political power and worldly access fails. Haven’t we all experienced our world shaken, our soul famished, the plagues of sin that infect our world and ourselves? Haven’t the stars, all the things that orient us, fallen from the sky from time to time and the sun, the light we see by darkened. Has not the world turned upside down? Maybe it was the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, trials, tragedies, testings, and tumult, a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer disease. This is why God has to be our ultimate foundation. Either Jesus is our foundation, or something else is. Without God as our foundation we cannot stand. The foundations of this world will cave, Christ must be our sure foundation.
D. FEARFUL MALICE – The text says, Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name…..You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. The early Christians had much to suffer through persecutions. Most of us in the Christian West have had less to suffer but more difficult days may well be ahead as the secular West grows increasingly hostile to the traditional Christian Faith. Persecution however is an expected part of the Christian journey to the promised land of heaven. Even if we’re not handed over it is a truth of our time that many of us are not taken seriously, are written off or called names even by our closest family and friends? Christ tells us not to worry of such things. They are part of the normal Christian life. And even if some of us eventually lose our life for the faith, the Lord promises that not a hair of our head will be harmed. That is, our souls will be saved. The world can only harm our body but not our soul, unless we allow it.
So these are the perils that we must soberly accept on our journey home to the promised land of heaven. This leads to the final exhortation of Christ.
3. PRESCRIPTION for the PASSAGE to PROMISED THINGS – The text says, By your perseverance you will secure your lives. Despite these perils we can only journey on and not lose faith or lose heart. There is glory waiting for us if we persevere. Scripture says elsewhere: But he who endures to the end will be saved (Mat 10:22) and again, For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls (Heb 10:37). An old Spiritual says, Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be alright.