As we approach the end of the liturgical year, and winter approaches, we ponder the passing quality of this world and its fading glories. Jesus’ words in the Gospel today must surely have shocked, even horrified his Apostles. Let’s look at his stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.
1. The Place of this Gospel– This passage completes the liturgical year with Jesus standing just outside of Jerusalem. In the last two months we have followed Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, as he left a Galilee, heading south along the Jordan River, passing through Jericho, and now making this assent from Jericho to Jerusalem of some 1900 feet in altitude.
We find him, in today’s gospel, at the top of the Mount of Olives, with his Apostles. From this vantage point on Mont Olivet, Jesus and his Apostles look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple, and indeed all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The Apostles had marveled at the glorious beauty of the Temple, it’s large perfectly carved white ashlar stones, guilt in gold, it gleamed like the sun in all of its glory. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world: so beautiful, so majestic.
But Jesus challenges their admiration and shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, and that not one stone will be left on another, it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask him when, and what would be the signs that would precede this awful event.
The Lord warns, with great detail, in what has become known as the “Mount Olivet discourse,” of the coming destruction of the Temple, indeed of all Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain similar and vivid descriptions of what Jesus said, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem in her heyday, her days of glory.
He warned of wars, and rumors of wars. He speaks of a time in the near future, when nation will rise against nation, and a terrible conflict will ensue. In effect, he warns his disciples and their followers, to have nothing to do with the coming war. He tells them that, when they see Jerusalem being surrounded by an army, to know that her destruction is at hand. If they are on their rooftop, they are not to go back into their house and gathered their possessions. They are to get out, while the getting is good. If they are out in the field, they must not reenter the city of Jerusalem, they must flee to the hills. Jerusalem is doomed for its lack of faith, and are zealots are picking the war with the Romans that they are destined to lose. (Luke 21; Matt 24; Mark 13)
And this leads us to today’s gospel from the Mount Olivet discourse, which picks up in the middle. Jesus warns of days of tribulation, where the sun will be darkened, the moon not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky!
In reading a text like this, we must not fall prey to a hyper-literalistic interpretation. Jesus is using prophetic language, a prophetic way of speaking, that is meaningful, but not understood in a scientifically literalistic way. Stars, cannot actually fall from the sky.
If I were to say to you, in modern English, “The world has been turned upside down!” You would not expect to be able to go out into space, look back to earth, and find Australia at the top and North America at the bottom of your view. If I were to say to you, “It is raining cats and dogs!” you would not expect to be able to go out and find animal carcasses on the front lawn. I’m speaking figuratively, but you know what I mean.
And so it is with Jesus use of prophetic imagery. To speak of the heavenly luminaries as being either darkened or cast down, is a prophetic way of saying that all the fixed points, the ways in which we tell time, know the seasons, navigate and find perspective are lost to us! The world, as the Jewish people knew it, centered around the Temple, and rooted in their liturgical calendar, is all about to be swept away. To the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was like their “Big Ben.” it was both the clock of the liturgical cycle, and the great visual center of all of Israel.
And the Lord is here teaching them what they have seen as the central hub of all they do, is about to be taken away. For the Temple, and all of its rituals, its liturgical cycle and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals, merely pointed to Jesus, and all he would do. Jesus is now the Temple, and He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant.
In the Mount Olivet discourse, Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple, that will take place in a biblical 40 years. And sure enough, exactly 40 years later, in A.D. 70, the Roman Army, having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 1/2 months, now breaches the walls, pours into the city, destroys the Temple, and all Jerusalem with it. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. Of Jerusalem and the Temple, as Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. So complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that according to Josephus, when the Romans finished their work, it was not clear that the city had ever existed on the site in Jerusalem.
Thus, here is the place of this gospel, an historical place of epic significance in the ancient world. An era of 1000 years came to an end. The world, as the Jewish people knew it, was ending. The Temple has never been rebuilt, it has been replaced by a Judaism without sacrifice, a rabbinic, a synagogue system. In 2000 years, despite several attempts to rebuild, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted, came to pass. This is the historical place, and context of this gospel
But what does all this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let us consider three basic themes to follow.
2. The Perspective of Passing– The Lord says, toward the conclusion of this gospel, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world is passing away. That is to say, all the things that impress us at the current moment, the biggie-wow stuff of this world, the impressiveness of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati, all this shall pass away.
Indeed, even now, it is passing away. It’s destruction is at hand. Scripture says,
The world in its present form is passing away. (1 Cor 7:31)
We have here, no lasting city. (Heb 13:14)
Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they returned to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing! (Psalm 146:3)
Yes, all the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair is passing away. Don’t be so impressed with this world’s offerings. All of it, for matter how powerful, how influential, how sturdy it may seem, is slated for destruction, is already passing away.
Some years ago I was looking through a museum, and there was a picture of a family, from about the 1880s. At the bottom of the photo, was this inscription, “My family, as it appeared for a brief time last summer.” A poignant caption. I thought of all the people in that photo, and concluded, and every one of them was now dead. I also knew, that the house at which the photo was taken, on the front porch, had long since been destroyed, replaced by an expanding city district of buildings. All is passing, nothing remains here for long.
Painful though this is, this is an important, and healing perspective. It brings with it, a kind of strange serenity. The truth, that all things are passing, like every truth, sets us free. Internalizing within our self the truth that, As for man, his days, or the flower of the field are like the grass. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him anymore (Psalm 130:15-16), painful as it is, it brings a kind of strange serenity. Wherein this truth we are reminded not to set down too many roots here. And neither are we resentful, when this world, passes away.
3. The Permanence Proclaimed– The Lord tells us that his words will not pass away. Thus, although the world passes away, the truth, and the Word of God, remains forever.
Too many people, root their lives in passing, ephemeral things. The challenge for us, is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever! Worldly glories, worldly power, access wealth, all these things, fade and disappear. But God’s wisdom and his plan remain forever.
Consider for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church. But the Lord promised that such attempts would never be successful! (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by his promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church will prevail.
And in all this, the Lord has been proved true. The Church has seen empires such as the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, Napoleon, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others besides, rise to power, and then fade and disappear.
How many heresies, how many philosophies have come and gone in the age of the Church? How many despots and scoffers have risen to laugh at the Church, announced that she was passé, that her day was over, and that they would bury her. And the Church is buried every one of her undertakers, has outlived everyone of her critics, and despite every prediction of her demise has persevered until this very day. She, by God’s grace, has a permanence that outlasts everyone of her critics, every one of her enemies. She has read the funeral rites over every single scoffer and prophet of her doom. And she will continue to do so.
In recounting all this we do not simply gloat that an institution known as the Church has survived. Rather, the Church is the Bride of Christ, and also his Body. The Church cannot be destroyed, not because of human ingenuity, but on account of the power and grace of God. She will endure, though at times suffer, be ridiculed, or marginalized. But she will outlive every enemy. She will emerge from every persecution. She will never be removed. FOr the Church is the Body of Christ, the living Word of God. And though the world does pass away, the Word of the Lord remains forever!
4. The Priority Prescribed –if this is the case, that this world as we know it, is passing away, and the Lord, his Kingdom, his Church, by his Word remain forever, then what should be our priority?
The Lord says, in effect we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it:
Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.
Yes, we know very well that the Day is coming, but too easily we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority of what is certain to happen. Wealth, fame and glory, all of these are uncertain, and clearly passing. But Death, judgment, heaven and hell are certain and/or remain forever. But as it is we too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing and neglect was is certain and eternal. Such foolishness.
It is clear, it is foolish to invest in or to book passage on a sinking ship. It is foolish to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. And it is wise to set our sights for, and lay hold of the Kingdom which lasts forever.
It is a sad truth that so many spend all their time rearranging the deck chairs on the “Titanic” of this world. It is tragic how much time, effort, and passion we spend on things that are passing through our fingers like sand. So much of our effort is expended on career, the building of financial fortune, enlarging our homes etc. And so little time spent on enlarging our spiritual life.
Parents spend more time worrying about where their children will attend college, than where they will spend the eternity. If the child is failing math, they go to great lengths to hire tutors to get the math scores up. But never mind that the child barely knows the four Gospels, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even who Adam and Eve where. Never mind all that, we need to make sure they understand polynomials! It is fine that parents care about math scores and college venues, but how sad it is that more eternal things often go unattended.
A parent’s greatest duty is to prepare their child for eternity. But far more time and effort is spent securing a hold on passing things like career. To be sure, proper schooling, and career are important. But eternal life is far more important. A son or daughter may graduate from Harvard Law school, come out, be a famous lawyer, and still go to hell!
What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not about what matters to God. Too often, our priorities are rooted in passing things, which even if attained, slip through our fingers like sand. We obsess over passing things like our physical health, but neglect enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would spend as much efferot looking for a place and time to pray as for a restaurant and time to eat, we would spiritual heavyweights, rather than physically overweight.
Today the Lord stands before the Temple building, impressive, a symbol of power, of worldly glories. But impressed though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight, and the focus on things which last, things related to his Word which never passes away, and to things like our ultimate destiny, where we shall spend eternity.
We find time for everything else, why not prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church and Sacraments?
What are your priorities? Are mine? Be honest now, be honest.
This world is passing away. Far more essential for us than power, prestige, money, things, worldly philosophies and the latest trends, we must set our hearts on the Word of the Lord which never passes away.
The world will go on and laugh at how God’s word is out of date, old-fashioned, or even hateful, bigoted, intolerant, and surely not up to modern predilections. But in the end, time will prove where wisdom is. Long after the current critics of the Church, those who laugh in scorn at the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures and the Church, have passed on, the Church will still be here preaching Christ, and him crucified.
None of this is meant to sound triumphalist. It is simply rooted in a Word of truth that the Lord spoke on a hillside overlooking an age soon to pass away, and glorious buildings soon to be reduced to rubble. He said simply this, Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.
In the end, Jesus wins. I know, because I checked the end the of the story. Look it up: (Rev 20-23), Jesus wins. Get on the winning team and stop trying to amass a treasure here that you can’t keep anyway.