During 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 are encouraged to see that our lives are on a trajectory that leads to autumn and then to the winter of death. But those who have faith know that this passage to death ultimately leads to glory. Scripture says, And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17).
In today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus gives us a kind of road map of life and calls us to be sober about the passing and perilous nature of this world.
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 was growing among the Jews. The Zealot party and other factions were gaining power. In today’s Gospel, Jesus prophesies that war will come and lead to Jerusalem’s ultimate destruction; everything that the people know will pass away. By the summer of 66 AD, a three-and-a-half-year war was underway that resulted in the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the death of 1.2 million Jews. Josephus recorded the war in great detail in his work The Jewish War.
That is what this text meant historically. But we also need to understand what it means for us today. So let’s look at the text from that perspective. Today’s Gospel can be seen in three major sections.
I. Portrait of Passing Things – 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 although it is glorious now, it will all be destroyed. We, too, must understand that whatever glory we see or experience in this world will not last; in the end it will all pass away.
The Temple is a symbol of passing things. Just as it was once in splendor and now is gone, so everything we see today will pass. This is a sober truth that we must come to accept, difficult though it may be. Other Scriptures also remind us of this truth: The world as we know it is passing away (1 Cor 7:29). And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17). This world is passing and we, too, will pass from it one day.
Note, however, that for them as well as for us, although one world ends, another begins. The Old Testament, Old Covenant, and ritual 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 we should not lament the end of this world or even our own death. A newer, greater world—that of Heaven—awaits those who are faithful. In fact, through the liturgy and the sacraments, that new world is already breaking forth for those who partake of it.
II. Points of Passage to Promised Things – Having been informed that all things will pass, the disciples ask for signs that will precede the coming end. We can learn from what Jesus teaches them and apply it to our own lives today.
Jesus warns them of four perils on the passage to the promised land of the New Testament age of the Church. We, too, will experience dangers in our journey to the promised land of Heaven.
A. False Messiahs – “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!” If you want Jesus Christ to be the Lord of your life, then you’ve got to get rid of false messiahs.
Too many people give greater authority in their life to people and worldly things than they do to Jesus Christ and His teachings. We submit our lives to all sorts of fads, fashions, philosophies, and people in hopes that we will be happy.
Perhaps it is someone in power whom we admire, or someone in the media whom we 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 personal convictions or ideas that we allow to overrule God’s teachings.
A false messiah is anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ telling you how to organize your life. 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 for guidance; they have been deceived.
It is not that we can’t use these things at all, but they are not a replacement for the Messiah. None of these things or people died for you. Only Jesus did that.
The power to save you is not in the statehouse, the courthouse, or the White House—it is in the saving blood, of the Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.
B. Fierce Militarism – “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.
We, too, are in a war, a battle. Before Christ can reign unambiguously within you, the false powers in you must be defeated. But they will not go without a fight. The world, the flesh, and the devil can be expected to wage a fierce battle in order to keep their power.
Are you in a battle? You should be! Too many Christians have lost the sense of battle. Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Yet not only do too many people not resist him, they welcome him! Scripture 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).
An 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 – “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 wrote of a comet and strange views of what we know today as the Aurora Borealis.
But what of us? What are the earthquakes of our life? Earthquakes involve the shaking of the ground, the shaking of that which seems most stable to us. What is the foundation of your life?
For most of us, the foundations of this world are things like money, politics, friends, family, and our own skills. All of these things are shaken in life and all of them will eventually fail. Our talents and abilities fade as we age. Friends and family members move away, fail us, and eventually die. Political power and worldly access ultimately fails. Haven’t we all experienced our world shaken, our soul famished, the plagues of sin infecting our world and ourselves?
Furthermore, haven’t stars grown cold, meteors fallen from the sky, the sun been hidden from our eyes from time to time? Has not our world at times been “turned upside down”? Maybe it was the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a diagnosis of cancer.
This is why God must be our ultimate foundation, the star by which we navigate. If Jesus is not our foundation, then something else is. Without God as our foundation, we cannot last. The foundations of this world will all ultimately crumble. Christ must be our sure foundation.
D. Fearful Malice – “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. 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. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends 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 were greatly persecuted. Most of us in the Christian West have had less to suffer, more difficult days may well be ahead as the secular West grows increasingly hostile to traditional Christianity.
Persecution, however, is an expected part of the Christian journey to the promised land of Heaven. Even if we are not “handed over,” many of us today are not taken seriously, are written off, or are called names even by our friends and family.
Christ tells us not to worry about such things because they are part of the normal Christian life. 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; it cannot harm our soul unless we allow it to do so.
III. Prescription for the Passage to Promised Things – “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” We must always journey on and not lose faith or lose heart. There is glory waiting for us if we persevere.
Scripture says, But he who endures to the end will be saved (Mat 10:22). “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.” 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 all right.”
In this regard, the end of the Book of Daniel also seems pertinent: [Daniel asked the Archangel Gabriel], “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand. … As for you, go your way till the end. You will die, yet at the end of the days you will rise to receive your reward” (Daniel 12:8-10, 13).
Yes, on our journey through this passing world it is necessary to persevere unto the end. If we do not, greater woes will come. If we do, there will be glory for us on the other side.