Malachi 3, 19-20 + Psalm 98 + 2 Thessalonians 3, 7-12 + Luke 21, 5-19
Three levels of Gospel hearing are at play today, and you have heard me insist on them for years:
1) What did Jesus say? The historical situation
2) What is Luke saying? The historical gospel situation
3) What are they both saying to us right now
Taking the first steps keeps us on track. Skipping either one or two, and you might miss three.
This temple Jesus speaks of was built by Herod, a non-believer. It was not built out of faith as God’s dwelling place. Herod was in league with the Romans and so were the priests who ran the place. It was a very important income producer for Herod, the priests, and the Romans who took a share of the offering income. It was as much a market place as it was a holy place. Judging from the behavior of Jesus reported to us, it was not much of a holy place at all no matter what he did to clean it up. The temple was to have been, from the time of Solomon and David who built the first one, a sign of God’s presence, a place of thanksgiving, offering, and praise. It was a sign of unity, and a place that drew people together providing their identity. Jesus has something else to offer given what the temple has become.
When Luke writes and has Jesus speaking, those who receive this Gospel know that the temple is already down. The zealots schemed an uprising, a violent revolt against the Romans. They lost, and the price they paid was the total destruction of Jerusalem including the temple. Even secular historians say that there was not one stone left upon another. Easy targets for blame were the followers of Jesus. When disasters happen and someone commits an act of violent terrorism, there must always be someone to blame, and nearly all the time it is the most innocent, indefensible, and helpless. Being a small group who were “different”, gentle, peacefully non-violent, we know who got the blame and paid a great price: those new followers of the “Way”: the followers of that crucified criminal, that insurrectionist, that blasphemer. Persecution began big time.
There have been some in our tradition over the years who interpret all of this violence, especially the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s punishment for the rejection of Christ. This assumes of course, that God is in the punishment business. There is an odd human behavior that likes to invoke authority to give credibility to their wishes. When I was a pastor, now and then I would question how something happened, and too frequently I would hear that so-and-so said Father wanted it this way when in fact Father had never given it a thought; but to get their way with a minimum of trouble, invoking an authority figure would often work. Sometimes this behavior is also a kind of wish-fulfillment. Wishing that God would punish (because they would like to do the punishing) they decide that God did it thereby excusing themselves from the whole thing to begin with.
The fact of the matter is that Jerusalem was destroyed not because anyone rejected Jesus or because his followers started trouble; but because the peaceful, loving, non-violent way of Jesus was not followed. The zealots rejected a behavior that would have kept the peace. Here is the point of proclaiming this Gospel today in this place not because it is a threat that says if you reject Christ, God will punish you; but because the Gospel always reveals something of God’s love for us. The Gospel is GOOD NEWS for everyone. It is not BAD NEWS for the bad.
The temple could come down because it was no longer the physical sign of God’s presence. It could come down and mean nothing except a mess to clean up because there was a new source of identity, and something else to draw people together in which they could offer praise, thanks, and fulfill the law and will of God. That new temple is Jesus Christ, the temple raised up again in three days after being torn down.
Luke’s comforting and encouraging words to those early followers of Christ was that their suffering was a way of bearing witness to God’s presence. Their suffering was their hymn of praise, and living through those times with hope was testimony to their belief in the victory of love over hate, peace over violence, and life over death.
Proclaiming this Gospel today needs few words. For true believers, Jesus Christ is still the best and clearest sign of God’s presence. The presence of God and of God’s Son is the people who have inherited his name and learned from him how to live in obedience to the Will of God and in love for one another. For true believers, Jesus Christ is still where we find our identity. It will not be found in ethnic groups, behind flags, ideologies, or political parties. Our identity in Christ transcends all of those things and makes them irrelevant, inconvenient, and sometimes even an obstacle to our real identity as the living presence of God on this earth. Jesus Christ becomes the center, the gathering place, the one to whom all people will come in the pilgrimage of life as the Jews came to Jerusalem and its Temple again and again.
What we proclaim today is a new Temple not made by human hands and stones, but made by human lives sanctified and purified by the courage of sacrifice, service, non-violence, and love. What we proclaim today as we are the ones gifted and called to give flesh to the Word of God, a people whose actions and behavior, attitudes and hopes reveal God’s plan for this earth and people God has loved so much. What we proclaim is what we live. What we say to this world is simply: “If you want to find God come among us. If you want healing and forgiveness, stay with us. If you want to find life and joy, we have it abundantly. If you are hungry, we will feed you. If you are thirsty, we will give you a drink – a drink that will not leave you thirsty again. If you are afraid, we will calm your fears. If you are alone, we will stay with you. If you are in the dark, we will share the light.”
As we come to the conclusion of a full year in the Gospel of Luke, his message of hope cannot leave us unchanged. His gentleness and the beauty of his message must soften hardened hearts. His vision and his experience of the Holy Spirit from the Baptism of Jesus through the Transfiguration and on to Pentecost cannot leave us thinking for one moment that we are alone here. By that Spirit, we can live without fear, and know that we have among us whatever it takes to awaken this world to God’s presence and the joy of knowing God’s love with the promise of forgiveness and peace where God’s people are found together as one.