For several reasons, we are in a bit of a time warp listening here to what Jesus said. Jesus would have spoken these words in about year 30 c.e., making his prediction about the temple’s impending destruction. It did happen, but not until forty years later, in 70 c.e., when the Roman Empire’s occupation forces did completely destroy the temple.[i] Not one stone was left upon another, just as Jesus predicted. Luke is writing his Gospel account 15 years later than that, in about year 85 c.e. Luke is quoting Jesus based on what Luke has been told by eyewitnesses to Jesus, plus what other people have remembered Jesus’ saying. The temple was destroyed; there were indeed wars and insurrections, which increasingly compromised the pax Romana; and in the midst of these horrific experiences, Luke had his own experience of Jesus’ good news: how who Jesus claimed to be and what he promised to do was all true. Luke was a believer.
Luke really believed what he is remembering and reporting in his Gospel account of Jesus (and also in his writings about the Acts of the Apostles) because he puts his name on the line. He and other followers of Jesus were facing the prospect of the most appalling persecution – which went on for nearly 300 years – under the Roman Empire because of blasphemy and treason. Blasphemy, because only the Emperor was the Son of God. That was the Emperor’s title, not Jesus’. And treason, because the followers of Jesus rendered under Caesar the most minimal obeisance. Where the followers of Jesus experienced conflict between Caesar and Jesus, they followed Jesus, followed him right to their own deaths. Christians were irritations to be expunged or entertainment to be enjoyed in the amphitheatre. They were like chattel.
We are also in a bit of time warp because the church saved Luke’s account of what Jesus said. The Gospel of Luke is part of the Canon of New Testament scripture. There was a great deal remembered and written about Jesus, not all of which was regarded as authentic. Not all of which was regarded as trustworthy by an increasingly diverse group of people from every imaginable tribe and language and people and nation who looked to Jesus as their Messiah, as their Savior. The writings of the New Testament that were “universally” regarded as authentic, the 27 books of our New Testament – from the Gospel of Matthew to the Book of Revelation – were recognized by the middle of second century, 80 or so years after the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e.[ii] So why do we have this Gospel account? Why did Luke remember and record what Jesus said about the temple’s impending destruction, and about wars and insurrections, and why did the church, a century later, retain Luke’s account as part of the Canon of Holy Scripture, which brings it to us?
The reason: to give hope and encouragement to the followers of Jesus amidst persecution and suffering. It was taking many decades for Jesus’ words and Jesus’ work to sink into people’s understanding. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, most of his disciples had completely misunderstood what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would signal. We can assume the misunderstanding of the disciples as a microcosm of all the followers of Jesus. Jesus did not take over in Jerusalem. He did not assume a kingship, literally. Quite to the contrary, the persecution and suffering of his followers only increased. They were now marked people. Luke here is writing to remind them what Jesus had said: that Jesus’ followers would indeed know God’s blessing and God’s provision, not just in the best of times, but in the worst of times, especially in the worst of times. Luke reminds Jesus’ followers how he had said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”[iii]
When will heaven happen? Soon. Luke understood Jesus’ saying that he would, in some amazing way, return to this earth to gather up his followers. Soon.[iv] Luke even remembers Jesus’ saying there will be those who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God,” which signaled to many that Jesus’ return would be in days or weeks or months or maybe years, but not many years.[v] Meanwhile the suffering and persecution continued, generation after generation.
This passage appointed for this evening from the Gospel according to Luke is a kind of writing in the Bible called “apocalyptic,” from the Greek, then Latin meaning “revelation.”[vi] It’s a revelation about the end of time – which is what the last book of the Bible is about, the Book of Revelation – when suffering will end. Finally, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….”[vii] And in the meantime when these early followers of Jesus were facing so much death, mourning, crying, and pain, Luke is reminding Jesus’ followers of two things: one, that Jesus had indeed said such terrible things would likely happen to his followers; and secondly, that he gave the promise of his presence and provision with them always. Always.
If this is good news, it is certainly qualified good news. We do have Jesus’ promise of his presence and provision… but it’s here in the context of suffering. And this is where we may live in something of a time warp. You may not be suffering just now because you are a follower of Jesus. This is true for me, personally. However it is certainly true today for many people in the Far East and Middle East, in various places of Africa, and elsewhere around our globe. And in so many places around this world, during the past two thousand years, so many of Jesus’ followers have known suffering because they are a follower of Jesus. For you, for me, personally, just now, the cost of your discipleship may not seem high. That being so, there are 3 ways this Gospel lesson, saved all these years, may still speak to us:
- Remember those who suffer today. There may be some individual, some ethnic group, some nation where the followers of Jesus are facing suffering and persecution today. See where your attention is piqued. Remember whoever this is in your prayers as if you belonged to one another. You do. Maybe you pray, only; maybe you are also moved to some action of care or kindness or intervention on behalf of those who face suffering and persecution on the account of their identification with Jesus.
- Secondly, remember what Luke records here as if it’s been written for you. You will eventually need Jesus’ promise of his presence and provision in both the best of times and worst of times. Tuck this promise away. You may need hope and encouragement for yourself or someone whom you hold in your heart in the face of suffering or persecution. Remember Jesus’ assurance.
- Finally, learn from someone who has known suffering and persecution for the cause of Christ. Maybe someone living today to whom you have personal access; maybe someone from the past to learn from them through their writings or from stories that have been passed down. Learn from them, not just as an act of solidarity – which it would be – or humility, but as a locus of revelation. Especially in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ deference, Jesus’ locus of revelation is most prevalent among those who seem to be among the least, or last, or lost.
This Gospel lesson about the end times was remembered and recorded and retained because Jesus’ words of assurance here have been needed by so many down through the centuries. How good it is for us to remember the witness of these souls. Remember. Remember.
[i] Many years before Luke writes his Gospel account, St. Paul had already come to a new understanding about the temple. St. Paul, who, in his earlier days had worshiped in the temple in the Jerusalem, now saw the temple, not as something to be rebuilt but rather to be reborn in the human soul. “Your body,” he writes, “is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
[ii] St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, refers in c. 180 to the New Testament Canon we recognize.
[iii] Luke 6:20-23.
[iv] Luke 17:22-37.
[v] Luke 9:27: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” See also Matthew 16:28 and Mark 9:1.
[vi] The Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal.”
[vii] Revelation 21:4.
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