Luke 21:5–19

I’ll never forget the experience of walking through this
magnificent—but empty—space in the afternoon of that
terrible day, September 11,
2001. The decision had been made earlier for security reasons to clear
the building of visitors that day, and let the staff go home to be with
their family and loved ones. The cathedral clergy remained, however,
for we are always open for the daily round of prayers and worship, and
we continued to conduct services outside, nervously watching the sky
upon hearing any airplane noises, wondering if this tall structure on
the highest point in Washington, DC would be the next target for
aircraft being used for missiles.

An eerie silence pervaded the entire Cathedral that afternoon, as
well as deep mourning, anger, uncertainty and a palpable dread for the
future. As I walked in the gloomy darkness, I could not help but notice
also how awesomely beautiful this sacred space is. The holiness of its
chapels, its stained glass and other works of art telling the story of
God’s active presence in the world, its Gothic spires confidently
reaching towards the heavens, all speak of faith and hope in the triumph
of divine love and justice in conquering human evil. “But is it so?” I
wondered that day, of all days. Will good overcome evil? Will this
temple, this monument to human faith, fall along with all our best hopes
and dreams for humankind? Will its stones come tumbling down in this
generation? Will the Cathedral stand forever?

I think I can understand what was going on in the disciples’ minds as
they heard the dire warnings of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. There
they were, in the cosmopolitan capital city of Jerusalem standing in the
midst of The Temple, the national symbol of the pride of Israel and the
most visible image of its faith in God. King Herod’s recently renovated
building in the first century B.C. was a magnificent edifice. The
Temple stood in a 400 x 500 yard walled area. The courtyard walls were
of white marble. Porches were lined with rows of stone columns topped
with ornate Corinthian capitals. Great marble tables stood ready for
preparing the sacrificial animals. The central shrine itself stood more
than 100 feet high. Its walls were covered with sheets of gold so
bright that in the sunshine pilgrims to the Temple would have had to
shield their eyes. Perhaps, at moments when the huge front doors were
opened, fortunate pilgrims might catch a glimpse of the great curtains
or veils shielding the Holy of Holies from the eyes of sinful mortals.
Outside, the entire white stone face of the Temple was plated with gold
and silver, so much that the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that it
looked like a snow-capped mountain.

Standing there, the disciples in all likelihood asked the same
question that I asked that afternoon standing alone in this great
cathedral: “Will it last?” And Jesus’ answer? “No. Nothing lasts
forever.” His exact words as recorded in verse 6 in Luke’s gospel
reads, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another;
all will be thrown down.”

Jesus, of course, was making a prediction of the coming destruction
of the Temple in Jerusalem, a historical fact that occurred in 70 A.D.,
at least a generation before Luke recorded these words for the early
Christian church. What the disciples heard as prophecy, the first
readers of the gospel heard as history. The problem of timing and
audience is the problem that we moderns have today in interpreting
Scriptures of the type we have this morning: are the words a prediction
of a future that is ahead of us, a history of a past that is behind us,
or a statement about the present that is before us.

The type of literature that describes the Scripture before us has
been called both eschatological and apocalyptic. The two words are
often confused or assumed to refer to the same thing, namely a
cataclysmic end to the world as we know it. This confusion is
understandable since in a Gospel passage like Luke 21 assigned for
today, the apocalyptic and the eschatological do mingle together. It’s
important, however, to carefully distinguish between the two types of
discourses so that we can avoid some classic mistakes that Christians
have made through the years in discerning what these Scriptures mean for
us today.

Eschatological refers to the study of the eschata, or “last things,”
things that occur at the end of existence. Whether that end is peaceful
or is brought about by violent means, as in the destruction of the
Temple which Jesus forecast, there is an inescapable finale to
everything–to civilizations, to empires, as well as to our own lives.
At some point in the future, we who live now will die. This is an
eschatological fact. We do not know when this will happen, or how it
will happen. We only know that it is unavoidable.

The word apocalyptic, from the Greek apokalupto, means to reveal,
uncover or unmask–not the meaning that it has acquired in current
popular usage. The usage of apocalyptic literature in Scripture does
not refer to a fiery ending of the world, but rather to the disclosure
of a mystical knowledge, to the uncovering or discerning the revelation
of God’s truth.

Our culture, however, is utterly fascinated with the end of all
things—especially after 9/11—and is thus too quick to assign
eschatological significance to events and to Scriptures that do not
warrant it. In 1988, for example, a book was published entitled 88
Reasons Why the World is Going to End in 1988.
The author predicted the
end of the world in fall of 1988, and listed the many signs for which
one could look for confirmation. 1988 passed, so in 1989, the same
author released a revised edition, 89 Reasons Why the World is Going to
End in 1989.
He claimed to have made a mathematical error in his
calculations. The error, apparently, continues, as have all other
predictions for the last 2,000 years by sometimes earnest and
well-meaning believers who are obsessed with trying to figure out when
the end of all things will occur, and what will happen when it does fall
upon us.

Well, here we are 2004; can you name four reasons why the world is
going to end this year? I know that you can, and some of you do. Some
of you will point to the results of our recent elections and decipher
dire eschatological significance to it, and wonder if an escape to
Canada, Barbados or some other safe haven would be in order. Of course,
we know that if the results had swung in the Democrats’ favor, then many
in the other half of the electorate would be heading to the hills,
reading the results as a sign that portends unholy consequences upon us
and the world.

What would your other reasons for the end of the world be? Nuclear
proliferation? Environmental degradation, especially global warming?
World economic collapse? A terrorist-driven biological or chemical
disaster? The Boston Red Sox winning? What’s going on, here? It would
not be hard to find reasons for the world ending now, wouldn’t it?

If I were to ask instead for you to name four reasons in 2004 why you
as an individual could end this year, what would you say? Many here
would cite heart attack, cancer or a respiratory ailment caused by the
flu or pneumonia. Depending on where you live or other circumstances,
you might cite violent murder, hypothermia, or AIDS. If you knew that
you were going to end this year, how would then live?

James Ashbrook, a minister and theologian, once wrote these
words:

I have been a cancer patient for more than 13 years. During that
period I have had extensive treatments of radiation and chemotherapy,
with excruciating side effects. Throughout this period I—and those
closest to me—have fluctuated between unrealistic hope and impending
doom.

That psychic bind between hope and disaster erupts in varied
ways: shall I buy a pair of shoes if I have only a few months left?
Shall we remodel my study if I have only a few months remaining? Should
I upgrade my computer in the face of an uncertain future? Why waste
energy on new relationships if they are going to be cut off in the near
future? Why bother working in the yard if there will not be another
spring? And so the conflicting emotions rage! Why bother if the end is
at hand?

That question brings us back to the gospel lesson. What drives you
to bother when the end is at hand is an apocalyptic vision that enables
you to see the hand of God at work in the world and in you, even in the
midst of tribulation and suffering. Jesus faithfully predicts that
“nation will rise against nation…there will be great earthquakes, and in
various places famines and plagues; there will be dreadful portents…”
(v.10), and “…they will put some of you to death.” (v.16). But in that
same doom and gloom speech, our Lord also comforts his disciples by
saying, “Do not be terrified (v. 9)…not a hair on your head will perish
(v.18), and by your endurance you will gain your souls. “(v.19) How can
Jesus tell his disciples that not a hair on their head will be lost when
in almost the same breath he says that some of them would be put to
death?

The answer is that when Jesus sees the eschatological end of times
with all its sufferings, he also sees the apocalyptic breaking through
of the kingdom of God. Even if one of his loved ones were mutilated and
burned—and many were, as still today—no part of that Christian will
die forever, for they would have “gained their souls,” or been
resurrected to a new life. If, on the other hand, Christians fail to
see the sacred in the individual and in the world, then those same
Christians will have died even if they look alive. The difference is in
being able to discern what God is doing, and then getting on board to
participating with God in his agenda for the world. You “bother” to go
on, in short, because God bothers!

Thus Jesus, in our gospel lesson, is not so much talking
eschatologically as he is apocalyptically. We don’t have to wait for
the future to see the truth of Jesus’ statements; he is describing the
world now. What Jesus describes as signs of the end time are happening
now–and they have happened in every age: earthquakes, famines,
disease, and persecutions. Jesus is not referring to another world to
come, but a reality that is close at hand. “The kingdom of God is
near,” meaning the reality of God’s vision for the world has already
gained a foothold. God is present in the suffering of this world, and
calls us to follow Jesus in being present with those who suffer. The
real question, then, is not “When will it all end?” but rather “How do
we live now?

Jesus is very clear on this: live for today, and let tomorrow take
care of itself (Matt. 6:34), and be responsible in the here-and-now in
whatever ways are appropriate, for “by your endurance you will gain your
soul” (Luke 21:19).

“The kingdom of God is near.” Can you see it? Do you want to see
the kingdom? It’s right here, my brothers and sisters. It’s around us,
in front of us, above us, and in us. If you do not see God working in
this troubled world to set it right, and if you do see God working on
your behalf in your own life, then pray for the eyes of faith, to be
able to “see” as Jesus sees.

The kingdom of God is near! Amen.