Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Luke 21:5-19

As near as we can tell, Jesus’ disciples were all from Galilee. And the ones we know about were all from small towns like Capernaum and Bethsaida. So I guess they had to admire the amazing sight that was the Jerusalem Temple.

I grew up in the country, Rostraver Township, on the far side of Westmoreland County. In fact, from my house, you could only see two other houses, three when the leaves were off the trees. And I can remember when I was young and we would go to see my grandmother, who lived on the northeast side of Pittsburgh. We’d drive up Route 51 and go through the Liberty Tunnel. And when you come out of that tunnel, the whole skyline of downtown Pittsburgh is right there in front of you. And we would drive right past the Steel Building and some of the other skyscrapers. It really impressed me when I was seven or eight years old. Maybe that’s how it was for the disciples.

The first century Jerusalem Temple was huge. It was much larger than the Temple that Solomon built in the 10th century BC. And at this time, it had actually stood for longer than the First Temple. That Temple stood for less than four hundred years. The Second Temple was started in about 538 BC and completed in 516 BC. It stood for almost five hundred years.

While the Second Temple started out as a very modest structure, Herod the Great, the king of Jerusalem and Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth, wanted to make it the most impressive structure in the world. He embarked on a massive project to expand the Temple, and at the time of Jesus’ ministry, long after Herod’s death, that project was still going on. In fact, the construction only finished a few years before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.

The first step in the project was to turn the relatively small Temple mount into an enormous flat-topped platform, more than 30 acres in size and rising as much as 100 feet above the valley below. They built a retaining wall around the Temple and filled it in to make that platform. Some of the stones used to build the wall were 600 tons in weight, 46 feet long by 16 feet wide by 10 feet high. These walls were made from white limestone. Visitors often described the Temple mount looking like a snow-covered hill.

The Temple itself added almost another 100 feet of height. It was built out of white marble, and the front of the Temple, facing to the east, was overlaid with gold plating. Descriptions from the time said the Temple was so radiant that you couldn’t

look at it on a sunny morning from the Mount of Olives across the valley. And there were gold decorations, as well. The most famous was a golden grapevine that stretched 60 feet across the front of the Temple, adorned with clusters of grapes five feet high, all made out of gold. It was an impressive and ostentatious structure.

But it was more than just a large building. It was a visible symbol of Jewish identity. We could probably best compare it to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Paris, of course, is the center of the universe to France, and Notre Dame sits in the middle of the city, an almost 900 year old symbol of the city, one of the largest structures, and the site of many important events in their history, such as the coronation of Napoleon and the site of many funerals of important national figures. The fire that damaged Notre Dame back in the summer was a “national tragedy,” because it damaged something thought to express French identity. And the Jewish Temple was even more of a symbol of Jewish identity in the first century. It was unthinkable that such a large and important structure could ever be destroyed.

But of course, it was. When the disciples try to attract Jesus’ attention to the Temple, he tells them that it will soon be destroyed, down to the last stone. And his words were fulfilled in less than 40 years.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the religious-political faction known as the Zealots were gaining ground. They were committed to restoring Israel as a worldly kingdom. Eventually, they won the day, and the Jewish people revolted against Rome, starting in 66 AD. Within four years, the Romans had subdued most of Judea and Galilee. They arrived at Jerusalem in the spring of 70 and laid siege to the city for four months. By the end, people inside were reduced to cannibalism. At the end of August, they broke through the city walls and took the city in a fierce battle that lasted another week. The Jewish historian, Josephus, said that over a million Jews died in the siege, though many historians think he may be exaggerating a little. And the Jerusalem Temple was burned and destroyed.

There is no security in this world. We might like to imagine that there is, but that is self-deception. The things we have built: buildings, empires, armies, economic systems, and so on, can all be destroyed. History should make that clear. No one has ever achieved lasting security in this world.

The events of September 11, 2001 should have made that clear in our history. It was more than just buildings that crumbled that day; it was our faith in our nation’s strength and security that crumbled.

There will be people who will claim that they can offer us security. It might be economic security, military security, political security. But in any case, they are false messiahs, and they should not be believed.

There is a thematic link in this passage between the prophesied fall of Jerusalem and the end of days. But it’s just that, a thematic link, not a chronological link. The destruction of Jerusalem is like the kind of events that will happen in this world before the end. Some people have insisted that a new Temple must be built in Jerusalem before the return of Christ, and I think that train of thought is wrong. Rather the destruction of Jerusalem is like the kind of things that will happen to God’s people in this world.

Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t panic. These things must come, but the end won’t follow immediately.” Every time there is a war or a great natural disaster in this world, you can bet that someone will say, “It’s a sign of the end.” But I think Jesus is telling us that these things, things like earthquakes, famines, and epidemics, are more “par for the course” in this world.

And so is persecution of God’s people. The world doesn’t like God, so we shouldn’t expect the world to embrace God’s people. Rather than fearing these things, our focus should be on our faithfulness in all things. And we should remember that we are not alone. Jesus says, “When you are brought before judges and authorities, don’t worry. It’s your chance to talk about me. And I will give you the wisdom and words you need.” Jesus is with us through the Holy Spirit who brings his presence to us.

The paradox of Jesus’ words is that he says in one breath: “Some of you will be killed.” And in the next he says, “Not a hair of your heads will perish by standing firm.” Obviously, he can’t be talking about the same thing in both sentences. In the first sentence, he’s talking about this world, in which there is no security. But this world isn’t all there is to the story, as the prophet Isaiah reminded us in our first text this morning. By remaining faithful, our eternity is secure in Christ. We will face hardships in this world. But if we stay faithful to Christ, our eternity is secure.

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