This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on November 13th, 2016.
Not unlike the prophets before him, Jesus sees a problem with the status quo. Two chapters earlier he spoke of the demise of the temple as he drove out merchants who’d set up shop in God’s house. In the first four verses of this chapter, the inequity of the status quo is again on display. A poor widow offers her gifts from the depths of her money purse, while the rich toss in the spare change from their own.
The walls of the building were beautifully decorated—tall steeple, fancy chandeliers, an inviting fellowship hall. Yet as is so often the case, humans have a tendency to revere their accomplishments, be it buildings or reputations. The attention to detail as it pertained to the building while neglecting and exploiting the impoverished, signaled a dramatic disconnect from God’s design.
Now, Jesus foretells of a traumatic destruction that will realign power structures of their day. Earthquakes and famines, diseases and wars, hurtling comets and hurling accusations.
The apocalyptic imagery Jesus describes in this passage should not automatically be interpreted eschatologically. Rather, it appears to be a theological device on the part of the author to reinforce the trustworthiness of Jesus as the Messiah. For those hearing these words, some decades after Jesus would have spoken them (90s CE?), they’d know of the destruction of the temple as Luke’s Jesus lays out (70 CE). And if his words are true, then what he says and who he is must be believed. This is important because Jesus has already processed into Jerusalem, and is slowly making his way to the cross. The crux of Luke’s case for Jesus as God’s Messiah is coming up; the hearers ought to believe.
Luke wants his hearers to recall all that has happened in the years since Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—all of the turmoil and fighting and persecution (like that described in his sequel in Acts) was foretold by Jesus. And while it might bring surface-level comfort to those hearers who are suffering to know that Jesus knew it would happen, the real comfort comes with the other words Jesus speaks.
Somehow in spite of all of this, “Not a hair on your heads will be lost.” For some that’s a more consequential promise than others, Rogaine notwithstanding. But the God who knows the number of hairs on peoples’ heads, will watch over Jesus’ followers just as closely. It’s not a promise that they won’t suffer trials or hardships, but a promise that nothing will be beyond God’s vision. In fact, Jesus isn’t offering an escape from life’s difficulties at all; it’s in endurance that the hearers will find God. For it is in their suffering that they will be given a chance “to testify;” a moment when words (logos) and wisdom (sophia) will be given to them; a time when Jesus will be with them.
This text falls on the first Sunday following the US presidential election. In some ways, it’s a poignant text for such a moment. Many Christians are undoubtedly content with the status quo; many others feel the burden of a life without agency in a society so enamored with its buildings and reputations. Some will feel like the world is coming to an end, while others will feel like their candidate is the nation’s savior.
The preacher would be wise to consider: have American Christians too closely aligned their faith with the power structures of the day? Another way to come to this: when tragedy strikes, do we turn to military, political, or economic might to help rescue us or to help us escape? That isn’t what sustained the followers of Jesus when Jerusalem was sacked, and the temple was destroyed.
The hearers of today would benefit to hear the words of Jesus anew in their context today. No matter who wins an election, no matter what party is in control, no matter how terrifying ISIS or recessions or hurricane season is, God sees, and God is near. For followers of Jesus, the way forward isn’t a secret escape route from the suffering, or a false hope in power structures, governments or institutions, but rather a courageous trust in God’s Messiah and his promise to endure with us.
Indeed, the very next week (in the text and the lectionary), Jesus will do just that at Golgotha. As Jesus tore down tables in the temple and foretold of the temple’s walls being torn down in this text, in short order, Jesus will be torn down as well.
Life, as it is, might not be fair—the widow can attest to that; many in our world can attest to that; soon, in the narrative, Jesus will attest to that. But it’s in our times of suffering, when Jesus gives of himself for us (logos and sophia), and endures with us (as he did on the cross), that we discover God is for us and with us in the turmoil, granting life to our souls.
Brent A. Newberry
The First Baptist Church of Worcester, Massachusetts
Tags: escape, endurance, suffering, God with us, temple