Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
There was a biblical scholar who visited the Holy Land after teaching Old and New Testament courses for many years. He had expected the trip to provide “a top dressing” on his scholarly knowledge. After his first visit, he wrote that he “left ashamed that [he] had presumed to teach for so long out of so much ignorance”. I’ve just returned from a three-week visit, and I completely understand his experience. I thought my trip and pilgrimage would fill in some gaps, but instead I now realize that I knew, and still know and understand, so very little.
Every passage and every story in the Bible evokes a location, a time in history, people, and situations. As we read these verses today, we can create a picture in our minds of what it might have been like and of what was happening, and what God’s messages are to us. After visiting the Holy Land, many of these pictures in my head have been completely re-drawn and my experiences there have opened up so many new questions.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus speak of dire signs and foreboding that will overshadow the world. He assures the disciples that these things will take place even before their generation passes away. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus also says that the very stones of the Temple will be thrown down. We hear these verses today with the knowledge that indeed the Hebrew Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans. If we leave it at that, we may miss the deeper message.
The Temple once stood on what is today called the Temple Mount, a large open space of 35 acres where the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands. All that remains today of the ancient Temple is the Western Wall. The stones of the existing wall are massive, as are the walls of the city of Jerusalem and of the ancient palaces and homes of the wealthy. The people coming up the hill to Jerusalem would have been awed by the massive walls of the city, and overawed by the grandeur and majesty of the great, high stone stairway leading up to the Temple. Once inside the Temple enclosure, they would have felt even more awe and reverence for the beautiful sanctuary building itself which enclosed the Holy of Holies.
The people listening to Jesus would have been dumbfounded when he said that the Temple would be thrown down. Back then, they would have heard his words with incredulity. It was impossible to imagine that such a massive structure could be destroyed. It was impossible to contemplate the end of the Hebrew sacrificial system and the authority of the high priests and Pharisees. The end of this center of their worship was unimaginable, and contrary to the words of the prophets as they understood them.
These ancient Hebrews were longing for the reestablishment of a truly independent kingdom through the lineage of King David. They knew the words of the prophet Jeremiah promising “that [God] would cause a righteous branch to spring up for David” which would mean the reestablishment of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and also the end of the Roman occupation. Back then, Jesus’ word would have seemed counter-productive to that end, since the high priests and the Temple were the sole remaining center of power, and the sole remaining focus for their national and ethnic and religious identity. Why would Jesus want all this to be destroyed?
The early Christians, however, heard Jesus’ words with hope for a new Jerusalem, without walls or buildings or priesthood. Jesus was promising relationship with God and access to worship for all people, outside of the Temple and without the Temple authorities. He was promising the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as well as at the end of time.
Today, these words bring hope for the overturning of evil and the coming of a new creation and new relationship with God. We need not hear these words as an ancient prediction of the literal end of the world. Instead, we can hear them as an invitation to remain always alert to the presence of God and the coming of God into our world and our lives. Rather than “fainting with fear and foreboding”, Jesus calls on us to have faith, not to be afraid, and to “stand up and raise your heads”, and to stay alert.
I had a special experience of staying attentive during my trip to the Holy Land. Towards the end of our journey, we were taken to a Jerusalem suburb, called Motza, which is one of the sites that archaeologists believe may have been the ancient town of Emmaus. Nearby, remains have been found of a Roman road dating back to the first century and we were taken to walk on that road.
Someone read us the story of the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, in great sadness and despair after Jesus’ death on the cross. They met a man who walked with them and opened up the scriptures concerning Jesus, but they didn’t know who he was until they sat together to eat supper, and they recognized Jesus as he broke the bread.
We don’t know whether this was the actual road that Jesus walked with the two disciples. I’m not even sure how they could tell it was a Roman road of the first century, but it didn’t matter. We listened to the biblical story, heard about the excavations, and then we were led in prayer. Our leader suggested that we pray for Jesus to walk with us and to listen to what he might be saying to each one of us.
We walked among briars and overgrowth and followed a rocky, meandering path. In just a few places we could see large boulders cut square giving evidence of the ancient road. We had to watch our feet carefully, not to trip. We had to pay close attention to where we were going to follow the path. We had to help one another over the uneven places. We had to be attentive to the moment, not to miss the whisper of Jesus’ words to us.
Rather than a prophesy of doom, I believe that Jesus’ words give us a glimpse of a profound transition to a new age, new order, and new hope for all creation, in the establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth and in the life to come. Let us give thanks, on this Thanksgiving weekend, for the words of Christ which will not pass away and which will continue to guide and call us to attentiveness each day of our lives so that we may be ready to welcome and receive the gift of the Christ child and for his coming again in Glory.