As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’ —do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
Since I didn’t really grow up in the church, the first time I ever encountered these words of Jesus was when I was in my teens, when I’d become part of a “parachurch” Christian youth group. In between weekly gatherings where we did almost all of the strange activities that Rachel Held Evans described in her book that the Book Group just discussed, and a few that she didn’t; and the periodic field trip to some amusement park or the beach, we’d have weekly Bible studies. These studies usually centered around how the scripture of the day spoke to the most pressing issues in our lives at the moment – how the physics test I’d blown was going to affect my GPA and the college I’d get into, or how our parents just didn’t understand us and must hate us, or how we really liked some unnamed other person but they didn’t even know we existed. Looking back on it, I never realized how many Bible passages must speak directly to that particular issue, based on how many times that became the topic of conversation
But beyond those general discussions, when the merely occasional group attendees weren’t around and it was just those of us who were apparently in the inner circle, and we wanted to be Really Serious about Bible study, we’d start to talk about passages like this one. The passages people said dealt with the “end times.” The end of the age. The Rapture. We’d read these passages, and cross reference them against Hal Lindsey’s hot new book “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” We’d count the years from the establishment of the nation of Israel and debate just how many years there were in a “generation,” since one of them wouldn’t pass from the beginning of a Jewish state to Jesus’ return. We’d scan the news for any sort of thing that would point, at least in our minds, to the rise of the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast – credit cards and bar codes were particularly suspicious things, I remember – and we’d talk about the imminent arrival of years of persecution, plague, pestilence, and famine. Ah, those were good times.
In fact, a lot of people have pointed to Jesus’ words here as a description of the end of the age – the end of this broken world and the ushering in of God’s direct rule over a renewed and transformed world. If you want to impress, or more likely annoy, your friends with a bit of trivia, in serious religious discussion we call Jesus’ second coming the “eschaton.” There you go; use the word at parties at your own risk.
On the other hand, a lot of scholars and historians have pointed out that most of what Jesus described here actually did occur, just less than 40 years after the end of his earthly ministry – when the Roman occupation brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion by slaughtering thousands of people and completely obliterating the Jewish Temple forever, in 70 CE. During that slaughter, the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem remembered these particular words of Jesus – that when they saw these things occurring, to flee the city – to head into the hills and hide for their safety. That’s exactly what these Christians did, and it made them despised by their Jewish families and friends, who considered them cowards and traitors because they didn’t stand up and try to defend the city against the Romans. If there were one specific moment you could point to when Jews and Christians became two totally different groups, instead of Christians being a subset of Judaism, this was it.
So what is it, then? Was Jesus predicting something that was going to happen in the first century, or sometime in the distant future? Or both? Or did someone just put these words into his mouth, to try to make sense out of the destruction of Jerusalem and where they were supposed to go from there?
For myself, I’ve long ago put aside the way of understanding Jesus’ words here the way I heard them as a teenager. It’s been a long time since I tried to figure out whether Jesus was going to return next Tuesday at 2:30 or sometime in the next millennium. And the older I get, and the more I think about these things, I’m not sure we can really even say with any certitude what it means when Jesus talks about returning. Is his return an actual, physical thing? Personally I think so, but I can’t say that with any real certitude, and to be honest, it isn’t a dealbreaker to my overall faith. Is his return something physical, or something just spiritual? I don’t think we can know for sure.
And maybe that’s important, because I think it speaks to what I take home from Jesus’ words here. Because whatever Jesus-in-the-world might mean in the future, it means something now. We’re called to be Christ in the world, now, in our moment. We believe that we’re united spiritually with Christ, with the very Spirit of God, and that in that union, we’re called to be the face, the heart, the hands, the feet of Christ in the world right now. Christ, present, never-really-having-left in the world, every single day. Maybe when Jesus talked about all of these calamities that we’re supposed to watch for – and honestly, when has there ever been a time that we didn’t see all of them? – and then saying, “they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds,” and God sending out angels in response – maybe what he was foreseeing, predicting, at least in part, wasn’t so much about him, but about us. Maybe that’s what “they” would see – us, stepping into those situations, bringing the power of Christ’s love and peace and healing into them. Maybe *we* are the Son of Man moving in, in the wake of all those things. Those wars and rumors of wars. And earthquakes. And famines. And persecution, and hatred, and suicide bombings and mass shootings and bloodbaths perpetrated in the name of God. Maybe this is Christ telling us to do whatever we can do to reach out and be agents of healing in those times. It’s the message of the Kingdom of God. It’s the message of “This Little Light of Mine” – to be millions of individual lights, believing and working together, letting our combined light shine into all the darkest places of our world, and of human hearts. That’s the mission of the Church; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what Christ established the Church for. To concentrate our faith, and our efforts, on that – and to let the future take care of itself.
Thanks be to God.