Isaiah 65:17-25 – The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Malachi 4:1-2 – The day is coming when the arrogant and evil-doers will be stumble. But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
Isaiah 12 – The First Song of Isaiah. Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid.
Psalm 98 – Sing to the Lord a new song! Let the seas roar, and the floods clap their hands! Let the hills sing together for joy!
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 – Keep away from believers who are idle. Imitate us, for we were not idle when we were with you. We worked day and night to not be a burden. Do not grow weary in doing good.
Luke 21:5-19 – The destruction of the Temple foretold. Nation will rise against nation. They will arrest you and persecute you. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
The First Song of Isaiah is available in a setting that can be used in traditional worship, or with bass and drums in a contemporary services, as an anthem or a psalm setting with a congregational refrain. Listen to it HERE.
Orienting ourselves in Luke, recall that we had Jesus in Galilee, Jesus travelling on the road, and now are in the third section of Luke: Jesus in Jerusalem. The first part of this third and final section of Luke has Jesus in and around the Temple. Then Luke moves on to his death. Luke 21 has us in the final stages of Jesus in and around the Temple.
Jesus has been in Jerusalem since Luke 19. He has told a parable explaining why the kingdom is not coming right away. He wept over Jerusalem with a prediction with words that sound like they’re borrowed straight from Josephus’ later recounting of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. A.D. Indeed it might have, since Josephus likely wrote “The Jewish War” in 75 A.D. and Luke likely wrote his gospel in 90 A.D.
Here is the the text of Luke 21:5-19. I have underlined some of the verbs. Dr. Anna Carter Florence was at our annual preaching retreat last month. She suggested the way to hear the text with new ears, and awaken in us to ways the texts connects to the people to whom we are preaching is to pay attention to the verbs. Let’s listen:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish.
19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Crush you to the ground, you and your children, not one stone left upon another.
If Luke used Josephus’ verbiage, this does not discount Jesus’ prediction. Lots of messiahs predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by human or divine agency. No one doubts this prediction. It is simply to say Luke may have had Josephus’ writing in front of him.
Josephus was a Jew who had surrendered to the Romans, then defected and had been given full Roman citizenship. He became a friend and advisor to Vespasian’s son Titus, who led the siege of Jerusalem. He served as translator during the siege. So Josephus likely had a front row seat to the carnage, right next to Titus, from his comfortable perch on the Mount of Olives.
An arch was erected in Rome for Titus. On the inside of that arch is a relief depicting his leadership of Rome’s sack of Jerusalem.
The phrase “not one stone left upon another” is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think. The Jewish rebellion began in earnest in 66 A.D., but the seeds were sown a few years earlier when the high priest, Jonathan (paid handsomely by Rome, and wealthy beyond belief) was assassinated right in the temple, likely by the sicarii, who considered him a traitor. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sicarii)
In 66 A.D. the Sicarii, under the leadership of a messiah named Menachem, took control of Masada back from the Romans, and used its weapons to liberate Jerusalem, along with another messiah named Eleazar. Rome, fed up with years of quelling rebellions in Palestine, decided to deal with the problem once and for all. Nero send Vespasian to Syria with a massive army of 60,000 men. He sent Vespasian’s son Titus to Egypt to gather the troops of Alexandria and march north. Titus and Vespasian met in the middle, leaving a bloody trail of destruction, and forming a vice to smash Jerusalem. By 68 A.D. the entire region was back in Roman control with the exception of Jerusalem and Masada. Receiving the news of Nero’s death, Vespasian went back to Rome and Titus began the siege of Jerusalem.
Titus ordered his men to build a stone wall around Jerusalem, cutting off all access to supplies. The famine began almost immediately. Josephus’ stories are too gruesome to recount here. People who tried to escape Jerusalem were caught and crucified on the Mount of Olives where the entire city could see. In 70 A.D. Titus attacked. His orders were to wipe Jerusalem off the face of the earth. No mercy was shown. Everyone was killed. Everything was burned.
Titus marched into the holy of holies and his soldiers took everything including the Torah. As Reza Aslan puts it, “This was a victory not over a people, but over their god.” Aslan continues, “The whole city was set ablaze… With the last of the rebel fighters trapped inside the inner courtyard, the Romans set the entire foundation aflame, making it seem as though the Temple Mount was boiling over at its base with blood and fire. The flames enveloped the holy of holies, the dwelling place of the God of Israel, and brought it crashing to the ground in a pile of ash and dust. When the fires finally subsided, Titus gave orders to raze what was left of the city so that no future generation would even remember the name Jerusalem.” Henceforth, every Jew in the Empire would be ordered to pay two drachmas a year to build a Temple to Jupiter.
Not one stone left upon another.
Rewind to 33 A.D. or so. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a colt. Jerusalem and the massive, opulent Temple are still standing, seemingly indestructible. People are hustling and bustling on their way. As he enters the gate, his followers shout, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” People try to shush them, for their own good. This alone is enough to get him crucified. A victory parade announcing the arrival of a new would-be King of the Jews is pure sedition. Sedition was the primary crime for which people were crucified.
Luke then records in chapter 19 that Jesus goes to the Temple and causes a riot in the Court of the Gentiles, by driving out “those selling things” or “money-changers.” He says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The money-changers are a critical part of the Temple system and the economy. They change foreign coins into shekels (for a price). The shekel is the only form of currency accepted in the Temple. You will need shekels to pay the Temple tax and to purchase your animals to sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins.
In Luke 20 Jesus answers the Sadducees’ question about resurrection and critiques them too. The Sadducees are wealthy priests from land-owning families. They are making a mint off of the Temple system. He has been preaching and teaching in the Temple, likely in the Court of the Gentiles during the day, then exiting the city and staying on the Mount of Olives just east of the city at night.
Put all of this together.
- Jesus enters Jerusalem in a kind of triumphal march.
- People shout “Blessed is the king!”
- Jesus causes a riot in the Temple.
- He announces the impending destruction of both Temple and Jerusalem.
- Some accuse him of dissuading people from paying taxes to Caesar.
Jesus’ fate is sealed.
When we arrive at Luke 21, Jesus is still in the Temple, sitting across the treasury. A widow pays her two coins to the Temple. These “leptons” are worth about 1/100 of a denarius according to Jeffrey (“Luke”). A denarius is one day’s wage. In a spiritual economy where the value of your atonement is related to the expense of your sacrifice, Jesus points out that this poor widow has given more proportionally than all the affluent people making their lavish donations.
Then our text. Some people around him are talking about how beautiful and fabulous the Temple is. Jeffrey quotes Tacitus: The Temple was “immensely opulent.” It was huge. Much larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 60′ slabs of white marble. Doors of gold. Ornate bejeweled grapevine clusters, according to Josephus. For a country preacher from the mud huts of Nazareth, this was too much.
Glance at the model of the Temple, above. The open space to the left and to the right is the Court of the Gentiles. Along the perimeter Reza Aslan tells us, are the pens and pens of thousands and thousands of animals, pigeons and sheep for the sacrifices. They are the best of the best, without blemish. Not cheap. The moneychangers will help you get your sacrifice. Don’t have enough money? No problem. They will loan you money at a hefty interest rate.
Once you have your sacrifice, you can enter through the golden doors to the Court of Women, but only if you are Jewish and free of any physical impairment. Wood and oil for the sacrifices are stored here. If you are male you can proceed up the semicircular stairs then left into the Court of Israelites. To the right is the Court of Priests, where the sacrifice will be made. The priest’s assistant will keep the hide. It will fetch a good price in the market. The priest will keep the meat. Your sins have been forgiven, for a price. Jesus is irked, to say the least. All this will come to a screeching halt in just a few decades.
Jesus offers another dour prediction. Or is it a threat? “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” One does not threaten the Temple. Aslan (Zealot) says,
The role of the temple in Jewish life cannot be overstated. The Temple serves as calendar and clock for the Jews; its rituals mark the cycle of the year and shape the day-to-day activities of every inhabitant of Jerusalem. It is the center of commerce for all of Judea, its chief financial institution and largest bank. The Temple is as much the dwelling place of Israel’s God as it is the seat of Israel’s nationalist aspirations;
Jesus threatens the Temple.
When will this happen? This is the disciples’ question in verse 7. Jesus first warns them not to listen to everyone who predicts the end of the world. This would be helpful to Luke’s readers, who are probably curious about why Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem was spot on, but “the end” has not yet come. To most observers, the kingdom had not arrived.
Mikeal Parsons (Luke, from the Paideia series) cites Carroll (2012), saying Jesus paints “the coming historical conflict (including the siege of Jerusalem) onto a wider, indeed cosmic, canvas, the first broad strokes of an eschatological vision given fuller description in vv. 25–28.” The end will include earthquakes, global conflict, famines and plagues. It will include astronomical events that everyone can see.
Before all of this happens there would be a persecution. All of these are things that will be specifically mentioned in Luke’s volume 2: Acts.
- Brought before kings
Luke’s Jesus offers his listeners some advice on handling persecution. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say. Expect to be betrayed by your closest allies, but “not a hair of your head will perish.” (2 Sam. 14: 11; 1 Kings 1: 52, Luke 12: 7).
That last sentence is curious. The next statement probably clears it up: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” In other words, the hair of your head is symbolic of your soul. You’re likely to lose your body, but they can never take away your soul, your faith, your self. The Christian faith is a religion of the Spirit, not of the law. The powerful can demand this and that, but faith is a matter of what is inside you, as Jesus reminded them often.
What to preach? We get an early jump start on the apocalyptic texts of Advent. The coming of Christ, the end of time and judgment day were important themes in the early church, and they came to be baked into the lectionary at the end of the year.
What I hear in the verbs:
- The Temple is adorned, but will be thrown down.
- Don’t be terrified.
- Nation will rise against nations. There will be earthquakes. Future tense.
- Before this: arrest, persecutions, handed over, brought before kings.
- Testify. Make up your minds not to prepare what to say in advance. I will give you words.
- Your opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict.
- You will be betrayed and put to death. Hated.
- You will not perish. (John 3:16) You will gain your soul.
Keep in mind that the destruction of the Temple has taken place by the time Luke write his gospel. The Temple is gone. The characters in the story however, are still focused on the building. Don’t anchor your faith in the beauty of the Temple. That will preach.
With the downsizing of churches that has been taking place for my entire lifetime, we may be drawn to these texts that live in the post-Temple world. What is it like for us to live in a post-Christian country? Post-Christian does not mean Christianity is over. In fact, it is growing at an incredible pace, globally. But the era where being a member of a church was the popular thing to do in the U.S. is no longer here. The era where the church held a prominent place of power and influence has waned. What does it mean to live in the Holy City after the siege of Jerusalem? Can we refocus on faith rather than the Temple? Can faith flourish in a post-Temple context?
Luke recorded Jesus saying the following, in a text we read on All Saints Sunday, two weeks ago: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man!” When we walk the way of Jesus, orienting ourselves to poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, we will be hated and persecuted. When that happens, testify.
We have an apocalyptic encouragement to witness during persecution. How to preach when Rome is winning with its message of war, domination and crucifixion? The text invites to turn to God who saves (going back to Isaiah 12), to trust and not be afraid. Put not your trust in Rome, or in institutionalized religion.
I often smile when people say they have a problem with “institutionalized religion.”
So did Jesus.