Text: Luke 21:5-19
Speaker: Joel Miller
In Luke chapter 21 Jesus and his companions are walking the temple grounds in Jerusalem. The whole complex is an engineering marvel, a feat of mind and muscle. Some are awestruck by its beauty. They comment on the massive stones, dressed and stacked; the attention to detail; the overwhelming sense of power and permanence such structures evoke. Jesus, who was never very good at going with the flow of conversations, interjects: “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.”
These startling comments suddenly take center stage. “Teacher,” they ask, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place.”
After looking back for the last two weeks – first with All Saints/All Souls remembrance of Anabaptist history, then with Rabbi Jessica Shimberg reflecting in a similar way on Jewish history – invoking memory and lineage and tradition, we seem to be doing a 180. Having been told that the present order will soon collapse, we are suddenly turned toward the future. With the disciples, we want to know the timeline. “When will this be?” We want more clues about what to watch for. “What will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
This passage from Luke 21 is part of what is known as the “synoptic apocalypse.” Each of the three Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke — contain their own version of Jesus’ sobering words uttered in his final days. The Revised Common Lectionary, finalized in the mid 1980’s, decided to feature these passages at the end of every liturgical year, and the first Sunday of the new year when Advent begins – in two weeks. In a role befitting its personality, apocalypse serves as a liturgical bridge between the end of the old and the beginning of the new.
Today, my friends, serves as your annual apocalypse update. You’re welcome.
These words from Luke were spoken, of course, not to 21st century Americans, but to 1st century Palestinian Jews. They were written down by the gospel writers right at the time, for Luke probably a little after, these events were playing themselves out.
In 70 CE the Romans marched on the Jewish capital city of Jerusalem to put down a rebellion. They destroyed the second temple, and in doing so, destroyed the primary meaning making structure of an entire people. It was the end of the world as they knew it, to quote an REM song also a product of the mid-80’s – a true high point of cultural flourishing in our own nation.
And apocalypse has come to mean just that. The end of the world.
But it’s more layered than that. It’s a Greek word, the language of the Christian testament, and it means unveiling, or revealing. That’s why the most apocalyptic apocalypse of them all, Revelation, is called Revelation. An apocalypse reveals something that had been hidden. It pulls away the veil, removes the illusions, and shows reality for what it is. In doing so, it frequently means the end of one order and the beginning of a new yet-to-be-determined arrangement. And it’s not always pretty.
Luke’s apocalypse, like that of Matthew and Mark, begins with something quite beautiful. The disciples are marveling at the beauty of the temple. And it was, indeed a marvel. Decades of remodeling and expansion under the direction of King Herod made it the jewel of Jerusalem and the entire region. The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes almost poetically about it: “The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays” (Josephus, The Jewish War, 5:222).
Just as the disciples are mesmerized with all this, Jesus goes apocalyptic on them. To put it another way, when the disciples looked at their surroundings it appeared to them beautiful, strong, authoritative, and enduring. And Jesus pulled away a veil, and revealed a fuller picture. The fuller picture included the end of the world of they knew it.
This past week I had the opportunity to be in Washington, DC, our nation’s capital. This was part of a faith leaders delegation through the National Sanctuary Collective. I suppose it also doubled as apocalypse field research. It was a well-timed Luke chapter 21 themed field trip.
The first morning we joined a large demonstration of Dreamers on the steps of the Supreme Court. Inside, the Justices were hearing testimony about the potential end of the program known as DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Outside, these childhood arrivals, many of them now close to my age, came to the microphone to tell their stories. How they have gone to school, started professions and families in the only home they’ve ever known, the United States. This program has never granted them a permanent status, but it has been as close to a solid and enduring thing they have had to cling to. With its dismantling looming over them like the towering columns of the Supreme Court building, there was apocalypse in the air. They were and are facing the end of the world as they know it. And it is terrifying. If this were to take place, it would include a great unveiling about our own character and moral compass. The form that would take is yet to be determined.
On the last day Lily and I had some time to walk around the National Mall. We read the speeches on the sides of the Lincoln Memorial. We walked along the Vietnam Veterans wall. We spent time in the Museum of African American History and Culture.
My point isn’t to stand up here and say that despite the beauty and power of these structures, one day not one stone will be left upon another.
But I will say that when one takes in the installations of the African American history museum, for example, one is bombarded with apocalypse. Not just the nauseating experience of black folks’ world crumbling over and over again at the hands of insidious forces, but also the beautiful gift of unveiling that helps one see a story in a new light. Like the installation that talked about the White House and Capitol building being built by slave labor. It is an invitation to look at these buildings, and our own history with apocalyptic eyes – eyes unveiled. To see not only beauty and strength in these grand structures, icons of freedom, but to see and feel that they were built by people who were owned by other people.
Apocalypse isn’t just the end of the world of buildings and institutions. Those can be rebuilt. It is the end of an old way of seeing, and the beginning of a new way of seeing the world. A new heavens and a new earth, as the prophet Isaiah puts it. A revelation after which life is never quite the same.
It’s heartening to see the contradictions of our history on display in this museum in DC, free and open to the public. It’s a sign that some apocalypses come to us as a gift, exactly what we need to save us from our ourselves.
These are all big things. Temples and monuments. Legislation. Entire histories of nations.
And on the level of a human life, we each endure our own micro- apocalypses. Although they never feel micro while we’re enduring them. Our world we thought was solid and secure crumbles. Not one stone left on another. We’re surrounded by the rubble, and it is terrifying.
If we were to do a turn- to- your- neighbor kind of thing right now – which I assure you I will not ask you to do – we could likely each give our own personal apocalypse update.
Question 1: How did it feel when the solid thing that was your life was dismantled stone by stone?
Question 2: How are you finding your way through the rubble?
Question 3: What do you see now that you couldn’t see before?
There is no simple or easy resolution to apocalypse. There’s always more unveiling to undergo. And there’s no set timeline. “When will this be,” we want to know, “and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Never one to go with the flow of conversation, Jesus gives no timeline.
Isaiah spoke of a new heavens and a new earth pressing in on the old order. Jesus spoke of patient endurance in violent times.
Right about this time every year we are reminded that apocalypse is part of life. Sometimes it’s terrifying. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will bring a new beginning. To clear the way. To help us see Immanuel, God with us.