When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “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.” (Luke 21:5-6)
“Isn’t it perfect? I wish it could always stay this way.” How many times have you felt that, said it out loud? A golden moment with family gathered, everyone getting along, or at least keeping the peace. The leadership team enjoying synergy, on a roll with ministry that seems to be making a difference. Your house/life/marriage is finally in good repair, everything humming along smoothly.
Peter said it on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured: Let’s just camp out here! (Lk 9.33) Who wouldn’t want to stay where the kingdom seems to have settled into place all around you?
“Well, don’t get too attached. It won’t last forever.” (Lk 21.6, my paraphrase) Jesus doesn’t say it to be mean. He simply reminds them of what he has been saying all along, that the things of this world do not last.
It is hard to know whether he is talking about the temple system—religion they know it—or whether he is talking more globally. Either way, he tells them that it is going to get a lot worse than they can imagine. They can barely picture the temple being destroyed—unthinkable!—but Jesus says that isn’t the half of it. The threats will come from everywhere: natural disasters, war, strange sightings in the heavens, persecutions.
But his predictions include a curious caution: Don’t listen to the people who make predictions. Isn’t that what you just did, Jesus? In one breath you tell us that the future looks bleak, and in the next breath you order us to disregard such negative talk. You can’t have it both ways.
Perhaps the key to this puzzle is in their question: How will we know when it is coming? They want a heads-up, so they can get ready for it. This business of preparing for the worst seems to be what Jesus is telling them to avoid. He reinforces it when he says, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” (Lk 20.14) when you are arrested and called to testify. “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk 20.15)
So, terrible things are coming, and here is how I want you to be ready for it, Jesus tells his followers. Don’t be led astray by people who want to help you get prepared. They might even claim to be me, but they will be lying to you. Don’t prepare your arguments. Make up your mind that your position throughout all of it will be to trust me.
Do not be surprised by disaster or hate or violence. Be unfazed when you are singled out as one of my followers, because I will not abandon you.
There he goes again. Jesus reassures us in a way that nobody else can. “My peace I give you,” he tells them before all hell breaks loose and he is crucified. (Jn 14.27)
Whether it is the biblical warning of persecutions to come (today’s reality for so many of our brothers and sisters in the global church) or the erosion of trust in our political leaders or the rising tides of terrorism and internal strife, there is plenty to keep us awake at night. We want to find a safe place to dwell, but it is elusive. We are even unsettled by controversy in our modern day temples, our churches. Only one thing remains: Jesus’ promise. “I will be with you.”
What difference does that make in all these things? For one thing, he will give us “words and a wisdom” that will defy contradiction. He will help us see it in a way that will ground us, and help us respond without panicking. He knows ahead of time what will eventually take place, and he will personally escort us through even the worst of it. He promises that by trusting him to help us withstand the onslaught, we will experience the life that is truly life. (Lk 21.19)
Sometimes we wish our circumstances could remain the same, like those golden moments with family, like our confidence during a robust economy, like the disciples admiring that beautiful Temple in Jerusalem whose stones were not yet overturned. Other times we wish they would change. We pray for it, beg for God to do something. Some of the terrifying events Jesus predicted would come to pass in the lifetime of his disciples. Today, for some people, the outcome of the 2016 election feels awful. Whatever your source of anxiety, personal or global, your prayer might be, “God, please do something! Make it better!”
Jesus’ promise is that God will not abandon us in such times. God’s presence is as complete and profound, as life-giving and enduring as God has ever been or ever will be in our lives. We do not get more of God at some times, and less of God at other times. God is fully present with you; Jesus is with you; always, always, always. God is our refuge, the psalmist says, “our very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…” (Ps 46.1-2) And the writer of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Heb 13.6)
In November we honor our veterans, who know more than anyone what it is to go through sheer terror, to be forever changed by the horrors of war. I know little of my father’s experiences in the infantry during World War II, because he never talked about them. But I can read the poem he jotted down, a testament to his faith that Jesus Christ was with him in the trenches as they fought their way through France. It is dated December 28, 1944. I quote it not for patriotism’s sake, as much as that means to us. Loyalty to our country is important, but it will not save us. Only Jesus Christ can do that, and he does it every moment of our lives, in good times and bad. Here is an excerpt of John Janssen’s testimony:
“Amidst this conflict we ever find
Our comfort, our strength, our guide
One who will never leave us behind
And be ever present at our side.
In prayer we bow our heads to say,
“Dear God, Lead us safely on,
Safely on the upward way,
Till life’s battles shall all be won.”
“I will be with you.” Jesus knew that these are the words we would need. Matthew records them as Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “I will be with you always,” until the curtain is drawn at the last moment of this age. Thanks be to God.