Luke 21 tells the story of an ancient field trip. The Rabbi Jesus has taken his students to Jerusalem. Many of the group were from towns up north and rarely visited the city. They were used to small towns and small synagogues, and so the size and sophistication of Jerusalem—especially its temple—made a great impression on them.
If you can remember the first time you stood in the heart of a major city, you might know how they felt. Here in Ottawa we often see teachers herding students around the city, trying to cross busy streets while the group looks at everything other than oncoming traffic.
The Jerusalem temple was a marvel of the ancient world. And so it should come as no surprise that the visit prompted quite a conversation among the group with Jesus. We can imagine the batter about how impressive the temple and its grounds were. Maybe few students were almost run over by passing donkeys.
Jesus was a teacher at heart. If you’ve sat with the gospels you know this. Jesus could recognize a teachable moment. So as his students talked excitedly about the city and its temple, he said: “As for these things . . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”
I imagine the first time he said those words, he did so under his breath: “As for these things . . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” The students weren’t sure that they had heard him; they asked him to say it again: “As for these things . . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
We need to understand the temple was not just a religious site, like a church. It was a cultural symbol. It represented who these people were. It represented their role in the world. Maybe it functioned a bit like the Statue of Liberty for Americans or the way beaver dams function for Canadians (international readers, please note that last bit was a joke). It would have been the last thing they would have wanted to see destroyed. So when Jesus says it’s going to be destroyed, with no single stone left atop another—utter destruction—he’s talking about a fundamental reckoning for the whole people.
He’s not talking about a social tweaking. He’s not talking about another election. He’s not talking about new fashion trend (like tucking your pants into your socks). Jesus is talking about an existential threat!
For more than a thousand years, scholars have debated this passage of scripture. Was Jesus referring in a straightforward way to the war that would consume Jerusalem and the temple within a few decades of this field trip? That did happen. Or was Jesus referring to something bigger, something more universal, something global.
I’m convinced by the scholarship that says Jesus was referring to both. He was thinking of the destruction of Jerusalem and he was thinking about something bigger. In addition to the coming war, he had in mind a universal reckoning. He was thinking of a time when God would make all things right. If you read the entire passage I think you can see references to both. The scale of the coming disruption is big and bigger, national and eventually global.
Jesus’ student wanted to hear more: “When” they asked “When will this happen? When will this imposing building be smashed like Lego? Will we get any warning? Can we prepare?”
I wonder if the sense of impending disruption was similar to Europe on the verge of the Second World War. Jesus’ words must have evoked a deep sense of dread, a grinding sort of anxiety. Or maybe the feeling mirrored the way some experienced the Cold War. There was a constant sense of tension and preparation for the inevitable—a devastating nuclear exchange.
In situations like this there is an individual sense of victimhood. Why me? Why do I need to suffer for decisions made way above my pay grade? There is also a corporate sense of complicity. We recognize our involvement in cultural forces that seem impossible for anyone, let alone us, to rein in.
Now, one of the things we should be aware of, if we’re going to understand this passage well, is that Jesus was making a connection between the things his students were seeing and important images from the Hebrew Scriptures. The group was looking at a powerful symbol of a national identity that had tacked away from its true vocation.
The vocation of God’s people was (and is) to demonstrate God’s love for the world and to call others to a way of life that promotes wholeness, generosity and peace. This is fundamental.
When Jesus spoke about this coming reckoning—this national symbol being thrown down, the earth itself shuddering with the pressure of God’s quest for justice—Jesus was drawing on images that his hearers already knew. The warning signs—wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, signs in the heavens—these were images withdrawn from the biblical ledger.
These were signs invoked by the ancient biblical writers to symbolize God at work on a large scale. Jesus was not giving his students a scientific, meteorological report. He was telling them that they were on the verge of a reckoning of biblical proportions.
Those who heard him were troubled. They were anxious. The reason was this: over and over again as generation after generation had journeyed with God, they learned that very rarely were they simply passive victims of oppressive powers. Often they were complicit. They weren’t only the Pharaoh’s slaves, sometimes they were Pharaoh himself. Sometimes God would save them and sometimes God would save others from them. It’s a hard truth with broad application.
So in the Hebrew Scriptures the saving power of God was not simply something to be welcomed, it was also something to be feared. God’s will is for the entirety of creation to flourish and when you’re on the wrong side of that . . . then it’s logical to be troubled and anxious. A reckoning will come.
We live at such a time. Rapid deforestation, creation of massive amounts of waste, the decimation of fish stocks, melting sea ice, melting glacier ice—you know the list of signs. And you know that these signs point to significant disruptions, some already begun. The best thinking of our times suggests that we are in the midst of a large-scale reckoning, maybe not a Mad Max dystopia but a reckoning non-the-less.
This should not be a surprise to attentive readers of the Bible. In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul noted that with respect to creation, human beings play the role of Pharaoh. That’s Romans chapter 8. There is a parallel between Jesus’ students and ourselves—both of us on the verge of a reckoning.
Let’s be clear: what we face and what they faced are not the same. The threat that worries us and the threat that worried them are not the same. I’m not suggesting that climate change is the end of the world. In fact, despite common mis-readings, Jesus isn’t speaking about that in Luke 21 either.
Yet our troubled hearts and our anxiety might be similar to Jesus’ biblical followers. Our sense of injustice might similar. This is a sobering thought, to find ourselves with these ancient people on the threshold of such a reckoning.
The signs Jesus describes to his students were a way of communicating the depth of change and realignment they should anticipate. The system as it stood could not withstand the press of God’s quest for justice.
But we must not stop our reading of Luke’s gospel in awe of these ominous signs. Let’s notice what Jesus says next. After the strange signs that accompany the divine press for justice, Jesus says, “you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud.”
“Son of Man”–that was how Jesus referred to himself. The phrase “in a cloud” was intended to bring to mind God’s holy presence. Remember God met Moses in a cloud. The Israelites were guided in the wilderness by a cloud. God’s presence in the tabernacle was signaled by a cloud. So forget the pictures you may have seen about a hippie-Jesus in the sky standing for some reason on a fluffy cumulus cloud. Jesus’ students would have laughed at that depiction. That is not what is being spoken of here.
What should settle deep into the soil of our minds is that Jesus is telling his students, and us by extension, that when the days of reckoning come he will be there. Just as it was for the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, God’s presence will be there. In fact, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Redemption and salvation are largely interchangeable ideas in the scriptures. They both signal a return to justice and peace, a reckoning for the Pharaohs of the world.
Let me conclude this this: I’m convinced that caring about ecological justice is the right thing to do. We can make that case lots of ways from scripture. But it’s also important to recognize that the scriptures always set our pursuit of justice within the work of God. God initiates and empowers. God sets the goalposts. In fact, it is God’s Spirit that sensitizes us to injustice.
Luke 21 offers us two important thoughts to ponder. The first is the beautiful and troubling reminder that ways of life running counter to God’s shalom contain the seeds of their undoing. God’s love includes reckoning.
Second, God’s presence will endure. God journeyed with ancient Israel. Jesus said the great disruption linked to the temple would be a sign of his redemptive presence. God’s guiding and restoring power would be there too.
A Prayer – Oh God, in this age of many anxieties, including deep worry about the climate, remind us that you cared about these things first. Remind us that just as you have guided your people in the past, in the wilderness, in political upheaval, so you will guide us. Amen.