Luke 21:5-19

When I was in high school, my year 11 Accounting teacher was a man with whom I got on very well: he was a good teacher, but also had a keen sense of humour, and was able to enter into the give-and-take of friendly banter between students and teacher. He also had an artificial eye; I don’t know how he came to have it, but I do remember that it was his left eye, and that some of the more insensitive students used to call him “Cyclops”. I liked this teacher, so I never referred to him by this disparaging epithet; but I came close on one occasion, when we were having a friendly argument about football, and without thinking I called him a “one-eyed Collingwood supporter”. You can imagine my mortification when I realised what I had done – and my relief when he realised I hadn’t spoken maliciously and so simply laughed off my tactless remark.

I have often said that the universe has a sense of humour, one that frequently hoists us on our own petards. And for me, the chooks came home to roost when, a couple of months ago, I had to have surgery on my left eye – the same place in which my Accounting teacher had his artificial eye. I am pleased to say that the recovery process is now complete, but for many weeks after the procedure, I was conscious of the fact that I was seeing the world “one-eyed“ as it were, with incomplete vision. As Homer Simpson once grumbled: “Stupid poetic justice!”.

And yet it seems to me that being one-eyed is actually a very apt metaphor for today’s Scriptural reading, because it is a passage which we can either look at with incomplete vision, with a perspective that sees only the obvious or the apparent, or we can view this passage with a deeper vision that seeks out the deeper meaning within the text. We can either be “one-eyed” about this text, or we can see it with stereoscopic vision.

To be sure, it is a troubling and difficult passage, filled with violent imagery and premonitions of suffering and hardship. But in order to get beyond this conflicted initial impression, we need to make use of two key words; these two words are not found in the text, but they help us unlock the text so that we see beyond the obvious and encounter the surprising and life-affirming message that resides in this passage.

These two words are eschatology and apocalypticEschatology refers to Christian teachings about what will happen in the future when God radically transforms the universe so that all creation finds its fulfilment in God. In other words, eschatology is about the fulfilment of God’s promise, embodied in Christ and present in the Holy Spirit, that the ultimate destiny of creation is not death, but eternal life in God. So eschatology is a message of hope, it is the message of God’s promise. Apocalyptic refers to a particular literary genre, characterised by vivid imagery of the struggle between good and evil; it describes what people, at a particular period of human history, thought would happen during the eschaton. In other words, it describes the kind of events human beings once imagined would accompany the final overthrow of evil. Why are these words important? They are important because they point us to the fact that this passage from Luke’s Gospel is an eschatological passage; it is a passage that contains a message of hope. But in order to convey that message, it uses apocalyptic imagery, because this imagery explained to the human audience to whom Luke was writing the mystery of the final and complete redemption of the universe in God. So you have the message, and you have the imagery that conveys the message. And that’s why I referred earlier to the danger of viewing this passage “one-eyed”, because in order to understand this passage, you need to appreciate that it is broadcast in stereo, and so we need to view it with stereoscopic vision, with both eyes. If we view it with monoscopic vision, we only get half the picture. We need to keep in mind the two parts of message and imagery – because if we don’t, we run the risk of the imagery getting in front of the message, blinding us to what is really important.

So what is it about this passage that is really important? In short, this passage speaks about three experiences of faith: humility, suffering, and hope. And it is these three experiences that we will explore this morning.

Let’s look at the text.

The passage begins with some of the people around Jesus praising the Temple for its magnificence and grandeur, and in response, Jesus predicts its utter destruction. When Jesus’ stunned audience ask “When will this occur?” and “What will be the signs?”, notice how he doesn’t immediately answer their questions; instead, he begins with a warning against false messiahs and false prophets: many will come in Jesus’ name claiming they are he, or that the time of God’s Kingdom has arrived. Such persons are not to be trusted.

What is the point of this warning? Firstly, it acts as a preface to everything that follows: it says, bear in mind everything I’m about to say in light of this warning. It’s a kind of qualification, or disclaimer notice; it says, don’t read my words superficially or simplistically, there is a deeper mystery occurring here than you may at first realise. Secondly, when Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple and false prophets, he is talking about the same thing: pride, arrogance, conceit. He is talking about that view of faith which sees faith not as a process of discipleship to God, but as imagining ourselves to be deputy sheriffs to God, dispensing God’s justice and acting with God’s knowledge. Jesus is talking about that view of faith which imagines that having belief gives the believer access to the mind of God.

Take the Temple, for example. It was indeed a magnificent structure, doubled in size from its post-Exile original by Herod the Great. People coming to Jerusalem from the countryside would have been overwhelmed by its scale and grandeur. And indeed, the religious authorities of the time allowed its sheer magnificence to lead them into hubris and arrogance: they thought the Temple’s grandeur was a sure sign of the centrality of their place in God’s scheme of things, that they were indispensable to God’s plans for creation. The truth, however, was much more sordid and mundane, for Herod’s motive for enlarging the Temple had nothing to do with God and everything to do with expedience.

Herod was a foreigner, an Idumaen from the south of what is now Israel. The Idumaens were descendents of the Edomites, who are frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as among the bitterest of the enemies of Israel – an enmity stretching back to the Genesis account of Jacob and Esau, and how Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for his brother Esau. Herod, as a foreigner, as a descendent of Israel’s ancient enemies, as a puppet king installed by the occupying Roman power, was deeply unpopular. And the significance of an Idumean on the Jewish throne would not have been lost on devout Jews: it would have seemed like a reversal of the blessing bestowed by Isaac upon Jacob, as though the descendents of Esau had finally triumphed in their conflict with the descendents of Jacob.

So Herod refurbished the Temple, not to win the people over, but to win over the religious authorities whom he knew were crucial to securing his power. And in this, he succeeded completely; the whole priestly order came to see the Temple, not as the cynical manoeuvring of a manipulative tyrant, but as a mark of their own importance. They were deceived by the appearances and failed to appreciate the reality.

And we have a similar phenomenon occurring in our own time. There is a whole industry of books and CDs and DVDs and seminars purporting to show how events in the world today are indicators that the “End times” have arrived. And many of the purveyors of these claims are extremely clever in the way they can manipulate Scripture in order to make it appear as though the apocalyptic imagery of Scripture is literally being played out in the world today. But these people are false prophets and false messaiahs. These people would have you see only with one eye, with monoscopic vision; they would have you be blinded by the apocalyptic imagery so that you don’t see the message of hope. And they would do these things in order to provide themselves with power and wealth and control; their motivation has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with their own purposes.

And that is the point of Jesus’ warning: having faith does not give us the knowledge of God, it does not make us like unto God. Instead, having faith equips us to walk in trusting discipleship to God, it enables us, in the words of the prophet Micah, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly before the Lord. Having faith does not make us perfect, it does not insulate us against sin; but it does enable us to acknowledge our brokenness, to pick ourselves up after every stumble, and to continue in our quest for God. Having faith is about being humble, for it is only in humility that we can approach the mystery of God’s final redemption of the universe; and it is only in humility that we can be raised up by God, transformed and made whole.

Returning to the text, we next notice that in Luke’s account, Jesus predicts a whole series of calamities, ranging from natural disasters to wars and upheavals, and even strife within families. Indeed, in this passage, Jesus appears to be saying that these calamities will occur precisely because of faith; that Christians will experience suffering and persecution by virtue of the very fact that they are Christians.

What are we to do with these predictions and their implications? Firstly, a few things need to be noted. Luke’s Gospel was written sometime between the period 80-90AD; and by this time, the great Jewish revolt of 67-70AD had been crushed, with the consequence that the Temple had indeed been levelled to the ground; the Christian community had experienced persecution under the Emperor Nero, and would shortly do so again under Emperor Domitian; and the early Christian church was also experiencing internal division over issues such as whether or not Gentiles had to comply with the Mosaic law in order to be accepted into the community of faith.

Moreover, the Middle East is a region of the earth familiar with natural disasters: the Jordan Valley, and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon mark great fissures in the earth’s crust, where tectonic plates meet and grind against one another, causing earthquakes. So, on the one hand, the experience of war and persecution, and, on the other, of natural disaster, was familiar to Luke’s audience, to the Christian community to whom he was writing. So the apocalyptic imagery, the imagery of hardship and suffering, made sense to this audience as a result of their historical and their ongoing experience.

But what we also need to bear in mind is that Luke, like all the Gospel writers, was attempting to convey the mystery of the experience of Christ; but that is a mystery that is beyond direct human comprehension, and so Luke uses imagery to direct our attention to that mystery. And the mystery that is being explored here is the central place of suffering in the lived experience of faith.

Now this seems like an oxymoron: afterall, isn’t faith meant to be good for us, isn’t it meant to help us rise above pain, rise above the hurt and hardship of this world in order that we might be focused on the eternal life promised by God in Christ? But this expectation that faith is meant to be some kind of inoculant against suffering arises not from what faith is, but what we want faith to be. It arises from the expectation that faith is some kind of personal, made-to-measure cure-all that makes us feel better about ourselves, or helps us overcome our insecurities and inadequacies, or which enables us to re-create reality into a shape and form that suits our prejudices or inclinations.

Let me explain what I mean. Many of you will have seen the wonderful television series The Abbey, which aired recently on the ABC’s Compass program. This series told the story of five women who were given access to an enclosed Benedictine monastery, where they spent one month living the disciplined, ordered life of the nuns, as prescribed by the Rule of Saint Benedict, the order’s founder.

One of the women was an intelligent, gifted lady from Perth named Tammy who lived a busy life filled with study, family, and involvement in social justice issues. But there was a core of deep pain and spiritual despair that fractured Tammy’s life, that tarnished every aspect of her being. She was suffering, and she longed for an escape from her prison of pain.

So in order to find some way out, Tammy filled her life with a vast panoply of spiritualistic “stuff”. The list included: astrology, numerology, crystals, chakras, feng sui, tarot, colour therapy, and guidance cards. Now, leaving aside for the moment what you may think of these, two things about Tammy were clear: she had a deep spiritual longing, and that longing was centred on finding a spirituality that would help her escape her pain. In other words, she had constructed a view of spirituality that saw “God” as a synonym for pain relief, as a kind of anaesthesia that would help her forget her pain and enable her to feel good about herself and her life.

But it didn’t work. The pain kept bubbling to the surface, reminding her of its presence. It didn’t matter how many crystals she kept, how many guidance cards she read, how many tarot readings she conducted, the pain was always there.

But then something extraordinary happened: in the monastery, Tammy realised that the only way she was going to be free of her pain was not by denying it, was not by finding a so-called spirituality that insulated her from her suffering, was not by adopting a “feel good” strategy that gave her the illusion of happiness, it was by understanding the central place of suffering in faith – an understanding that enabled her to enter into her own suffering, to embrace it as part of the brokenness of her humanity. And in so doing, she was no longer haunted by her pain, no longer a hostage to despair. And the most compelling image of her liberation was the footage of Tammy, alone in the monastery chapel, kneeling doubled over in prayer, before a carving of Christ’s broken and bloodied body nailed to the Cross

And that’s exactly why this passage occurs immediately before Christ’s Passion and suffering: because our liberation from death is imaged in Christ’s tortured body on the Cross. In suffering death, Christ did not pay a sacrificial penalty to placate a wrathful God; instead, God in Christ entered into, and expressed God’s solidarity with, the brokenness of the human condition. God stated clearly and decisively that we are loved precisely because we are broken, precisely because we are inadequate, precisely because we are undeserving of God’s costly grace. Suffering is central to Christian faith, not in some masochistic, self-flagellating manner, not so we can try and construct some notion of spirituality that insulates us from hurt and despair, but precisely so that we may confront and enter into our own suffering, and thereby enter into and wonder at that love that passes all human understanding, that so overflows with compassion and grace that it is prepared to enter into death for our sakes.

And it is through the agency of suffering that we come at last to hope. Notice in the text how, on three occasions, Jesus offers hope to his audience: “do not be terrified”, “I will give you words and a wisdom”, “but not a hair on your head will perish”. Just as, very shortly after this passage, Peter three times denies Jesus, so, three times in this passage, Jesus does not deny humankind. Despite everything he knows is coming, the faithlessness and the suffering, Jesus re-affirms God’s allegiance to humanity. And it is in this affirmation that the eschatological message of hope contained in this passage is expressed. The message is sandwiched in between the apocalyptic imagery; Luke is an elegant and skilled writer, using the images to draw our attention to the message. But it is the message that is the point and focus of this passage; the imagery often gets a lot of attention because it is confronting and disturbing, but it is the message that gives this passage its power and authority.

Let me illustrate the point through a personal confession: I love science fiction. Now, before you get too worried, this doesn’t mean I attend Star Trek conventions dressed as Mr Spock. But it does mean I read a lot of what is called speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy; and the reason I do is because this genre often poses the big “What if…?” questions. Unfortunately, science fiction rarely translates well to movies or television: special effects tend to take over from plot and character. But there are always exceptions, and one of these was a television series that aired during the late 1990s, called Babylon 5.

This series, set in the 23rd century, tells the story of a space station called Babylon 5, a kind of United Nations of the distant future. Now, this series was different, not only because it was well-written with interesting characters, but because, unlike most television series, which run indefinitely until they are no longer popular, Babylon 5 had a five year story-arc; it would run for five seasons only, regardless of whether it was popular or not. However, while the fourth series was being filmed, the network who produced the show started dropping hints that the show would be axed at the end of that series – meaning that the story would potentially be left untold. Indeed, the hints became so strong that the creators of the show wrote and filmed an episode which filled in the gaps they thought would be left by the unmade fifth series. And then, at the last minute, there came a reprieve: the network agreed to produce the fifth and final series, enabling the story to be told to its completion. And the closing credits of the final episode of the fourth series – which everyone expected would be the last series – contained a dedication: it said, “To all the people who predicted the Babylon station would fail in its mission”. And then the show’s writer, J Michael Straczynski, added two more words; Straczynski wrote: “Faith manages”.

Faith manages. If you wanted me to encapsulate the central message of this passage, it would be contained in those two words: faith manages. Because while Jesus leaves us with no illusion that faith is any protection against hardship and suffering and tragedy, what he also makes clear is that faith gives us the ground on which to stand in the face of all that existence and being can throw against us. And more than this, faith also enables us not to be overwhelmed by the experience of suffering, to not have our view of things warped or distorted by hardship and pain. That does not mean we will not experience moments of crisis or doubt; it does not mean there may not be periods in our life when we walk away from faith because it is too hard or hurtful or challenging. But it does mean that we can always find our way back; it does mean the door is always open; and it does mean that when the darkness has taken everything else, hope remains.

Earlier in this same episode of Babylon 5, there occurs a scene between two characters, in which one of the characters reveals how he is having a crisis of faith, in which he is filled with despair and a sense of purposelessness, and he isn’t sure what to think or feel or believe any more. And the other character, instead of offering platitudes, says very bluntly that he cannot help his friend manage his crisis – but then he also asks his friend to consider a simple and profound truth:

All that faith requires is that we surrender ourselves to the possibility of hope.

When we are confronted with crises, or hardship, or personal turmoil, we have a choice. We can surrender to despair, or to arrogance, or to bluster, or to cynicism, or self-destructiveness, or to apathy and indifference. Or, we can surrender ourselves to the possibility of hope; we can surrender ourselves to the trust in God’s promise in Christ and the Holy Spirit which faith enables. We can surrender ourselves, not fatalistically, but humbly, in suffering, to hope. We can surrender ourselves to the stereoscopic vision that sees the message beneath the imagery.

The message that says: hope prevails. Faith manages.

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