Perhaps it was the contrast that prompted Jesus to interrupt. He had just been considering the plight of a poor widow who had donated all she had to live on to the temple treasury and now here were some people speaking admiringly about the opulence of that Herodian temple itself. Jesus tells them it’s all going to come crashing down, and goes on to describe vividly what would happen before that.
I wonder how the disciples felt, learning in such ominous detail about their future as followers of Jesus. They would share the experience of persecution that he would have, also being subject to hatred, betrayal, arrest and even death, on account of their identification with him.
We are told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles that they did indeed experience all of that, but that they also experienced the sense of being cared for through it all. They found that the Spirit of Jesus within them did give them words and a wisdom that could not be withstood or contradicted. They learned endurance and so gained their souls.
Jesus was describing the events preceding a specific historical incident: the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. But such events have recurred in other contexts throughout history, and Jesus’ description of the state of the world might well be applied to our time. Wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation; great earthquakes, famines and plagues. Later in the chapter, he speaks of distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, of people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.
The people of Jesus’ time would have to learn to live without the temple, which had been the centre of their religious life, their place to be with God. Now they would have to learn to find God in other places, to experience God’s presence in other ways. We in our time increasingly have to consider the possibility of life without the security of things that we might once have taken for granted, especially those of us who are more privileged. Where will we look to find our security in a future that seems increasingly uncertain?
Do not be terrified, Jesus says. Do not let your fear destabilize you and lead you astray to false hopes. Be on guard so that your heart is not weighed down with the worries of this life and the temptation to distracted dissipation and drunken oblivion. Jesus calls us to be alert at all times to the truths God might be trying to show us, praying that we may have the strength to stand in the midst of all these disturbing realities, aware of the presence of Jesus with us to guide us towards justice and peace for all.
In his commentary on this gospel passage, Richard Swanson (Working Preacher, Nov 17, 2013) writes: “Any congregation gathered to worship will always include people whose worlds have been shattered, whose hopes have been trampled. Some of them might also be old enough to have learned to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection even in the midst of the triumph of death. Others will need to be supported while they try just to draw another breath.”
By way of another contrast, we might consider the vision presented by the prophet Isaiah, in which God is creating new heavens and a new earth, the source of joy and gladness and delight, for God and for us. No more weeping, no more distress, no more death. Shelter and food and blessing for all, with a caring intimacy of relationship with a loving God.
This might all sound like a hopelessly utopian fantasy, but I believe that it is God’s desire for all people, and that we will realize it only by going towards it all together, following the way of Jesus, leaving nobody behind. The apostle Paul recommends that we begin by working quietly and avoiding idle speculation, that we not become weary in doing what is right.
I was reminded recently of a saying ascribed to Brazilian writer Fernando Sabino that echoes Julian of Norwich: “In the end, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not yet the end.” I think Jesus would agree.