Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s the Second-Last Sunday of the Church year. Soon we will begin another, and the crisp blue paraments of Advent will find their way upon our chancel, upon altar, pulpit, and lectern. As Church years draw to a close, we hear lessons that speak of the end times, the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior. Soon enough we will recall His first coming as the Babe of Bethlehem, focused all the while on knowing that through His cross and resurrection, we are assured that His Second Coming is not to be dreaded by believers, but longed for and embraced.
The Jews, meanwhile, still await the Messiah’s first coming, having obstinately rejected the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus. They continue to hope and seek for Him, desiring the restoration of the Kingdom of David in the earthly sense and the rebuilding of the temple Jesus spoke of in today’s Gospel.
Jesus’ prophecy that not one stone would be left on top of another was fulfilled in the temple’s destruction by the Romans in AD 70, retribution against the Jews for one too many uprisings against their oppressors. With that destruction, Israel would be without a physical focal point for its ethnic, cultural, political, and religious heritage. Though many Christians confuse the modern nation-state of Israel with the biblical one, they are worlds apart, both temporally and spiritually.
We can’t overestimate the importance of Jerusalem’s temple to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. The Greeks were known far and wide as thinkers and creators. They could boast of their philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and playwrights. The Romans were known as doers, springboarding off the Greek discoveries and adding elements of knowledge from their conquered lands. They could brag of their legions, their legal system, and their great engineering feats.
The Jews, meanwhile, in part got their sense of identity and purpose from the temple. For them, it was a tangible sign of their favored status as God’s chosen people. It was the one place in the world where God had placed His name and promised to be. And it had stood the test of time: Although the temple built under Solomon had been destroyed by the Babylonians, this second temple had now stood for over five hundred years, and was still being rebuilt and expanded under Herod. It had seen vast and powerful empires come and go—the Persians and Medes, Alexander the Great, and more. There was every reason to believe it would outlast the Romans, too. Its massive stones, some of which weighed more than forty tons, helped create the impression that it would last forever. And that was a comforting thought to the Jews. It gave them a sense of security, importance, and permanence. It was believed that when the Christ came, he would rule from Jerusalem. To the Jews, the Temple was the solid center of their world.
Even Jesus’ disciples were caught up in the grandeur of the place. You can imagine how shocked and horrified they must have been when He told them that not one stone would be left atop another. This was unthinkable! It shook them to the very core. So taken aback were they that a bit later, when they were sitting on the Mount of Olives gazing on the temple, four of them privately asked him to elaborate. Still confused about what he’d said, they implored him, “When will these things happen? What will tip us off that they’re about to take place?”
What Jesus said next would have been even more upsetting. The future he described was anything but what they would have wanted or had been taught to expect. They imagined a world of peace and prosperity under the Messiah. There would be no wars, no human conflicts, no crime. The earth itself would be free of its curse. No more storms, droughts, famines, or epidemics.
Destructive insects and weeds and thorns would no longer interfere with the growing of food, and there would be plenty for all. Those closest to the Messiah—the disciples, of course—thought they would be near the top. They, more than anyone, believed that they would be enjoying the blessings of the kingdom. That’s what they were expecting, anyway.
Everything Jesus says to them is exactly the opposite. He describes confusion, mayhem, ongoing conflicts and controversies; false messiahs arising and leading people astray. Instead of peace and prosperity, he speaks of war and bloodshed and famine and natural disaster. And worst of all, instead of enjoying being in positions of honor and power, Jesus tells the disciples that they will be rejected and beaten and hated and put to death for their witness to him. Even their own family members would be enemies.
It was a complete reversal; their worldview turned upside down. They were expecting smooth and easy sailing; nothing but sunny skies and calm seas. Instead, Jesus told them, “You’re heading into a hurricane.” But he also told them to hold firmly to the faith. “Keep what I’ve taught you. Trust and hope and believe in me; for he who endures to the end will be saved.”
With the hindsight of history, we know that what Jesus prophesied was exactly what happened. Instead of the nations coming to Jerusalem, Christ sent his Gospel to the nations by the apostles. Wherever they spread the good news of Jesus, some received it with joy, and there the Christian Church took root and grew. It was there, in all those congregations scattered throughout the world, and not in the Jerusalem temple, that the Lord God made his dwelling with men.
Not everyone heard the message with joy. Far more opposed it – often with violence. Early Christians suffered terrible persecutions: they were beaten, imprisoned, exiled, some were crucified, and others faced lions and other unspeakable horrors from those who wanted to see the new faith stamped out.
And that was just what the Church faced from the outside. Even more dangerous and destructive to the faithful were the problems the Church faced from within. The false christs Jesus spoke of, and other teachers of lies and heresies, arose from the inside. They claimed to be champions of the Gospel; but were instead destroying it by undermining and obscuring basic truths upon which the Gospel hangs. With such false teachings they did more than betray their followers; they led them straight to hell.
And so the faithful were continually under pressure, struggling just to stay alive while they tried to be salt and light in the world, and at the same time constantly battling to keep pure the truth of the Gospel within the Church. They learned through painful trials that Christ’s kingdom on this earth remains always under the cross of His suffering. They learned through the storms of conflict they faced to hold fast to the truth. And those who did hold fast to the end have already received their crowns of life in glory.
These things we know. We know that the Christian Church was built on the blood of martyrs and the truths the Apostles and early fathers fought so hard to retain.
It seems that many of us think that all that’s over now, or at least irrelevant. After all, our government isn’t any more troublesome to Christianity than it is to any other religion that sticks by its beliefs. No one’s going to throw us to the lions. Many think all the battles over doctrine have been fought and won. That we no longer have to concern ourselves about such things. That we can take it easy.
That’s the way we’d like it, anyway, and in our own little corner of the world, maybe it is. So, we’re careful not to rock the boat. We avoid conflict. With respect to the world, we keep our heads down. We circle the wagons and keep our Christian faith to ourselves. If there’s a conflict with the culture in which we live or the morality of the age, we compromise. We don’t want to dogmatic about anything. We bend.
And, if different teachings about the truths of Christ arise … well, it’s best not to investigate them too thoroughly. Let’s not ask any questions, because that may lead to arguments. Let’s just focus on what we agree on, and leave it at that.
When we or anyone else in Christ’s Church say or even think such things, it is sweet music in the ears of the devil. Why? Because those who think this way are not holding fast, they’re just riding along. They’re ready to be knocked overboard by the tiniest disturbance. They hang like ripe fruit from weak stems just waiting to drop off into Satan’s clutches.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel that wars and natural disasters and persecutions from outside the church going to come. False christs and teachers of lies within the church are going to arise, spreading confusion and conflict in their wakes. He teaches not only that these things will happen, but that they must happen. It’s imperative. It’s necessary for the survival and growth of the Church. On the surface, that might not make a lot of sense.
You may ask, “How can people being led astray by false christs and other misguided teachers be a good thing? Surely that can’t be what the Lord wants.” That’s true. The Lord doesn’t want people to be led astray. But without false teachers doing their destructive work even more people would be lost.
How’s that, you say? Well, think of it like trying to keep your house clean. You can’t just clean it once and never be troubled with it again, can you? While you’re vacuuming one room, somebody is making a mess or tracking dirt through another. The dust is always settling. Spiders are spinning webs in the corners. Dead flies and beetles are piling up around the windows. The dishes are being used. And even while you’re doing laundry, the clothes you’re wearing are getting dirty. It’s a never ending job.
So it is also a never ending job to keep the Church’s teaching and each individual Christian understands of it pure. You can’t just learn it once and be done with it. Because of our sinful natures, the rooms in our spiritual houses that we’re not actively cleaning are getting dirty. The false teachers and their heresies show us where the trouble areas are. They are the muddy footprints on the carpet, the dirty dishes stacked in the sink, and the plugged toilet that’s spilling onto the floor. They tell us where we need to go and urgently work to get back to the Word of God, to rediscover his truth about the issues of life. You see, without the false teachers of the world and the prowling lion of the devil, we’d all become lazy spiritual housekeepers. The house of our soul would grow filthier over time – until it got so bad it became completely uninhabitable.
And the thing about false doctrine is that it keeps changing and being updated, even as old heresies surface time and time again. We have to stay in God’s Word to keep up with it, so that we’re able to identify it and resist it when we see it. By means of false teachers and their ever changing new doctrines, Satan keeps updating his weapons to lead the unwary astray. But knowing this guides the faithful back into the Word. There, we weigh and evaluate these supposedly new teachings in light of what God has said and what the Church has always confessed. So false teachers, as destructive as they can be, are always inadvertently sending the faithful back into the Word. That is, they are sending us still closer to Christ, and so our grip on the saving truth is strengthened.
What about that other stuff? The wars, natural disasters, and the persecutions the Church faces from the outside? Why do we need any of those? There are several reasons.
One is that they are a constant reminder to us that this world in its present form is both under a curse and destined to pass away. We have no permanent home here, and so we ought to set our eternal hope on our home above with Christ. That’s where we will find the peace, security, and permanence we seek.
A second reason is that trials and hardships draw us closer to Christ and his Word in much the same way that false teachers do. That is to say: We’re more likely to seek the comfort of God’s Word and promises when the chips are down. That’s when faith needs strengthening: when the winds of hardship and sorrow blow.
A third reason is that such trials prove and purify true faith. Think about the parable Jesus told of the seeds that fell on different soils. Among them was the seed that fell on rocky soil where everything was good at first. It grew just fine for a while; but as soon as the sun got hot the plant withered and died because its root was so shallow. So it is with us. A lot of the faith we think we have, isn’t faith at all. Hardships prove the difference.
And a fourth reason we could give is that the problems of this world give us opportunity to show the love of Christ in action. Not just to each other, as we support and help each other in times of need as brothers and sisters in the faith, but also to those outside the Church.
And that leads to a fifth and final reason that it is ultimately good for us in the Church that we have to face hardship and persecution for the sake of Christ’s name: It gives us opportunity to witness boldly to the world about Jesus and what he has done for us. Just about everyone is looking for something to hold on to in this decaying world. They want something they can believe in. They want something they can trust – something that’s permanent, and stable, and always true.
What they want can only be found in Jesus Christ and the forgiveness and life he gives. Most of them don’t know it, or maybe they’ve heard it and have rejected it. But the way we conduct ourselves, especially in times of conflict and trouble and persecution, has the potential to change hearts through such a witness to Christ. The quiet confidence we display, the implicit trust we have that the Lord is with us and will see us through every difficulty, and the words we speak when asked to give the reason for the hope that we have within us.
Those are rooted in the Word of God, and they are powerful, because His Word causes a new reality. By holding fast to Jesus at such times, we can help others to do the same.
In the wisdom of God, we in the Church will face many trials and conflicts while we are on this earth. These are necessary and are serve the ultimate good to ourselves and our neighbors. And we should expect them because by them our gracious Father is preserving, purifying, and maturing us in saving faith in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In the face of fear and hardships, let us hold fast to him and his Word that we, too, may wear crowns in glory with those who endured until the end and were saved. In Jesus’ (+) name. Amen.