A Wonderfully Ancient and Eternal Place
Week of Sunday 17 November - Pentecost 26
Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘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.’
7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I was heading for a main road and bus stop by dead reckoning, when I found the streets blocked by a cemetery. A monument, taller and more grand than all the others, dominated the middle. The last resting place of a knight of the realm, and member of one of the founding families, proclaimed his great achievements and good deeds. This dusk discovery deeply impressed me; years before, in one of those odd juxtapositions of the ordinary masses and the rich and powerful, I had lived next door to him.
The monument was being broken down by the roots of weeds. Parts of the statuary had already fallen.
Everything will fall. It matters not whether Jesus foretold the fall of the temple, or whether Mark put the words in his mouth after the Romans sacked the city. (Mark 13) Everything falls. Every empire fails. Only the naive think we will be different. It will happen to the Americans. And all the myths and pretentions of Australia will come to nothing.
Our great achievements, as we wrap the world in cable and WiFi build up the huge energy we need simply to defy entropic decay. They do not protect us. They make us more vulnerable. Failure will be more thorough. Jesus is speaking a true word; put not your trust in princes (Ps 146) and especially do not trust the great edifices of our culture, despite all their beauty. Everything will end.
If we had concentrated on the simple devotions of the widow (Loader) instead of our grand designs we would be better protected. We would not fall so far.
In all of this Loader suggests Luke feels "sadness rather than smugness." Luke mourns what has been lost, and will be lost again. Given the suffering that is, and which is still to come, Christians have no reason to be smug. We are all a part of this world.
Luke's remembering of the horrors of Jerusalem's destruction reminded his people that the wars and the insurrections just are. They are life, along with the earthquakes, and typhoons and eclipses, and famines. They are not some special sign of the end. Ignore the pretend messiahs. Life has always been like this.
Our time is no worse. The only difference between the church of Luke and our church— his time and ours— is that we hear and see far more. We have video and fast internet.
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.
Christianity is under intense attack. Reports from North Korea tell of Christians being pulverized with steamrollers. In North Africa, believers are beheaded, bombed, and beaten. In Iran, pastors are imprisoned and church members are lashed for taking communion. In Eritrea, Christians disappear without a trace. In Indonesia, Christian women are forced from government roles. In Egypt and Syria, followers of Christ are massacred. In Kenya last week, a minister was murdered in his own church while holding a Bible in his hands.
Australia is not on the list. Let us be honest. For my philosophy essay on "The Existence of God : The Argument from Experience" in a Marxist and Atheist philosophy department I received an A. The politics department tried to get me to divert into their post-grad stream. The chicken shop owner across the road always gave me an extra schnitzel on account of being a minister; if he thought we were ordering one less to compensate, he would add two. Identifying as a minister gets me instant access in hospitals; a colleague was denied access on one occasion, but that was because a member of the youth group had "borrowed" the other minister's alb, and already paid a visit to the new mother and baby. My colleague was told the priest had already come and the mother needed her rest. Even in the current panic about child abuse, where we deserve condemnation, I find the authorities polite, respecting of my experience, even asking advice.
We are a privileged people, not persecuted. To pretend otherwise, as some of us do, is to insult our sisters and brothers and mock their suffering.
We should read the words of Luke and the experience of other countries as a warning of what may come. We should speak for justice now, not later. "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." (Edmund Burke?) We might also wonder if something is wrong with our living out of the Faith since we are so little bothered.
So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke is realistic: he and his readers will know of family conflicts and betrayals; they will have experienced hate. Where events whip up panic, there is a lot of hate to go around. Anyone who advocates the way of Jesus should expect to land some of it.
David Suzuki began his recent Jack Beale Lecture by reflecting on our recent change of government. He wondered if he should retitle it as "The Barbarians have Breached the Gates."
He is not alone. A friend writes he finds it "hard not to have a sense of calamitous foreboding," a feeling I share.
Another wrote, "... I hope I'm brave when I need to speak." I have no words; barbarians, philistines, racism, injustice... the bigotry and self interest has been so stunning and barefaced I struggle to articulate what I see!
This friend's son lives in an isolated community in the Centre. He discovered this discussion online:
"What's happening? Here in the dead centre we kind of live this weird isolated life where the world could end and we'd still truck on."
"Actually, I was thinking about that conversation you and I had a few weeks ago when you said about a dark age coming... " she replied. "How does one sum up the world of politics at the moment…" and then later, " You're in a wonderfully ancient and eternal place - truck on!"
Her last comment sums up the Australian Centre as well as any words I've ever read!
But we are all " in a wonderfully ancient and eternal place." That could be Luke's point. There in the Temple, which will be utterly destroyed, life is eternal. "Not a hair on your head will perish." Luke is not being literal; he is about to retell Jesus' dying; he will write the Acts of the Apostles in the shade of the martyrdom of Stephen. He is reminding us that even the hairs of our head are numbered. (Luke 12:7)
In the words of the United Church of Canada, "We are not alone. We live in God's world. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us."
Will we trust in God?
Will we seek the words? Will we say what needs to be said? Will we live differently, and live for justice?
Then not a hair on our head will perish; by our endurance we will gain our soul.
IN Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
I have previously covered this text in Luke 21:5-19 - Tested by Fire. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!