Friday, June 19, 2009

By your endurance you will gain your souls

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘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.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And 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.

‘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.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

- Luke 21:5-19

This passage is for me a little confusing, because there seems to be a dual discussion going on here: about the destruction of the temple and the siege of Jerusalem and about Jesus' second coming, the end of the Age. But upon closer reading, perhaps we have a little light shed on this difficult passage.

There is first of all the clear implication of the total destruction of the Temple (which will take place in the year A.D. 70). But then Jesus goes on to warn about those who would declare they see signs of the end times, and the return of the Son of Man. We shouldn't be deceived, Jesus warns us. There are several places in the gospels in which he warns that we should not be deceived by those who claim signs of the end of predictions of his imminent second coming. Upon further examination of the gospels, we see that discussion involving the destruction of the temple and a prediction of the end of the age also appear in Mark and Matthew, and as here in Luke's gospel, the discussion of the destruction of the temple and the end of the age involves both topics simultaneously as well. These two topics are invariably linked in Jesus' discourse - as indeed they must have been linked in the minds of the Jews at this time. Discussion of "end times" was nothing new; the Old Testament predictions - specifically Daniel's prediction of the "abomination of desolation" was something known. This would occur at the time the temple was destroyed: because of rumors the temple stones contained gold, every stone was dismantled except that of a retaining wall (now known as the Wailing Wall after it became a place of mourning). The Roman general Titus would walk in the Most Holy Place.

So, it is no accident that the discussion of what we might call "end times" coincides with the discussion of the destruction of the temple, for these two events were intermingled in the minds of those who make up Jesus' audience here, from prophecy and discussion already known and understood. But Jesus goes on to warn his own disciples and followers about what will come - that the ultimate end is not near, that they will go through persecutions, they must be vigilant in their faith and understanding. And that when he does return is not a matter for prediction and speculation. We've already been told this event will be obvious to everyone when it happens. The important thing, Jesus suggests, is our faith and understanding of the here and now, and what we must do in terms of following and practicing that faith.

As Jesus' own death is near, he warns his disciples - and indeed he seems to be speaking openly here to the public in the temple - about the destruction and persecution that is to come. There will be wars and rumors of wars; civilizations will clash. His own people will be persecuted, put to death. Family ties will be broken and great betrayal will be known. This thus becomes a discussion about upheaval and violence on many levels - not something we're used to expecting to hear from the Lord of Love when we turn to the gospels. An unpleasant subject, covering a multitude of horrors: but we are told we must persist to the end. Even in times of persecution, not to fear, but to keep our faith, to testify to it under persecution, to have faith in the Spirit. Indeed he says, we should not even fear death, for we will keep our souls.

We have reached a point in the gospels where Jesus prepares us for the worst calamities and upheavals, for the worst forms of persecution, for death and destruction. There is no wincing here and no avoidance of disaster. But what we do have here is faith, an unshakable faith in something that endures past death, in the values and the reality of that kingdom of the soul that we cannot lose except through our own undoing. All the events predicted here came to pass, but obviously the church persisted, faith persisted, and we have these words today to teach us not to be deceived, nor deluded by speculation about the end, but to understand what it is to endure our own difficulties and upheavals, our times of violence, and the things that frighten us.

These words still live as reference points today through the changes our own times bring, the transitions and difficulties our own lives bring. We understand that our world today is going through yet more great shifts in all sorts of dimensions. We're faced with potentials for violence on scales unimagined in past centuries, and we are also inundated with speculation about what it all means, where it all might lead. But through it all, we have these words teaching us to focus on the day, to practice and retain our faith, and remember what we're to do in the here and now. We're to keep our courage and our souls, to focus on Spirit to sustain us through. Difficulties, transitions, betrayals, violence, even martyrdom: all may come, but through it all we have our way to go forward. We are to retain our right focus. This doctrine that faces squarely upheaval and violence and death may turn notions of how to live our lives on their heads. Instead of a kind of self-centered awareness, the focus shifts to what kind of life we lead, and how we live it day to day, moment to moment. If we can remember at any given point in time that it's not what we have nor where we are nor even who we are but how we are living that is vital, it may do much to give us focus in the moment and in the proper way, and to alleviate stress and fear. Life is far from perfect; but what we can do is focus on the strength and practice of faith, and how we focus on the day, on the moment. Indeed Jesus tells his followers they are not even to make up their minds in advance of defense during persecution, but to rely on Spirit for testimony. Can we seize a moment of the day to turn to Spirit? Can we, in the midst of whatever we're dealing with, focus on the moment and turn to that inward place for wisdom?

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