“I Will Give You Words and a Wisdom”

November 13, 2022

Luke 21:5–19 (Luke writes about 10–15 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem circa 70AD).

Introduction: There’s nothing easy about today’s Gospel from Luke 21. Jesus and his disciples are still in Jerusalem and still in the Temple, which is where he has been teaching since the beginning of chapter 20. Just moments ago, the faithful woman, both widowed and impoverished, threw her whole life into the Temple treasury. … see end for more.

Luke 21: 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 defense 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. ***

Some years ago, a man sitting next to me on an airplane looked up from the novel he was reading and asked, “Have you read any of the Left Behind books?” I replied that I had heard of them but had never read one. He held up the latest installment, told me that he was hooked, and said that he recommended it. When I asked about his personal religious background, he said that he was not much of church-going person, but the books fascinated him.

“Left Behind” — a series of fiction novels first published in 1995 follows a group of Americans through the days after the Rapture. The rapture is a system of religious teaching embraced by American evangelicals. It regards final matters and an idea that at any moment Christian believers could be whisked to heaven — leaving clothes, dental fillings and eye-glasses behind — while others are left behind to fight the anti-Christ in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ.

The author of Left Behind wrote about the rapture which occurs shortly after an Israeli botanist wins the Nobel Prize for devising a way to grow crops in the desert, thereby making Israel a self-sustained trading partner with its neighbors and bringing peace to the Middle East. In the series that follows, the Antichrist, a charismatic young Romanian leader named Nicolae Carpathia, works through the United Nations’ machinery to consolidate currency and erase national borders. Eventually all are brought together under the “Mark of Loyalty,” a biochip inserted into the hand or forehead that allows one to purchase food, and a tattoo — the Mark of the Beast.

“Left Behind” series was well-timed. The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall was down and the Soviet Union dissolved. At this time, some Christians realized the predictions of the world’s end in five years, as written about in “The Late Great Planet Earth” by evangelical author Hal Lindsey, had not come true. Lindsey kept writing books for three decades predicting the world’s end in five years and in each book he explained why he wasn’t wrong in the previous book. By the mid-90’s a growing population of conservative evangelical Christians were less worried about the world’s end because of Russia and the bomb and more concerned about a twofold threat in the world: rejection of Christianity with more churches embracing liberalizing trends as well as the loss of national sovereignty through the United Nations. Talk about the end of the world still grabs the attention of many Christians.

In today’s reading, Jesus has entered Jerusalem. It was only days to his death. Conflicts with religious authorities were increasing. Jesus was not dissuaded, but instead predicted some apocalyptic events. This grabbed the attention of the disciples who asked. “Well, when will all this bad stuff happen?” In answering them, Jesus gets even more vivid in predicting great and terrible things to come.

Remember, through the entire story Luke tells, Jesus has been striving to bring his disciples along to carry on after his death. He was not training short distance sprinters but long-distance marathon runners who could carry his message everywhere for years to come. It would not be easy. Jesus never promised ease.

Yet, as unsettling as Jesus’ predictions were to the disciples, detailing the destruction of the Temple and persecutions because of faith, through it all Jesus is reassuring: God will be faithful. No matter what happens, despite wars, earthquakes, famines, plaques, even betrayals and executions, Jesus reassures: I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict… not a hair of your head will perish.”

How ironic that a passage that unsettles some — even as the disciples were initially unsettled to hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple — is actually meant to bolster faith and reassure.

Mark Twain observed that the Bible is far too brutal a book to read to children. And in truth, despite churches admirable effort to provide bibles for children and story bibles developed to read to children at bedtime, a good deal of what is actually said by even Jesus can be chilling, not only for children.

Luke 21 is a passage we would rather not hear. We want Jesus to say nicer things, offer better predictions. We want Jesus to say, “Don’t worry about trials and persecutions for I shall deliver you from them before they happen.” We want Jesus to say, “The world will be so impressed by the church’s rhetoric, accomplishments, and proclamations that no one will dare lay a hand on you.”

We want the church equivalent of “Homeland Security” that will seal up our borders from evildoers and provide us protection into the future. Instead of that Jesus assures us that when it comes to the world’s harsh realities, he will remain with us and in us.

Theologian and teacher of preachers Karoline Lewis notes that we like passages and messages that inspire us to be sunny side up folks who embrace 40 Days of Purpose and the theology of “your best life now.” Some Christians in particular like “possibility thinking,” and by “possibility” they most assuredly do not mean the possibility of trial and tribulation.

Here is a point to ponder. Can we still take joy in Jesus even when there is no promise that being a Christian means you will get your best life now, that you will get your wishes granted and see your dreams fulfilled? Or is our “endurance” (as verse 19 mentions) possible only when we are getting the best life possible in the here and now? How do we embrace the Good News of Jesus’ abiding presence even in the midst of death, war, evildoers and trials of all kinds?

Discipleship has not changed much in the last 2000 years. Following Jesus still means testifying to our trust in a gracious and merciful God in the midst of circumstances that try our confidence and our hope. We are still called to have a vision that can pierce through what seems to be beyond hope and still perceive the activity of God when it looks as if that which is against God has the upper hand.

So, we keep going on, with endurance as a hallmark of what it means to be a believer. We keep witnessing to the marvelous things that God has done and will continue to do (Psalm 98) regardless of the ways in which it looks otherwise. We just have to.

Psalm 98 O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Introduction con’t: Now some of the people with Jesus look up and speak in awe of the beauty of the Temple, the center of the Jewish world. The Temple was overwhelming, as befits the building that honors the God who alone is God.

The Temple was beautiful because Herod, the Roman stooge who styled himself as King of the Jews, had spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful. Herod had built up the Temple so that it would rival pagan temples built up by rival rulers. Faithful Jews knew the Temple testified to God’s unique majesty. They also knew that the beautification project was meant to bring glory to Herod, whom the rabbis refused to acknowledge as Jewish.

Jesus’ words, therefore, about the leveling of the Temple, not one stone on another, would have had a double bite. On the one hand, that leveling would remove the Herodian blot from the holy city. On the other hand, the Temple was the Temple, and not even Herod’s pagan corruption could change that.

Those listening to Jesus teach in the temple, however, remain concerned with what will happen to the building. In response, Jesus moves from discussing a specific catastrophic event to more general statements about the coming of false prophets, wars, and other calamities. Luke employs language and imagery that is conventional in apocalyptic literature from this period. Luke uses this unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.