Text: Luke 21:5-19
The dominant story of Christianity is “suffering relieved.” Suffering, relieved. What was lost is found. What is broken is restored.
In the beginning, our spiritual ancestors the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Jesus healed the incurably, chronically, ill. He recovered children and friends from the dead. He died on the cross and rose once again to talk and eat with his companions.
Underpinning this story and running in parallel with it is another: God loves the world. In the beginning, in Genesis, God calls the world and all things in it good, meaning suitable, harmonious. God so loved the world, we read in John, that God sent Jesus. God sent him, it goes on, to save the world, not to condemn it.
Together, these two stories make Christianity inevitably a religion of hope, worshipping and trusting a God whose primary longing is to heal a world God loves and all the creatures in it.
The episode we just heard in Luke seems like pretty much bad news, full of anger and destruction. But the events that Jesus predicts in it have already happened by the time Luke wrote down his Gospel. False prophets, battles, earthquakes, famines and epidemics. Though portrayed as a prediction, this story is really a report. It is a story not of fearful and anxious anticipation but rather one of loss and grief.
The Temple was an amazing structure, having in the lifetime of Jesus been expanded and renovated. Beautiful stones, as Luke describes it, gifts to God. Imagine a magnificent cathedral in size and grandeur. Yet in less than a decade after all this work had been completed, the Romans attacked Jerusalem, killed many of the Jews there, and destroyed the Temple. Just a few stones left one upon the other. All were thrown down, as Jesus said.
In times like these, nothing makes sense. People get socially and geographically disoriented. They get discouraged and feel helpless, seeing no way to proceed into the future. How—by what means and with what energy—can they go on living?
Jesus, quoted by Luke, tries to help the people make sense of what is happening in their lives. Presented as a prediction, it sounds like all these painful events have some purpose. And they include a kind of promise of protection.
And yet things turned out badly for the immediate followers of Jesus and for Jerusalem. The city remained occupied, people were persecuted, jailed, and killed. The promises seem vague in time and scope: when will the disciples gain their souls? What does that mean?
Christianity is an embodiment of hope. Yet this does not mean that Jesus is some kind of divine mechanic or repairman. That is not the essence of what we hope for. Jesus’ words are comforting not because he is promising to fix up the mess in Jerusalem. (He did not, as the report-disguised-as-prediction proves.) There is something else going on here. Something broader.
Apostle Paul writes that “hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Christian hope is non-specific. We are not asking God to give us a hand with our list of projects. This does not mean that we should not ask God for that; we should ask God for everything we desire. But that even if God fixes up every broken thing on our list—a good job, peace on earth, a happy relationship—that is not enough. God has told us to expect more. We hope instead—or in addition—to know peace and completeness even though we live in a world of suffering.
We live a very short time in the grand scheme of things. Humanity—the species—is pretty new, and the life of each person is brief. But our faith tells us—grown from the essential Christian stories about God’s love and healing—our faith tells us while the universe is a place of both loss and redemption, that by nature over all—on net—redemption overcomes loss. Good is stronger than evil, as we sing, love is stronger than hate. The light, begins the Gospel of John, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.
Christian hope is not that God will make all things right, any more than God rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. Or that God extracts good from all evil. Or that all things go according to God’s plan. Even though all those things may be true. It is instead that suffering is never the end of the story. That it is not even the main story.
Hope is a consequence of God’s grace. It is a form of grace, too—hope itself is a gift; why should we be blessed by being able to hope and find hope? But more than that, hope comes from grace like a plant comes from the soil. Amazing grace. God creates the universe and provides all things, including us. Including life. Our hope emerges because we are fundamentally grateful for the universe and for our own existence in it. Even when we suffer. Hope comes from knowing God’s grace, feeling it, living in a sea of it. Thankfulness is both a consequence of hope and its cause.
There are worries behind the scenes, so to speak, in the crowd. But even though their lives are at stake, and even though Jesus tells them they will be hunted down and persecuted, even though in fact they have been—even so, their own safety is not their main concern. What they want to know, it seems, is whether any of what is going on makes sense? How does the destroyed Temple fit into God’s long-time promise to Israel and fit into the actions and words of Jesus? Is their faith built on random weird and unconnected events? Is there meaning in the world and does God have a hand in it and do they have a part in it? Jesus’ short answer is: Yes. His words, which do not on the face of it seem comforting at all, oddly give the people hope.
We are in the middle of a very long and large story of healing and love intertwined. Things which seem to be one sorrowful way turn out to be something else. The horizon is long, chronologically and spiritually.
And what seems to be the end is never the end. Healing and rebirth are always possible, and redemption and renewal are the essence of the cosmos.