A New Heaven a New Earth…Are we in?

Principle Scripture: Luke 21:5-19

One of the great experiences of attending seminary in Rome was the daily opportunity to just walk the city, and I made a regular habit of taking new routes or wandering in unknown neighborhoods. On these walks, no matter the ethnic diversity in the streets or the economic situation of the ghetto, there were inevitable common elements: the cafe, the fruit vendor, the baker, and the Churches (There are so many Churches!), among others. Another commonality – about which I was at first enthralled but soon began to barely even notice because they were so commonplace – were the myriad ruins that lined the streets of Rome. There are a lot of ruins: stones toppled upon stones, archways collapsed, and paved pathways that now lead to nowhere. Some of the ruins are, of course, famous: the Colosseum, the Foro Romano, and the Baths of Caracalla stand out as stunning examples of what once was, reflecting the opulence and might of the Roman Empire. Hundreds more ruins are partially excavated, bearing plaques identifying a famous or infamous location. And thousands more sites are just there; bearing no marks and no identification, they are often just outlines and pathways in the grass.

On a sunny afternoon in the Spring, I  found myself at one such unmarked site on the outskirts of Rome. There was a walkway, with just a few flagstones still visible, that led to the outline of a small building imprinted in the ground and marked by a few stones sunk in the earth. The outline of the building was vague but one could make it out if one knew what to look at and had some imagination. I had gone that afternoon with a spiritual director, and we sat with some bread and cheese, and a little vino, to enjoy the afternoon. My spiritual director told me, “You know that in this field, right there where those paths end, there once stood a cappellino – a small chapel. It served the farmers that grew wheat in these fields. It stood here for probably hundreds of years and now it’s been gone for hundreds of years, probably destroyed by an earthquake, the stones and bricks taken away by the locals for use elsewhere.” I was brought to this place as an object lesson. It was from this chapel that the Word of God was proclaimed and the Sacraments were celebrated, bringing comfort, peace, joy, and salvation to those who heard and participated. Indeed, maybe that Word spoken there (or in chapels like it) gave birth to the faith and spiritual journey of a great Roman saint. 

And on a small stone, maybe a foundation stone for the old chapel but more likely just a random stone, there was etched a latin phrase: “Rerum veniam. Res eunt. Sed verbum Dei est semper et aeternum. “ (Things come. Things go. But God’s word is always and eternal.”) And then we left.

As they walked out from the majestic Temple onto the bleached limestone of the portico, the disciples were probably still in awe. While smaller than Solomon’s original, the Temple was still massive, and Herod’s additions were of a grandeur matched only by his own egocentric palace. The giant stone blocks of the Temple’s foundation measured eight feet to a side, three or four paces astride. Hundreds of people would mill about on an ordinary day, and thousands for a feast. The Temple rose high above the streets. The Temple was there to stay, the stones planted and anchored, weighted down by hundreds atop hundreds of other stones. But even in its massiveness, there was a delicate beauty in the Temple that struck awe in visitors. This is the holiest place in Israel, and everyone, surely including the disciples, were awestruck at the grandeur. You might imagine the disciple’s bewilderment, then, when Jesus 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.”

Luke 21:6

All will be thrown down? What happened to, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)? Jesus is at the Temple, and he’s talking about its demise! The Temple is magnificent and grand, beautiful and glorious! The Temple is a comfort for the people of Israel, an ongoing sign of the presence of God among them and the place of divine encounter. Why would Jesus talk of its destruction? What must the disciple’s have thought?  

Can we relate? What comes of us if we are deprived of our comfort? We do love our houses, cars, and clothes. We want our wealth and our health. These things give us comfort. As a nation, we like our shiny buildings and thriving cities, and we adore the world’s most powerful military. These things make us feel safe. We would rather not hear that moths destroy and rust consumes (see Matthew 6:19-21). Our status has become our security. Our systems (economic and political) have become our safety. They work – for some – and we want to prevent their crumbling. But the reality is that everything topples and falls, becoming ruin. There is a darker fear, though, isn’t there? Yes, not just our stuff but we, too, will eventually die. Mortality is scary, and talk of the end makes us fidget. 

The gospels, though, come to us from a messianic people who were ardently awaiting the end – a second Advent. The first followers of Jesus, our spiritual ancestors, expected the end within years, within months, certainly within their lifetimes. They were anxious to know the future so that they could prepare; but, there was also the problem of the present.  In other words, as the awaited the second coming with its unknown future, how were they to live in the present? This, I imagine, was a similar problem faced by the disciples. Jesus forecasts the Temple’s future destruction, but how are they to live in the present as they await the day of the Lord’s coming?

In Matthew and Mark, the same narrative is told Jesus and his disciples catch Jesus at the lunch break. They were sitting on the Mount of Olives, across the valley from the Temple, probably eating from a loaf of bread, some cheese, and maybe a little vino. And Jesus warns them that not one stone will be left upon another.

His disciples then ask, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus’ response is less than helpful. He tells them, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place.”

Thanks, Jesus. We ask you when, and you tell us bad stuff will happen. How do we live today when we do not know tomorrow? We just really want to know when. We have plans to make! How do we live in the present when we do not know the future? This is an uncomfortable, if not disturbing, lesson the lectionary offers us today. It is unwise to release the tension fully, so I won’t. Easy answers might make for good bumper stickers, but real life is more complex. So, in place of an easy answer, consider what Jesus offers: the profound truth that God’s Word is always and eternal. God’s Word – that invites us to love with radical abandon, not as in a dream or some ethereal wishy-washy what-if, but as a concrete movement.

We don’t know what comes tomorrow, but we know God invites us to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as our self.  

How do we live in the present when we don’t know the future? We partner with God, giving all that we have. We partner with God in working indefatigably toward justice and mercy, by creating with God the beautiful society and loving community. God has work for us to do! And Sunday morning is just the start. Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the last are first, the proud get scattered, the lowly are lifted up. God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Jesus tried to start a revolution in which the sick get healed, the poor are blessed, and we are all beloved children of God. Jesus tried to start a revolution. But it depends, in part, on us. Are we in?

When we read today’s story in the context of Luke’s full gospel, Jesus drops the temple bomb right before setting his face toward Jerusalem. “All will be thrown down,” Jesus says, a reference, as we learn, to his own death. Yet death doesn’t get the last word. Jesus died a brutal death at the hands of Empire; but Friday turns into Sunday, and we discover that the stone is rolled away. Death is conquered, love wins, and resurrection reigns.

What do we do today when we don’t know tomorrow? We try to figure out what God is up to in the world and we seek, humbly, to get on board with that project. Are we in? That’s not a simple answer, but it’s a posture we can strive to adopt. Martin Luther adopted this posture when asked what to do if he thought the end was coming tomorrow. His advice? “Plant a tree.” In other words: Invest hopefully in the future.

Consider the poetic beauty of today’s reading from Isaiah. To the people who knew exactly what it meant to lose a temple, God says, 

“See, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. So be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”

Isaiah 65:17-18

How do we live today when we don’t know tomorrow? We draw strength from God, who invites our participation and endures long after the cities and buildings and stones have crumbled. We adopt a posture that asks not what God can do for us, but calls us to bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer. We love our neighbor as ourselves and we strive for just societies and a stable planet – new heavens and a new earth. We pray without ceasing, and we trust in a mighty God from whom all blessings flow.

This is the revolutionary Good News of Jesus Christ. Are we in?

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