November 15, 2015

Advanced Warning

In today’s gospel, the disciples of Jesus seem like they’re in the big city for the first time. After following Jesus around the Judean countryside, they finally make it to Jerusalem—and they’re very impressed by what they see. Standing in the Temple complex, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!”

This disciple’s amazement reminds me of my first time in downtown Chicago. I’d seen photos of city skylines many times, but somehow, seeing firsthand the towering buildings of concrete and steel really took my breath away.

But it might have taken my breath away much more to hear Jesus say in the midst of my astonishment, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The disciples must have been surprised by how quickly Jesus undercut their admiration for large buildings—the most significant buildings in their nation. But Jesus has been teaching this way for a while now: Predicting destruction that is to come, so that those who listen to him will have some advanced warning. So why does Jesus teach in this way—warning us about the collapse of our sacred buildings, about wars and rumors of wars, about earthquakes, about famines?

Jesus might make predictions like this so that we’ll all be super impressed by his powers of prophecy. When the Jerusalem Temple was in fact razed to the ground by Roman authorities in the year 70, 40 years after Jesus’ prediction, I’ll bet there were many people whose faith in Christ was confirmed: Jesus said it would happen, and it happened.

But is that all that Jesus means to accomplish by predicting the Temple’s destruction? To make us marvel at his prophetic powers? Events like the destruction of the Temple, or wars, or earthquakes, or famines might make us wonder why Jesus uses his power to predict them rather than to prevent them.

What’s more, Jesus doesn’t even give us enough specific information about the Temple’s fall, or wars, or earthquakes, or famines for any of us to be truly prepared. We don’t know the time. We don’t know the place. We might wonder why Jesus uses his power to predict these events rather than to protect us with the details that we need.

From today’s gospel, it seems like Jesus has a very specific purpose in making his vague predictions. It’s not so we’ll be impressed with his prophetic powers. It’s not so we’ll be prepared for and protected from what is to come. It’s so that whatever happens, whenever it happens, we won’t be so stunned that we’re led astray by false messiahs and worldly kings.

When these things happen—these building collapses, wars, disasters—Jesus says to his disciples, “Don’t be alarmed,” and “Beware that no one leads you astray.” What Jesus seems to know about these events—the collapse of buildings, the waging of wars, the natural disasters, the humanitarian emergencies—is not how to stop them or when exactly they will happen. What Jesus knows is that these things make human beings incredibly vulnerable to false messiahs. These events leave us wide open to being led astray by those who would lead us into a be-all, end-all battle with evil, when Jesus tells us that this is just the beginning.

When we hear of wars or other destructive events, it’s so tempting to choose a kingdom other than the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. We could be so alarmed that we fall right into the hands of those who would say, “I am he!”—who declare themselves the next leader we supposedly need to save us. But Jesus warned us. Jesus knew better.

Jesus wasn’t the first to make a prediction like this about Jerusalem. The prophet Micah warned, and the prophet Jeremiah repeated, that “Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins” (Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 26:18). Jesus isn’t really predicting something new in today’s gospel, or something that his disciples would never have heard before. He’s not setting up an opportunity for this prophecy to come to pass so he can later say, “I told you so.”

Rather, he’s telling people in advance about the fall of the Jerusalem Temple so that they won’t be alarmed, so that they won’t be led astray. So that they won’t misinterpret these events, looking for proof of God’s wrath, for people to blame, or for signs that the end of the world is coming any minute now. How quickly these moments can lead us astray rather than leading us into God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

In today’s gospel, Jesus prepares his disciples, so that when the most impressive and iconic building in their capital city falls to the ground, they won’t be led astray. They won’t be so taken by surprise—and fear, and anger—that they fall into step behind warrior-messiahs.

We have our advanced warning from Jesus: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” This prediction isn’t just proof of the prophetic powers of Jesus. And it’s not a tip-off that protects any of us from the violence of human beings or our unstable planet. This prediction isn’t really about what precisely will happen in the future, but about how we might respond when disasters happen.

By offering us this prediction in advance, Jesus hopes to preserve us when we’re most vulnerable, to keep us from being too alarmed and from being led astray. Jesus knew then and knows now how vulnerable we can be to the sights and sounds of destruction. He knows we might feel his absence from us and turn to the next person who claims, “I am he!”—the only leader who can save us right here and right now.

But Jesus hopes that his disciples instead won’t let the destruction of buildings, the waging of wars, or the faltering of the earth shake us from the course of following Christ . . . and that we’ll follow him into a kingdom that is shared with others through mercy, compassion, peacemaking, and generosity, right here on this earth and forever. Amen.