For Such A Time As This: Hope Amidst Catastrophe
13 November 2022
Was there ever a time when you felt like your whole world was collapsing? Perhaps you received shocking news of a health condition for yourself or a loved one, or it was the loss of someone very dear to you either through death or a breakup, or you were retrenched from your job suddenly without warning. Whatever that situation was, it certainly felt like a catastrophe to you.
Or maybe you are looking around at the wider world right now and it feels like the world is collapsing. The wars, the uprisings, the political tensions between nations, the soaring inflation, the ongoing climate crisis. The world seems to be falling apart, and it can sometimes feel catastrophic.
When we are in the midst of catastrophes, it can be very difficult to have hope. Everything around us goes dark and it feels like we have lost it all. And the question deep in our hearts is: does God understand what I/we am going through? Does God even care? How can I/we have hope even in the midst of such catastrophe?
Jesus talked about an impending catastrophe with his followers days before he died. He told them what to expect and more importantly, what they could do when it happens.
Luke 21:5-19 (NRSVue)
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus 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?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and, ‘The time is near!’[b] 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.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there 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. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, 15 for I will give you words[c] and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
16 You will be betrayed even by parents and siblings, by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
This passage is a difficult one, not just to preach on but also to hear. Jesus was warning his disciples about what was going to happen to them, as well as the temple in Jerusalem. But what temple was Jesus referring to?
If you go to Israel today, you would most probably visit this site: this is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is said to be sitting on top of the site of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. And this Second Temple was the one that Jesus and the people were talking about here in this passage.
If you visit this area today, you will also see the famous Western Wall, or what some call the Wailing Wall. This wall was originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Temple by Herod the Great, and it is known as the Wailing Wall due to the practice of Jews weeping at the site over the destruction of the Temples.
The First Temple was built by King Solomon after King David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital. But this Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and he deported all the Jews to Babylon.
After roughly 70 years of exile in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem under an edict issued by King Cyrus of Persia. Once the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they rejoiced at their homecoming and started building the Second Temple, which was quite a modest structure compared to the First Temple.
Many years later, Kind Herod decided to do a massive renovation project under his campaign, “Make Judea Great Again.” He poured in immense resources to refurbish and expand the temple and the surrounding area. This was all happening during Jesus’ time.
The Temple was beautiful. The Temple was stunning and huge. Some scholars estimate that the outer court could hold 400,000 people. The Temple was impressive, as a building that honors the God who alone is God, should be.
So the people were admiring the stones and the gifts that had been dedicated to God at the temple when Jesus delivered some horrible news. This temple that the people were so awed by would soon be completely destroyed. Standing next to this grand structure that exudes an air of invincibility, Jesus gives an unimaginable response: “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.” (21:6)
How can that be? The people who heard what Jesus said must have been shocked. How could something so beautiful, so permanent-looking, be destroyed so thoroughly? This wasn’t just any building or monument. To the Jews, this was the center of their faith, the sacred place that represented God’s presence to them. Why would God allow something like this to happen?
Because of what Jesus was foretelling in this passage, this Luke text is known as apocalyptic literature. But the word ‘apocalypse’ carries many images and meanings to our modern minds.
Question 1 (Word Cloud)
What images come to mind when you think of the apocalypse?
News and media often use the word apocalypse to mean a large scale catastrophe or disaster. There are also movies about a zombie apocalypse. Apocalypse can also be a theological way of talking. It sometimes refers to the end of the world or the end point of history in Christianity.
But in fact, the word “apocalypse” means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revelation. It is a disclosure of something secret and hidden.
Debi Thomas says, “To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.”
In this sense, what Jesus offers his disciples is an apocalyptic vision. He invites them to look beyond the grandeur of the temple, to look beyond the superficial, and to put their ultimate hope in God who they cannot see, instead of these massive human constructions that we all tend to be wowed by.
In fact, just before this passage, we see Jesus observing the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury in Luke 21:1-4.
And he commended the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Jesus sees things differently. He is able to look beyond the material and superficial, and see one’s heart. Therefore, he is inviting us to have different eyes. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when all will be thrown down.”
Instead, Jesus is inviting us to see beyond what is on the surface, beyond what we humans usually find impressive and trustworthy, so we may learn to see and trust God’s heart. As human beings, we want something tangible to hold on to, something that we can see, something that we can touch. But God is Spirit, and it takes spiritual senses to see and feel God.
That is not always easy and this is one of the reasons why we gather as community. Jesus said in John 13:35, “The world will know that you are my disciples when you have love for one another.” And while it is helpful to have a place to worship together as a community, Jesus was telling his followers in our passage today that ultimately, the temple is only a building that is temporary.
But God’s Spirit is eternal and that’s what we should be focusing our eyes and energy on. In the example of the poor widow, Jesus also modelled what it means to see others beyond the superficial and to see their heart. When we are able to see and value beyond the superficial, that is one step towards helping us have hope amidst catastrophe.
Do you know that the word Luke uses to describe the utter destruction of the temple (kataluo in Greek) is the same word from which we derive the word “catastrophe?” This is very apt because catastrophe is a term that describes what happens when all that we have put our trust in is utterly destroyed. So this text is encouraging us to trust in the One who is eternal and cannot be destroyed.
Question 2 (Word Cloud)
So who or what do you currently put your trust in?
There is nothing wrong with trusting ourselves, our family, our friends, our loved ones. We should be able to trust ourselves and the people we care about.
However, the question is: in comparison to how much you trust humans or institutions, how much do you trust in God? And is your relationship with God one that is growing in trust over time? And if it isn’t, why not? Learn to trust in the One who loves you beyond measure, the Eternal One who cannot be destroyed. Then learn to see others the way Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t look at their external attractiveness, success or wealth. Jesus looks at the heart. Can we learn to see and trust God’s heart? Can we learn to look beyond the surface and see the hearts of people the way Jesus does?
Secondly, Jesus says it’s important to develop the discernment to know who it is that we follow. He says, “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.
This point is closely connected with our first point. When we are able to see beyond the material and the superficial, when we are better able to see the heart of God and others, we will develop the discernment to know who it is that we follow. As Christians, we often say we are following Christ but do you really? Are you truly following Christ in the things you do and say? Do you trust God’s heart more and more, or are you easily swayed by the messages you hear from various sources about disasters and the end of the world?
Throughout history, we have had no lack of false prophets who say, “The time is near” or “We know who the anti-Christ is” or “The world will end on this specific date,” etc. And some have believed these false prophets to their detriment.
When Jesus told his followers about the imminent destruction of the Temple, the first question they asked him was when. When would the catastrophe happen? Then they asked, “What are the signs?” We human beings continue to be obsessed about the ‘when’ and the signs. That’s why there are many false prophets. We are constantly trying to predict when the end of the world will take place, and the signs that will help alert us to that. But Jesus doesn’t really answer their question of when. Instead he warns them not to be led astray, and to not be afraid when they hear of wars and insurrections. He says, “Do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
We want to know when the end times is but Jesus is essentially saying knowing when is not what’s most important. What’s most important is knowing what you need to do in the face of catastrophe. Because these things will happen. But how can you have hope even in the midst of catastrophe?
First, we need to see beyond what is on the surface, so we can learn to see and trust God’s heart. Then we need to learn to look beyond the surface and see the hearts of people the way Jesus does. Once we are able to see, then we will be able to develop the discernment to know who it is that we follow. Lastly, the willingness to testify at every opportunity because Jesus will give us the words and wisdom we need, and the deep assurance that we will not perish.
The interesting thing about testifying is that it not only benefits the people who hear us, but it helps strengthen our own hearts too when we give voice to, and articulate who God is in our lives, and all that God has done for us.
Our testimony, our witness is important because many in the world can only see the tangible, the temple, and the beautiful stones. God needs us to be the eyes and the voice of the Gospel, when the world and those who have the loudest voices in it, seem to only care about the externals and the impermanent. We are called to have a vision that can perceive God’s hand at work even when things around us seem to be crumbling down. We are called to testify to the hope we have in God.
And when we question how we will testify or where we will find the words for our witness, Jesus reminds us, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
See -> Discern -> Testify
In order to testify, we need to first be able to see beyond the surface and trust God’s heart, then develop the discernment to know the One that we follow, and finally to testify to who God is and what God has done.
The reality is we will face challenges in this life, and for the disciples, some faced betrayal, persecution, and even death. Jesus certainly didn’t mince his words when he was telling them what was going to happen.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and siblings, 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 21:16-19)
It sounds almost contradictory when Jesus says “they will put some of you to death” and then he says “but not a hair of your head will perish.” What does he mean? Physical death does not equal to perishing. We will all physically die at some point. But our souls can be very alive even in the face of death. That is Jesus’ assurance and promise to us. You may be hated, you may be betrayed, you may even face death. But you will not perish! By your endurance you will gain your souls. Your souls will remain alive till the end of time!
Tembi Locke, the author of From Scratch, a memoir about finding love, experiencing loss and the death of her husband, said:
“Any conversation about death is really a disguised conversation about living.” -Tembi Locke, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home
Any conversation about death is about how we want to live our lives. It’s an invitation to talk about how we are living, how we want to live our lives, and what we want to leave behind.
Who you are will not perish. What you leave behind will not perish. Your soul will not perish.
That’s what Jesus was trying to say. Jesus was trying to tell his disciples how to live with hope even in the midst of the catastrophic circumstances that they will experience, not may experience.
Perhaps for us, we might not experience the same kinds of persecutions and catastrophes like the disciples did. But we will certainly experience our own kinds of catastrophes. And my prayer for you is that you will always find hope amidst catastrophe, with God’s help.
These 3 points may sound like a simplistic formula and I know they are not the be all and end all of what it means to have hope. I know catastrophes are hard, and these 3 points will not be enough. But I hope it will at least provide a framework for you to start on when everything around you feels dark and difficult, and you don’t even know where to begin.
Like the early disciples of Jesus, may we as the Body of Christ carry hope within us even in the most difficult circumstances, as we develop eyes to see beyond the superficial, the discernment to know who it is that we follow, and the willingness to always testify of who God is and what God has done. Amen.