The End of the World As We Know It

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 33
November 13, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Keeping alert for the coming of Jesus doesn't mean doing nothing but waiting for the glory to begin. We don't know when the Master will return, but we should know we're expected to keep working hard for the kingdom of justice and mercy, seeking, whether we succeed or not, to set God's world in order. Serve others. Serve Christ.

In the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, or as we would call it, AD 96, the monarch gave orders that all those descended from King David should be executed. Like Herod the Great a century before, Domitian feared the excitement about the belief that a descendant of David should become king. Very likely Domitian recalled that a generation earlier, the Judeans revolted against Rome because of the belief in a Messiah, leading to three years of horrifying war and the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple - as Jesus had predicted a generation before that, which is what today's scripture reading is all about.

In reality, as far as DNA is concerned, it's likely that most everyone living in the area of Palestine, and a good many scattered throughout the Roman Empire, shared some genes with King David, because after 1,000 years, everyone's genes get spread out in all directions. That's because we don't have a neat family tree, as we envision such a thing, but more of a tangled net that binds us together.

But, of course, the discovery of DNA and genetics lay two thousand years in the future. In the meantime, it was enough that members from a Christian breakaway group accused two grandsons of Judas, one of the relatives of Jesus,1 of being descended from David, and they were soon hauled before the emperor in Rome.

According to the second-century Christian historian Hegesippus, Domitian "asked them if they were of the house of David and they admitted it." Assuming that meant they had a lot of money, he asked how much they owned. The two Christians claimed they shared ownership of 9,000 denarii. However

... they did not possess this in money but that it was the valuation of only thirty-nine plethora of ground (around twenty acres) on which they paid taxes and lived on it by their own work. They then showed him their hands, adducing as testimony of their labor the hardness of their bodies, and the tough skin which had been embossed on their hands from their incessant work.2

The Emperor, no longer alarmed, asked about Christ's kingdom. The two explained that "it was neither of the world nor earthly, but heavenly and angelic, and it would be at the end of the world, when he would come in glory to judge the living and the dead."3

Domitian looked on them with disdain and released them because he "despised them as simple folk."4 They were no threat. This is typical of worldly rulers. They fear overthrow by a claimant to their throne, perhaps a general, or a relative or a favorite of the mob. But the real danger to tyrants is the judgment of God, and these relatives of Jesus made it very clear that they were saying Jesus would return to judge the world.

And why wouldn't they? This is what Jesus said himself!

And the walls come tumbling down

Today's passage seems to begin with comments from some of the awed tourists who were walking about the temple, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. We read: "some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God." They certainly had a right to be filled with wonder. According to the historian Josephus, the temple was constructed of stones chiseled to rough 40 by 18 by 12 feet. Carved flowers and vines were painted in bright colors after the fashion of the day, and "the largeness and fine workmanship of which was a surprising sight to the spectators, to see what vast materials there were, and with what great skill the workmanship was done."5

But the passage only seems to begin there. Jesus responded with vehemence: "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."

And where did this anger come from? Back up a few verses and it becomes clear: Jesus had just watched rich people casting their gifts into the trumpet-fluted offering bins. The coins, when tossed in, made a satisfyingly large clang and clatter. Only Jesus seems to have noticed the offering of the widow, two wafer-thin coins, which he called "all she had to live on."6

The disparity between rich and poor, the casual acceptance of the widow's poverty compared to the showcase for the gifts from the rich, seem to have been a catalyst for the stern warnings that followed.

The people who heard these words from Jesus weren't led to ask " Why will this happen?" They were more interested in how and when! People, after all, love a great disaster movie.

Perhaps some thought Jesus would lead a violent attack against the religious and political powers, but Jesus specifically warned against false Messiahs, noting that many would come in his name, saying, "I am he!" - stealing the words Jesus reserved for himself, ego eimi, I AM, claiming that "The time is near!" Jesus warned his followers "Don't follow them."7

In addition to describing the coming destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus also warned of betrayal by those they'd least expect and persecution from the established houses of worship, but also assured those present that the Holy Spirit would speak with us and for us. Rather than rely on reasoned arguments in one's defense, Jesus said our argument is Christ, and his crucifixion and resurrection. Stick to the basics.

Save yourself

One of the most puzzling things Jesus says to followers who could soon experience harrowing torture and death, is that "not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

The English word "souls" in that sentence is a rendering of the Greek word psyche , which means yourself, your very being. The thing we Christians should fear to lose is not life or limb, but who we are, whose we are and what it truly means to be a Christian . When we stand up for Christ, the cross and the truth, rather than misplaced faith in politicians or wealth and power, as some Christians seem to be doing, we are in danger of losing what it means to belong to Christ.

Make no mistake. The New Testament is very clear about the return of Jesus. As Jesus said himself later in this chapter; "Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory." Indeed, this is good news for the faithful because, as Jesus says, "your redemption is drawing near."8 But in the meantime we're to be wary of those who point to this sign or that sign. The real sign that matters - that triggered this whole conversation, remember - is the sight of the widow placing her meager two coins in the offering bin, while the rich paraded their wealth to their own praise.

This ought to hit home for us. The challenge to the post-pandemic church is how do we turn our attention away from our buildings and out towards the widows, the orphans, the outcasts, the refugees, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick - all those whom Jesus refers to elsewhere as "the least of these."9 And one way we can know if we are truly disciples is to have hard working hands like those of Jesus' relatives.

We can have a sense of false security if we're more concerned that our church grounds are in order, our offerings are collected and our piano is in tune, but it's the judgment that should terrify us. If we lose our psyches, our very being, by becoming caretakers instead of disciples of Jesus, we cease to be the church at precisely the time when we have the greatest opportunity we have had in a long while to reach out and make a difference for Christ.

Not that our church properties are unhelpful. They provide a roof and four walls for us to gather for worship, and their maintenance and upkeep is one of our tasks. But we risk making an idol of our buildings if we don't use them to serve our communities - through food banks, clothing centers, nursery schools or whatever creative ministries we engage in.

When Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago, he warned believers against the synagogues because that's where Christians gathered. Now, Jesus would refer to our churches, our buildings and those members who take a stand firmly against refugees, the poor and the suffering, and those who would do their best to cleanse the church of those who do not look like them.

The Emperor Domitian looked down on the family of Jesus because their hands showed signs of hard work, instead of pampered royalty. Our hands, and our hearts, should show every sign that we have taken the ministry of Jesus Christ seriously. Even though Jesus tells us to ignore the signs that seem to point to his return, we know his return is inevitable, will be final and will include all the faithful. That includes us, if we are true to the signs, like the widow, that matter.


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