TITLE: By Your Endurance SCRIPTURE: Luke 21:5-19
Our Gospel lesson today begins shockingly. Some of Jesus' disciples remarked about the beauty of the temple. Jesus responded by saying:
"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" (v. 6).
These words have lost their ability to shock us, because we have seen so many grand buildings destroyed -- and because we know so little about the great temple in Jerusalem. But imagine for a moment how Jesus' disciples felt.
Jesus and his disciples were in the temple courtyard, where Jesus was teaching and preaching. The surroundings were magnificent. Long rows of white marble columns created beautiful walkways and porches. Each column stood forty feet tall, and was carved from a single stone.
Above the entrance was a vine of gold, and hanging from the vine were clusters of golden grapes -- clusters as tall as a man.
Josephus, the great historian, said:
"The outward face of the temple in its front...
was covered all over with plates of gold, of great weight,
and at the first rising of the sun,
reflected back a very fiery splendor,
and made those who forced themselves to look upon it
to turn their eyes away,
just as they would have done at the sun's own rays."
"The temple appeared to strangers,
when they were at a distance,
like a mountain covered with snow,
for, as to those parts of it that were not gilt,
they were exceeding white."
Keep in mind that the temple was built on a mountain -- Mount Zion. It was located so that it dominated the top of the mountain. When viewed from a distance, its white stones made it appear as if the mountain were snow-capped. Can you imagine!
Not only was the temple majestic, but it was also new. Its construction was the crowning achievement of King Herod's reign. They called him Herod the Great, because he managed a largely successful reign during which he built the temple and lots of other things as well.
But King Herod, who had been dead for many years by the time Jesus and his disciples gathered at the temple, was no angel. He was the king who had his soldiers kill all the infant boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus. He had failed then, and Jesus was now saying that Herod's great new temple would soon lie in ruins.
The disciples must have been shocked when he said that. They could look at the magnificent temple, constructed of huge stones, and wonder how anyone could destroy a building like that. The temple was dedicated to the worship of God, and they must have wondered why Jesus would condemn a building dedicated to the worship of God.
But what Jesus said fit in with a Jewish concept called "The Day of the Lord" -- a concept often alluded to in the Bible. "The Day of the Lord" was to be a transition time between "The Present Age," an altogether evil time fit only for destruction, and "The Age to Come," the golden age of God's reign. "The Day of the Lord" -- the transition time -- was to be terrible and turbulent.
The events of which Jesus spoke did come to pass. Jerusalem fell to the Roman army in A.D. 70 after a desperate siege in which the inhabitants of the city were reduced to cannibalism. Once they gained entrance to the city, the Roman soldiers leveled it -- leveled the city and leveled the temple.
The destruction of the temple meant more than the wrecking of a grand building. It meant the collapse of a people -- of a way of life. Josephus, the historian, says that more than a million people died in the siege of Jerusalem -- and another hundred thousand were carried into captivity. The Jewish nation came to an end.
Jesus told his disciples that they could expect terrible times -- betrayal, persecution, and even death. He said, "This will give you an opportunity to testify" (v. 13). Then he added:
"I will give you words and a wisdom
that none of your opponents
will be able to withstand or contradict" (v. 15).
And, of course, it was not long before Christians were being persecuted. The blood of the martyrs soaked the ground, becoming the compost from which the church has grown.
This passage bears testimony to the fact that our hardships enhance our ability to witness for Christ. When we experience hardship, we tend to lean on God for support, and our spiritual lives improve. Also, the testimony of a "Job," who remains faithful in adversity, is far more powerful than the testimony of someone who is comfortable.
In discussing this scripture, I commented on the fact that the churches that are growing rapidly around the world are those that are reaching out to the poor and the powerless. There are exceptions, of course. But even the really vital churches where the pews are cushioned and luxury cars fill the parking lots tend to be churches that are challenging their people to reach out to the poor and the powerless.
God really can use our adversities in a powerful way. In his book, Loving God, Chuck Colson recounts the story of Telemachus, a fourth-century Christian monk from a remote Asian village. One day, he thought he heard God telling him to go to Rome, so he set out on foot.
Weeks later he arrived in Rome, and found great crowds surging toward the Coliseum. He followed them into that great arena, and saw two gladiators stand before the emperor and say, "We who are about to die salute you." Telemachus suddenly realized that these men were about to fight to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. He cried out, "In the name of Christ, stop!"
As the games began, Telemachus pushed his way through the crowd, climbed the wall, and dropped to the floor of the arena. The crowd, hearing him shout, "In the name of Christ, stop!" thought that he was part of the show, and they began to laugh. Soon, however, they realized that he was trying to stop the fight, and they became angry.
As Telemachus pleaded with the gladiators to stop, one of them plunged a sword into his body and pushed him to one side. As he lay dying, his last words were, "In the name of Christ, stop!"
Then a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at the little man lying on the arena floor. A hush fell over the Coliseum. Way up in one of the upper rows, a man stood and began to make his way to the exit. Others began to follow. In dead silence, the crowd made its way out of the Coliseum.
The year was 391 A.D., and that was the last battle to the death ever fought between gladiators in the Roman Coliseum. Never again did men kill each other in that great stadium for the entertainment of the crowd -- and all because of one tiny voice of a courageous man. Telemachus was just one person, but he spoke God's word faithfully.
Our scripture text today is not an easy one, but it does have a note of Gospel -- Good News. It is this. God is with us even in the most terrible of times, transforming the terrible times into times of opportunity. The cross looked like the end for Jesus, but was instead the beginning of the end for Satan. The Coliseum looked like the end for the thousands of Christians who died there, but it instead became a holy place for Christians who remembered their sacrifices.
What sufferings you and I will endure, I cannot say. But I can say this: It is during our most difficult times that we have the greatest opportunity to witness for our faith. It might not be so much what we say as the manner in which we endure. Sometimes all that a person can do -- and all that God requires -- is that we continue to be people of faith even in the midst of adversity. That kind of endurance bears powerful testimony to those who know what we are suffering.
Our scripture today concludes with these words. Jesus says:
"But not a hair of your head will perish.
By your endurance
you will gain your souls" (vv. 18-19).
That cannot mean that Christians are exempt from physical harm, because Jesus also says, "they will put some of you to death" (v. 16).
No, we are not exempt from physical suffering or even from death. Instead, we have the promise that God is with us even as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death. James Ayscough puts it this way:
"Death is but a sharp corner
near the beginning of life's procession down eternity."
The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin,
and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God,
who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ"
(1 Corinthians 15:55-57).