Over the years, there have been some misguided souls who have taken Jesus’s words from Luke 21 as a picture of something to look forward to, something even to hope for. False prophets? Insurrections? Wars and rumors of wars and insurrections? Some people have been told to hope for these things, because when they start, supposedly, they will be signs that Jesus is coming again soon. Even worse, a few people have decided, from time to time, that we should make the signs ourselves, or at least lay the groundwork for them, to speed up Jesus’s arrival. In the 1800s, in the U.S., for the first time in the history of the church people started making charts and graphs to pinpoint the exact date of the end time, of the second coming of Christ. This started a way of thinking that still exists among some people today: a bizarre, strange hope for things to start going really badly, for destruction and chaos to take over, so that Christ will come again. This is a perverted hope, and one version I’ve heard of it in recent years has been among people who oppose caring for God’s good creation on the grounds that it’s all just going to be blown away anyhow.
In fact, this kind of obsession with signs and warnings is exactly what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples not to have. There is a warning in this passage: things are not always going to be easy. There will be bad times, and even worse times, but these are not signs of some “end of the world” fantasy playing out in the politics of our lives. The temptation in difficult times will be to be obsess over them, to waste time wondering whether they have some deeper meaning. That temptation is terrible, because it distracts us from our consistent calling, in times good and bad, to endure the things of this world and to testify to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The warning could not be clearer: when people say, “Jesus is near; he’s just around the corner,” “do not be led astray.” Run away from those people! Do not become one of them yourself!
As Christians we are called never to hope for evil. Never, under any circumstances, are we to hope for evil. Evil, in all cases, is contrary to God. God may use evil things for good, but that is never a reason to hope for them. Evil is the very opposite of God. God did not make evil, and God does not want us to hope in evil things. War, destruction, chaos, indifference, hatred, contempt: these are all devices of evil. They are to be endured. They are not to be trusted, hoped for, or celebrated. To delight in them is to delight in everything that is opposed to Jesus Christ. To delight in evil, to hope for evil things, is to become an antichrist.
When we hear Jesus talking about the evil that, from time to time, will arise in this world, we must not understand his words as something to hope for. But they are, as I’ve said, a warning. A warning, first of all, to remain faithful and undistracted when facing the devices of evil. But Jesus is also issuing a warning about putting too much stock in the way things are right now, in the institutions and structures that seem to provide stability and safety for us. Christ lived during the Pax Romana, an era when the peace and security of the Roman Empire were vigorously enforced and defended against all threats, real or imagined. Jesus was executed for the sake of the Pax Romana. But his words in Luke 21 are a prophetic judgment against hoping in peace through security. Roman citizens and their conquests assumed Rome would last forever, but Jesus exposes that hope for the falsehood it is. The peace will collapse, eventually; nation will rise against nation. Rome will come to an end, as all nations will rise and eventually fall.
At the same time, Jesus brings it very close to home for his original Jewish audience: not even the Temple itself will stand forever. One day every stone of this building will be overturned. This was not good news to those who gathered in Jerusalem, and it’s likely to be the thing that got Jesus killed on the cross. No one who heard Jesus thought, “Oh, I can’t wait for that to happen! Yes!” In fact, they didn’t believe him, which is why they asked for signs concerning the Temple’s destruction. But it’s worth pointing out that Jesus was right about the Temple; by A.D. 70, it was gone. And Jesus was right about Rome, too, which collapsed just a few hundred years after the Temple. Hoping in the structures of this world, however good they seem to us, is a false hope.
This most recent election cycle has exposed, again, the false hope that many people, even Christians, continue to place in the nations of this world, especially in the nation of the United States. But if Jesus’s words mean that Rome will not last forever, that even the Temple will one day disappear, they also mean that the United States is no more eternal than that ancient empire or once-hallowed building, both now long gone. Our faithfulness, as followers of Jesus Christ, does not depend on the strength of the United States, or of any other nation. This is only our temporary home. We should want good things for it, and for those who live there with us, but we must not hope in the peace of the United States. We must not believe the falsehood that this country will last forever. Just because we should not hope in the destruction of all things does not mean we should hope in the endurance of those things that are destined to pass away. There will come a day when the United States is no more. And we must not be ignorant of the cost of the Pax Americana, the peace of this country, which has also come at a high cost for many innocent lives in this country, and around the world. Neither destruction nor worldly peace achieved through strength and security are to be where we place our hope.
One of the things that gets me really riled up about people who love to talk about the end times is how much they dwell on passages about destruction and war and chaos, on passages like Luke 21, and how little they seem to know of the rest of the Bible. The man Jesus who warns us not to put our hope in destruction or the structures of this world is the Word of God who became flesh for our salvation. And this Word, who shows up in Luke 21, is the same Word who speaks in Isaiah 65. And in a world where evil forces lure us to taste of their wares of hatred and contempt and self-righteousness and indifference, the Word in Isaiah 65 is a powerful statement of our true hope in Jesus Christ. New heavens and new earth; creating; joy and delight; vineyards and fruit; peace and life. Old enemies will gather around a common table. Things that seem natural to us, like predators feasting on prey, will be upended, and “that’s just the way things are” will be revealed for the deep lie it really is. No one shall hurt or destroy on the Lord’s holy mountain.
What makes this hope different from the false hopes we too often indulge is that this hope is a living hope: it lives the body of Jesus Christ. Christ’s own body, his human, physical body becomes the banquet table where enemies can meet in peace, where new life and new creation burst forth in springs of joy and celebration. Christ’s own body becomes the food of this feast, the bread and the cup we need for our own restoration. This hope is a living hope because we, as members of Christ’s body, are called to live out this hope in our own lives. When our church is a place where signs of peace are passed, not in ritual but in witness to the truth that Christ is our peace, hope lives in our midst. When we care for the child, the youth, and the elderly alike, hope lives in our midst. When we delight in new life at the baptismal font, hope lives in our midst. When we refuse to hurt or destroy, hope lives in our midst.
The lure of false hopes is strong, but our witness to the true hope of Jesus Christ can endure. When we have given in to false hopes, we need to repent and return to the living hope. But we know that Christ is ready to receive us and revive our hope, because Christ is our reconciliation. Christ is our gospel. Christ is our peace. Christ is our hope. Live out this hope you have in Christ! Make Centre a font of the living stream that flows through the true eternal city of God!
Surely God is our salvation; we will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is our strength and our might; he has become our salvation. With joy let us draw water from the wells of salvation. Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for in Jesus Christ he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, o heavenly city, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12, excerpted and modified)