In this week’s “Sunday’s Coming” lectionary post at Christian Century (which I cannot link to, but you can subscribe here – update, you can now read it here), the brilliant Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb invites us to think about whether or not we are living in apocalyptic times. She points out, rather helpfully, that the word “apocalypse” doesn’t mean “the end of the world” or “the great cosmic battle between good and evil.” Instead, it simply means “revelation” or “unveiling.” While it may be tempting to think, and popular culture has jumped upon the idea, that the book of Daniel, the Revelation of John, or any number of Jesus’ sayings are specifically dealing with the eschaton (the last), they are apocalyptic texts, unveiling that which has been previously unseen.
Take, for example, Jesus’ apocalypse in Sunday’s gospel lesson. Having spent the better part of half a week arguing with the Temple authorities, Jesus and his disciples retreat to the Mount of Olives. Jesus must be deep in prayer for the city and people he loves so much, but his disciples are more like tourists, oohing and aahing over the sites in the city down below.
As they sit, the can see before them three very impressive structures. In the foreground is the Temple, built around 516 BCE, but recently updated by order of Herod the Great. Just behind it, and probably standing just a bit taller than the Temple itself was Antonia’s Fortress, also built under the reign of Herod the Great, and named after Mark Antony. Finally, toward the Upper City section, there was Herod’s Palace, built by, you guessed it, Herod the Great.
Each of these buildings was impressive, built of huge stone, standing taller than anything else in the city, and each served as a symbol of Rome’s power and might. As the disciples gawk at their magnitude, Jesus opens the curtain to show them that despite their beauty, these buildings are not what God had planned for Jerusalem. “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus was not interested in Rome’s symbols of power. He was especially distressed that even God’s Temple had taken on the trapping of Roman influence. It was no longer a house of prayer for all people, but a place where money and influence were the name of the game. God’s desire wasn’t for big buildings and elaborate worship, and so Jesus opened the veil to show the people what God really desired: that his people would follow his will through prayer, study, and loving service.
As we know, he wasn’t talking about the end of days either. When his disciples pushed him on the when question, he was quick to say that these things were only the beginning. Some three decades after his death, most of Jesus’ apocalyptic vision would take place. During the Jewish Revolt of 66-73CE, all three of Herod’s monuments to Roman power would suffer significant damage. Herod’s Palace was nearly burned to the ground by Jewish revolutionaries in 66AD. The Temple and Antonia’s Fortress were both destroyed by Roman hands during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70AD.
Not one stone would stand upon another, yet the power of God would continue to work in the lives of the faithful. Through the diaspora that resulted from persecutions following Stephen’s stoning, Nero’s fire, and the Jewish Revolt, the Good News of Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world. What was seen as an end, really was only the beginning. So let’s not worry about wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and flood, but rather, let’s be about the business of sharing God’s love for a suffering world.