The church year is wending its way to its inevitable close. As surely as the Christmas section in each and every commercial enterprise has so ballooned so that you have to trudge the long way around to avoid tripping over fake greenery and grotesque tinsel, the gospel readings have picked up their bleak, stark apocalyptic tempo.
Today, Jesus, observing in those final days of his earthly life the temple and all its glory, stands back and pronounces his judgment—it will all come crumbling down. His disciples are astonished and want more information. And so, in those quieter moments before his sorrowful passion overturns the world, he tells his closest friends what to expect, what signs of the apocalypse (TM) they should keep their eyes peeled open so as not to miss.
I mean, I, like everyone else, love the thrill of the news, the frisson of recounting the horrors that surely must indicate that the end is nigh. Several years ago, I spent a month being shocked that no one can even eat bread (I was trying to go carb free for reasons of personal vanity). No one can eat bread, I said over and over, to whomever would listen, and Jesus is the Bread of Life. It’s so awful that the most basic element of life would be so useless to so much of humanity. And yet he did not return. Then came the sudden cultural revolution of marriage, and fifteen minutes later, sex and gender. This is astonishing, I said every day. Satan is having a party with the essential nature of humankind. This is so apocalyptic. And yet here we are, still in the thick of it, getting used to the idea that pronouns are there for the picking.
Jesus’ own apocalyptic trigger is less astonishing. It is one of those things that everyone says they are angry about, but only in that helpless sense, like, I think it’s awful, but I just don’t know what to do to fix it.
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” – Luke 21:1-4
Lots of people like to think that this is a commendation. Look at her great faith! She gave everything. Be like her. But this little glimpse into a single woman’s poverty is sandwiched between Jesus’ ongoing battle with the Pharisees and Sadducees, his castigation of the Scribes who “devour widows’ houses,” and his judgement on the temple. And wouldn’t you know, there comes a widow and puts her last money into the box—like an elderly desperate pensioner dispatching the last of her social security to Paula White, rich, flashy Paula White, drowning in money Paula White—there in the bright and shining gold-encrusted temple over which the disciples cannot help marveling. It’s all going to be a heap of rubble, says Jesus. It’s hard to imagine that this is a dispassionate, an emotionless declaration.The scene Jesus paints of the end of the world is so stark, so bleak, it’s interesting to me that we Christians look so forward to it. It’s the opposite of what I want to “endure”—the word Jesus uses to tie it all up with a bow. Which part would be “endurable?” The wars? The rumors of war? The earthquakes? Famines? Pestilence? Terrors? The being persecuted? Arrested? Turned in by family and close friends? And none of that is what I’m supposed to be looking for. That’s just the pre-party, the stuff before the powers of the heavens are even shaken, before the fainting, the terror, the moment when you least want to lift up your head to face anything. That’s when you look up, says Jesus, so that you can see me descending on a cloud in great glory, the only light left in the sky, the dawn, your own salvation.
In the meantime, don’t be lead astray by people who think they know who I am or when I’m coming. And so, for a couple thousand years, everyone has deliberated over just that, has counted the days, has been sure that “it can’t get any worse.”
In one sense, we’re—all of us who wonder about these kinds of things—right. It can’t get any worse because it’s always been really bad. That first moment when Adam and Eve fled in terror from their home, when darkness descended into the hearts of men and women, when fraud and rebellion became the currency of human flourishing, it couldn’t get any worse. That would have been a decent moment to end it all. Instead, God thought it better to let the wickedness, the subversion, the treason mount up. In every age the human family finds another way to undo God’s good and perfect work—new ways, and yet they are always the same, they all have their seeds in that one bite of fruit.
Jesus said all these things and many others, arguing in the temple with the people who most wanted him dead. And then at night he trudged out of the city to lodge, to get some rest before his coming ordeal. His disciples followed him back and forth, not understanding what was going on. “Watch yourselves,” says Jesus, turning on them, “lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap…stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Because, though Jesus will stand before the sons of men, will endure their judgement, will submit himself to the evil intentions of their hearts, that will not be his final word. He will go up in a cloud, having, rather quietly it turns out, over turned the whole order of human striving. It’s only a matter of time before he comes back.