Focus

Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The temple in Jerusalem—Herod’s temple—had been under construction for more than 40 years when Jesus sat down in its outer courtyard to speak with his disciples.  Herod had begun constructing the temple in 20 BCE, and it was already regarded as one of the wonders of the world even though it wouldn’t be completed until 63 CE, some thirty years after this teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples.

In order to be able to build the massive temple he envisioned, Herod first had to rebuild Mount Moriah, the low mountain on which the temple stood.  To do this, he encased the mountain with walls more than 33 meters (108 feet) high, then filled in the space with earth until it encompassed an area of more than 144,000 square meters.    

The temple in Jerusalem was a visual wonder.  A description in the Talmud says that  the interior walls of the temple were faced with blue, yellow, and white marble.   Gold spikes lined the parapet wall on the roof.  Josephus wrote that the entire eastern fascia was covered with gold.  “The rays of the early morning sun, striking the Temple façade created a blinding reflection,” he wrote.  “The rest was white, so that this towering edifice looked like a snow-clad mountain from afar.” 

It must have sounded like madness for Jesus to say that it was all coming down—that not one stone would be left upon another.  But by the time Luke wrote his gospel, sometime around the year 85, everything Jesus predicted in today’s gospel reading had already happened.  

In 70 CE, during the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman general Titus destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem along with it.  

Six years before that, the emperor Nero had carried out the first official persecutions against Christians, using them as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.

As for wars and rumors of wars, just between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time Luke wrote them down, Rome fought the Roman-Parthian War, the Boudica Uprising in Britain, the first Jewish-Roman War, the Spartacus war, the Lepidus versus Sulla Roman Civil War, the Sertorian War and the first of three wars with the Kingdom of Dacia.  

Wars and rumors of wars.  Earthquakes.  The eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Portentous signs in the heavens.  Famines.  Plagues. Persecutions.  All these things happened between the time Jesus spoke those prophetic words and the time Luke wrote them down in his account of the life and teaching of Jesus.   

But the world did not end.

Dositheos the Samaritan, Theudas the Rebel, Simon bar Kokhba and other would-be liberators of Israel gathered followers, led rebellions and claimed to be the Messiah.  They were not.  And now history barely remembers them.

It’s easy to get distracted by apocalyptic thinking and doomsday scenarios.  That’s why books like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have always sold so well.  But Jesus made it pretty clear that we’re not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about that.  “About that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “—not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)

These lectionary texts that we have for today from Malachi, Second Thessalonians and Luke invite us to focus.  You could say they invite us to focus on what we’re focusing on—on what’s getting our attention.

The gospel lesson for today comes right after the passage where Jesus comments on the poor widow who put her two pennies—all she had–into the temple treasury.  The disciples were busy gazing at the grandeur of the temple and didn’t even see her until Jesus pointed her out to them.  They were focused on the impressive architecture.  Jesus, on the other hand, was focused on the people.  

Are we seeing what Jesus sees…or are we distracted?

It’s understandable that the disciples were captivated by the splendor and beauty of the temple as they sat there with Jesus, but they lost focus on why they had come to Jerusalem in the first place.  Reading the gospel accounts, you have to wonder if they ever really understood why they were there to begin with, although Jesus certainly tried to tell them often enough.  And now, there they were, a day or two away from his crucifixion and they kept getting distracted—first by the beauty of the temple then by speculations about apocalypse.  “When will this be?  Teacher, what will be the secret signs that all this is about to happen?”

To be fair, I know I would have had the same questions.  I suspect you might, too.  Wouldn’t you want to be ready for it?  Even with our long historical perspective that tells us that wars and plagues and famines and earthquakes and false messiahs have been pretty much stock set pieces in the long drama of life on earth—even though all these things have  always been happening—and are happening right now—we would want to know when the grand finale is coming to our neighborhood.   We would want to know when the final curtain for everyone everywhere is coming down.

Because the lectionary cycle repeats, we get this same group of texts every three years.  But even with that repeating cycle, I believe that these texts continue to speak to us in a unique way every time they come up.  They always seem timely—sometimes so much so that it’s uncanny. 

Six years ago we were reading these texts on the first Sunday after the presidential election when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote but Donald Trump carried the Electoral College.  That was a pretty tense time.  A lot of people were wondering what would happen next.  I thought it was noteworthy that Hillary Clinton even quoted a line from our 2nd Thessalonians in her concession speech: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  

Three years ago these texts came up while we were wading through the first impeachment hearings.  Again, it was a tense time and people wondered if the country’s anxiety might explode into something more than oppositional rhetoric. 

Today we hear these texts right after the most anxious and divisive midterm elections in a long, long time—an election fraught with partisan vitriol and acts of violence.  While the votes are still being counted, many are wondering if our polarized political division in this country can ever be healed.  A lot of people are focused on that.

It’s hard sometimes not to let our focus, our vision, be hijacked by the currents of anger and isolation that have been flooding our lives with such violence. There was another school shooting this week, this time in Seattle.  As of November 11, Veterans Day, there had been 589 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.  A total of 38,431 people have been killed by gun violence so far this year.  That certainly deserves our attention.   

We are still dealing with a pandemic that physically isolated us from each other.  We are still dealing with the fallout from the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

On this Veterans Day weekend it would be irresponsible not to mention the epidemic of veterans committing suicide.  

We have an ongoing addiction crisis.  Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. remain at record levels. According to provisional data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdose in the 12-month period ending last March.

Homelessness.  The high cost of housing.  The cost of education.  Racism.  Inflation. Climate change that threatens our very existence… These things all need our attention.

Spouse. Family.  Work.  Church.  School.  Neighbors.  Community Groups.  Meetings. These things are all worthy of our attention.

Netflix.  Apple +.  Disney +.  Prime Video.  HBO.  Showtime.  Cable News.  Sports.  Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. These things are all very good at distracting us when the world just seems to be too much.

So where do you focus?

It’s tempting, very tempting, to just shrug it all off, give up and wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  Some Christians have built whole theologies around that.  The writer of 2nd Thessalonians was dealing with that very problem when he said to keep away from “those living in idleness.”  Apparently some people were so convinced that Jesus was coming back at any moment that they just stopped working and were mooching off the rest of the community.  They had lost focus on what Christ had called them to be and to do.

Focus.

Focus on what is helping.  Focus on what is good.  Focus on what is improving.  Focus on what you can be thankful for.  Focus on what is changing.  Focus on what needs to be changed.  But don’t be anxious.  Don’t let it all overwhelm you.  Do what you can where you can when you can.  

Then take a breath.

Take a breath.  And take a long look back.  

Everything changes.  There are only three things that are eternal:  God, Life, and Love.  And life and love are eternal because they come from God. 

The crazy politics, the anger and fear and hate, the anxiety and tension, the stupidity and racism, all the antagonism, all the misunderstandings… will someday all fade into history.

The beautiful temples, the faces that we cherish and hands we hold, our favorite music and art will someday all be lost to the world’s memory.

But God, Life and Love will live on.  And because we are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit and life and loved by God, so will we.

So let’s stay focused.  Let’s keep moving forward.  Let’s focus on the vision, as Jesus did, that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach.  Let’s keep working to make that a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, a dystopian, destructive, apocalyptic unraveling of our world is always a possibility, but there’s no point worrying about it.  Instead, let’s keep working to build the alternative.  

Martin Luther was once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces I would still plant my apple tree.”

So let’s do that.  Let’s keep planting our apple trees.  Let’s live in hope.

“The very least you can do in your life,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”[1]

Let’s live inside our hope.  Let’s focus on making the world a healthier, safer, more loving place for those who come after us.  Let’s seek first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness.  In a world of bad news, let’s not just proclaim the Good News, let’s begood news.

And even if it looks like the walls of the temple are coming down, it doesn’t have to bring us down with it.  “Do not be weary in doing what is right.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

May we continue to live inside our hope.  And may God embrace us with mercy so that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver