The Secular Apocalypse

For the last 100 years the world has been living under the threat of doomsday. From 1914 to 1918 the most devastating war the world had ever seen took the lives of about nine million combatants and seven million civilians. The war was so catastrophic people didn’t know what to call it. Some called it “The Great War,” others called it “The War to End All Wars.” No one called it World War One, because no one could image there could ever be a second world war.

Then, just as the war was winding down a new strain of flu began to surface. One of the first cases was in Fort Riley, Kansas. Seven people died on a remote island north of Norway. Eventually the outbreak became severe in Spain, and the plague was called the Spanish Influenza. Before it was over 20 million to 50 million people had died, including 500,000 in the United States.

In Philadelphia a parade to celebrate the end of the war in 1918 drew a crowd of 200,000. Meanwhile St. Louis shut down the city with a very unpopular ruling. But the death rate in St. Louis was less than half of that in Philadelphia.

When things returned to normal, the roaring twenties followed the decade of death. But then it all came crashing down with the stock market failure of 1929, and the Great Depression followed. The depression didn’t really end until the Second World War, which was ended by the atomic bomb.
But prosperity returned and American factories were running full speed and new suburbs were sprouting up around our cities.

The prosperity and growth did have the side effect of pollution. In 1952 a “killer fog” resembling the biblical plagues in Exodus, and lasting five days killed 4000 right away and another 8000 through lingering illness.

By then the Cold War was in full force. The world had been divided into two spheres, the Communist Block and The Free World. The fearsome weapons developed to end the second world war hung over our heads like a sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, US soldiers, sailors, and marines were sent to South Korea to keep that country free.

The initial success in liberating the South made MacArthur overconfident, and he invaded the North to destroy its army and finish the task of liberating the Korean peninsula. But the Americans were met on a frozen tundra by the Chinese army who had invaded from the north.

The Chinese army was poorly equipped, but they had an unlimited number of young bodies to sacrifice. The approached uphill in wave after wave. Only the first lines and the last were given rifles, the last two shoot deserters. Those in the middle ranks were instructed to take a weapon from their fallen comrades in front of them.

The war in the North ended in a stalemate, and US forces are still there in South Korea and the DMZ keeping the peace.

Then the sixties brought us a serious of shocking assassinations and a quagmire in Vietnam, with protests in the streets and on college campuses. Amid that chaos, someone noticed that rivers were on fire and Eagles were dying. People started paying attention to the Doomsday Clock, which represented how close we were to extinction. It was originally set at 7 minutes to midnight, back in 1947 when it was created. In January of this year the clock was set to 100 seconds before midnight.

For one hundred years we have lived with the threat of the end of human life—and most other forms of life—on earth. The world has been in a secular apocalyptic threat. It’s no wonder that so many have been attracted to biblical texts speaking of the last days or judgment day.

The End of the Temple

In our text for today Jesus speaks of the last days and the end of the age. He is not referring primarily to the last days of the earth but to the last days of the Temple in Jerusalem. King Herod was in the middle of a massive renovation of the Second Temple. It was called the Second Temple because Solomon’s temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 B.C. A pitiful copy of Solomon’s temple was built after 70 years of captivity. Those old enough to remember the original wept when they saw the replacement.

Religion without a temple was unimaginable in Bible times. The temple for Judaism was a symbol of God’s presence, a place of prayer, a refuge of security. King Herod did a good job of building a glorious temple, and Jesus’ disciples marveled at the craftmanship and beauty. But Jesus told them the days of the temple were coming to an end. They couldn’t imagine the world continuing without the temple, so they assumed Jesus meant the end of the world. So, they asked Jesus a series of related questions. When will this happen? What will be the sign? And what will be the sign that you are coming?

Matthew 24 records the same incident, and Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus is speaking of two different events. He referred to Christ’s Second Coming to make the world right as “that day.” He referred to the end of the temple and the events surrounding it as “these things” and promised they would be fulfilled in “this generation.” He gave clear signs of “these things” that would happen in “this generation,” but said no one knows when “that day” will be.

Luke is primarily concerned with the end of the temple and the events that will precede it. Since we are following Luke’s Gospel this year, we will try to focus on his concerns. Let’s begin with the opening verses in today’s text:

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6)

WHY DID THE TEMPLE HAVE TO GO AWAY?

The temple was only a temporary provision. It was a concession to the needs of the people. They couldn’t imagine worshipping God without a solid, stone temple in a central location. They could not imagine praying to a homeless God. In the book of Genesis, the ancestors followed God from place to face and worshiped him wherever they were. Sometimes they built a simple altar or some other memorial. Then they moved on. In Exodus, they followed a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and worshiped God as he led them on the road to freedom. Moses did give them blueprints for a portable tabernacle, a “tent of meeting.”

But when David established the capital in Jerusalem, he thought a portable tent wasn’t good enough. So, he prayed and offered to build a house for God. The Lord was pleased at David’s offer, but would not allow David to do the work because his hands were stained with blood. The killing he did may have been justifiable and necessary, but still the Lord wanted his house to be a place of peace and built by a peaceful king.

So, Solomon undertook the work. The Lord accepted it and agreed to meet the people at the temple and hear prayers from there or said while facing that place. But there are hints throughout the Old Testament that the Master of the Universe did not really need or desire a stone temple.

The real place God desires to dwell is the human heart.
Until people could get used to that idea, God allowed them to think of him as dwelling in a room in an edifice—as long as they remembered he is not confined to it. The Lord inhabits heaven, he fills the universe, but when God’s people remembered to humble themselves and pray, he would hear their prayers from heaven and reveal his gracious presence in the House on earth. But that was only a temporary provision.

God’s plan was for the dead sacrifices offered at the temple to be replaced by the offering of praise, by the joyful living sacrifice of hearts filled with the goodness of God. God desires for the whole earth to be his temple and every human heart to be a holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple. As Paul and Peter put it, we are living stones in this living temple.

Corruption in the Temple

The community who moved down by the Dead Sea made that migration because they knew the temple establishment was corrupt. It wasn’t the foreign armies that defiled the temple this time; it was the priestly establishment who controlled temple activities. Jesus agreed with them when he drove the money changers out of the temple courts.
Herod’s building project was ongoing when Jesus and his disciples walked by.

In fact, the project was not completed until A.D. 64, just six years before it would all be destroyed. Just about that time various factions in Jerusalem and Galilee became so violent, civil war broke out. Then the Romans sent in the armies to put it down and bring their version of peace. What God had intended to do peacefully and naturally was now going to be done violently by a pagan army.

And so it happened. Christians who remembered the teaching of Jesus fled when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies. Those who remained in the city suffered horribly. Jesus wept at the thought of all that suffering. It is true that the leaders of Jerusalem brought it on themselves and their people. That does not make the suffering any less awful.

There were signs such as Jesus mentioned. Earthquakes, famines, strange meteorological phenomena, the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. The end of the temple era came. The General Titus ordered his soldiers to spare the temple. But one drunken soldier set it on fire. The Gold that crowned the building melted and ran down into the cracks between the stones. So, the soldiers dismantled the stones to get to the gold. Just as Jesus had predicted, not one stone was left on top of another.

The temple had to come to an end, but the people didn’t have to suffer the way they did. Their leaders failed to listen to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and the Galilean teacher who came to their courts.

But the end of the temple itself is good news. It means that Christianity is a worldwide faith. It is not limited to one place or one people. Every nationality, every tongue, every tribe, every individual can be a holy place, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I miss touching and greeting my brothers and sisters face to face today. But we are bound together by a spiritual bond that is not broken by physical separation.