Today Jesus predicts to his disciples the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem. This temple had been the center of Jewish life for centuries. It was the place of pilgrimage for all of the Jewish feasts and celebrations. The reason that Jesus and his disciples are there in the first place is because they are making their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem to take part in the annual remembrance of Passover. This temple though, was not the first great temple that had stood in Jerusalem, it was the second.
The first temple had been destroyed over 600 years before Jesus and his disciples made their pilgrimage there. In the sixth century BC, Jerusalem was sacked by the invading Babylonian armies on their conquest of the Mediterranean world. The temple that Solomon had built to replace the roaming tabernacle in the years in the desert, that had been the center of Jewish thought and life for centuries, was destroyed and the Jewish people expelled from the land, into Babylon and its surrounding territories, in what we now refer to as the Exile from the holy land. It was in this time of exile, when the temple had been destroyed, when the center of the life of the Jewish faith had been destroyed, when hope was almost impossible to find, that this section of Isaiah from this mornings reading was most likely written. The author writes of God’s promise to this Jewish community that had been expelled from their home:
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
God is promising this exiled community a new heaven and a new earth. A new Jerusalem that will be a joy and a delight to the people. A Jerusalem that will stand forever, that will be a place overflowing with life and safety for centuries and millenia to come. A home that will never be taken away again. In the midst of death and destruction, in the midst of exile, in the midst of being removed from their life source, God promises hope in the confusion, joy in the midst of sorrow, delight in the midst of sadness. And ultimately the Jewish people are delivered back to their home, and rebuild this temple, and re-create their life as a community. It is within this second temple that Jesus is standing with his disciples, and telling them that once again, it will be destroyed, that not one stone will be left upon another.
In the year 70 ce, some 40 years after Jesus and his disciples stood in the temple, the Roman empire, much like the great Babylonian empire before them, in a show of force, quelled a Jewish rebellion and sacked Jerusalem again, destroying this second great temple. The Jewish people were once again expelled, escaping death and destruction, and found themselves spread throughout the Roman empire, in a new exile, a new diaspora, again wrestling with what Jewish life would look like now that the center of it all, the temple, Zion, Jerusalem, was gone. And this time, forever. It is in this time that the author of Luke most likely wrote this gospel, and this story of Jesus foretelling the temple’s destruction. It was this question that the evangelist is dealing with. What does this destruction mean for God’s promises, for salvation, for faith itself? Through the words of Jesus in today’s story, God’s promise is re-framed.
But the joy and delight, the hope and newness that Jesus promises are not ones that will be born out of safety, but out of destruction, not out of comfort, but out of persecution, not out of peace, but out of alienation, not out of life, but out of death. But, as Jesus reminds his disciples, these things must take place. And not just on a personal level, but on a communal level. On a worldwide level. On the level of all creation.
He says, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
The people who are reading these words from Jesus are living after this destruction has taken place, in the midst of persecution, in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of destruction and death. And yet, the promise of a new heaven and a new earth still echos through history. From the laments of Babylon and the cries of fear from the diaspora, they ring in the hearts these first century communities searching for answers. And they still ring true for us today.
Later in the first century, the writer of the book of Revelation would renew this promise of a new heaven and a new earth from Isaiah, in this new time of exile and fear:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
God’s dwelling place will be among the people, the author of Revelation says. And looking at the temple on this day, Jesus can see this vision laid out before him. Because ultimately the Jewish people would never return to the temple in Jerusalem. There would never be another one. But community would continue to be found in the diaspora. The Jewish faith would grow, and adapt, and God would move in new ways. Jewish life would move out into the world, and give birth to synagogues, local centers of community, that would take the place in Jewish life of the one temple. The temple would spread-out over all creation, and people would recognize God’s presence beyond the walls of Jerusalem. This diaspora would also lay the groundwork for this first century Christianity to spread and adapt alongside its sibling Jewish tradition. And thus something both new and old would be born, though none of it would have happened, there would have been no newness, no recreation, without this unthinkable destruction, without every stone being torn down. And as Jesus reminds his disciples after these predictions, ““You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Another way of translating this last line is, “By your endurance you will gain your selves, your truest identities, your deepest life in God.” Jesus knows, standing with his friends and loved ones, that not one of them will find their truest selves without being completely broken to pieces. And that destruction will be painful, it will be death, it will be hopeless feeling, but by their perseverance, as individuals and as a community, their truest selves will be revealed to them. A new heaven and a new earth will be born.
Jesus tells us today that even in the midst of death and destruction something new is being created. Yes, the temple was destroyed, but a new temple was born. A temple that burst from the confines of Jerusalem. That burst through the boundaries of Israel. That burst through the powerful empire of Rome. What was born from the devastation of this great temple was a new one, the temple of all creation. The temple of the new heaven and the new earth.
And thus we can be assured that even when things seem most hopeless, when we feel devoid of God’s presence and love, when everything falls apart and not one stone is left on another, something new is being born in us. It is in these times of fear and trembling that we are forced to co-create with God and a new heaven and a new earth are born. A new way of seeing everything. Seeing the presence of God everywhere, even and especially in the rubble of those fallen stones. The new heaven and new earth are revealed to us, not as something that has just been created, but something that has always been there and we had simply never been able to see. When our delicately constructed walls are brought down by life, we are ushered into a newness that is both ancient and eternal, old and new, life and death, and step by step we are ushered into the kingdom of God, where we can see God in all things, and know that every moment of fear and trembling is moving us closer to the new heaven and new earth. To a new creation, that has always been and yet is still being created.
Where is newness being born in your life?
What is being destroyed in you?
How is God creating out of the rubble?