They just could not imagine it.
It was the glory of their nation. It was so strong and solid and it was beautiful. There was nothing to compare with it. It was the spiritual and political heart of their life, of who they were. It was the fulfilment of the promises of God, the tangible evidence that God was with them, the guarantor of their sense that they were the special chosen people of God
And yet Jesus speaks that one day the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed; stone torn away from stone.
I was trying to think of an equivalent for us, of what the temple meant to the Jew.
Maybe the Kremlin here, or the Statue of Liberty, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament in London, or the Vatican and St Peter’s, or the Great Mosque, Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
And the destruction of the Temple, when Jesus words were fulfilled in AD70, must have felt to Jews a little bit like what believers here would have felt when the first Church of Christ the Saviour was blown up after the revolution, or even a bit like what many of us felt when the twin towers came down.
But I stress the words, ‘a little bit’. Because the Temple had an even greater significance for the Jew. So when Jesus says that the temple will be destroyed, the disciples realise that it is a pretty seismic event.
And that is why in their question to him, ‘When will this be? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’, they link together the destruction of the temple and the end of history as we know it. Surely, they think, if the temple is destroyed, it must only be because God himself is coming to reign
But Jesus does not answer their question. It is an impossible question to answer. Because the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man did not happen at the same time. We are still waiting for the coming of the Son of Man.
Rather, Jesus answers a much more important question: not, when will the end come (although he does give some hints in Matthew 24 about how they can know when the Temple will be destroyed – look at v15 if you have a Bible with you), but rather how should we live before the end comes.
There are four things that Jesus says
1. Don’t be alarmed
2. Don’t be led astray
3. Don’t be surprised
4. Don’t give up
1. Don’t be alarmed when it gets rough
Don’t be alarmed when there are wars and rumours of war, when nation rises against nation and kingdom against kingdom; or when the very ground that you stand on is shaken, when there are earthquakes and eruptions and tsunamis. And don’t be surprised when there are disasters or famines.
We live in a world that has turned from God.
Nations and peoples live for themselves and not for God, so when what I want clashes with what you want, then I go to war.
Yes, of course we long for a world without war, and we do everything that we can to make that a reality, but wars will only cease when human nature has been transformed.
And the bible teaches that in some mysterious way human hearts and the heart of creation are tied together. When humanity chose to walk away from God, a deep chasm ripped through the DNA of creation. So there will be natural catastrophes.
Don’t be alarmed, says Jesus. Wars and earthquakes and famines are not signs that God has forgotten us. They are signs that one day he is coming.
2. Don’t be led astray
v4: Beware that no one leads you astray
v11: False prophets will arise and lead many astray
Be wise, says Jesus. Don’t be led astray by false Messiahs and false Prophets.
There will be people who claim to be the Messiah, who claim that if you follow them, if you trust them and do what they say, then you will find what you are looking for.
There are the exotic ones, people like Sergey Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion. And someone here, a couple of weeks ago, was telling me about another group that she had encountered just outside Moscow.
There are religious leaders who think that they are Messiahs, but there are also the business leaders and the political leaders who think they are Messiahs.
You know them if they think they are Messiahs because they claim that they have special insight – some may claim spiritual insight, others scientific insight - and that they can lead us to the promised land, provided that we completely trust them with everything: our life, our money, our possessions, our words, our time and our thoughts.
Don’t be led astray. There is only one Messiah. He lived 2000 years ago. He came from God, and he is the Son of God. He invites us to give him our lives, to trust him, to listen to his words and to do them, to receive him and let him come deep into us. He offers all those who come to him not a fortune or success or mild glory here, but peace and fulfilment and an eternal future. He loved us and he died for us. And three days later he rose from the dead.
And then there are the false prophets.
They are harder to identify, because they appear to come in the name of the Church.
Often false prophets will do what Jesus refused to do: they will claim to be able to tell us when the end will be.
It is a bit of a give-away! If someone tells you when the end of the world will be, you know that they are a false prophet!
But usually it is not so easy to identify false prophets. They often claim to speak in the name of Jesus, but in reality they speak in their own name, and they tell us stuff that comes from their own hearts and their own thoughts. But if what they say draws us away from putting our trust in Jesus, or depending on his death on the cross totally for our salvation, or draws us away from listening to what he said, or if what they say means that our love for God and for his people grows colder – then we know that they are not speaking his words.
That is why when I speak I will nearly always try to teach what the passage we’ve had read is saying. Someone came up to me a few weeks ago and said, ‘I didn’t agree with that. I don’t think it was saying that’. I love that – because it means that you are looking at the word of God and thinking it through for yourselves and asking, what does it say. And I’d love to see people come to church on Sunday with their bibles – or get out their mobile phones when we’re speaking so that we follow what is being said. When I was ordained I was given a bible and a patten: the patten as a symbol for communion, the bible as the basis of my authority for teaching. I really hope that when we come to church we do not come thinking we are going to have to put up with the priests’ latest thoughts – I really hope that we come expecting to hear what the Word of God says.
So don’t be led astray!
3. Don’t be surprised when all nations hate you
‘You will be hated by all nations because of my name’ (v9)
Hate is a strong word. It is reasonable to understand why people should ridicule us and call us fools. After all, it is pretty bonkers to say that a homeless Jewish rabbi who lived 2000 years ago and got himself crucified is God’s ruler on earth.
Ridicule us as fools. But why hate?
One of the reasons that the Jews hated Jesus was because he spoke against the temple. He loved the temple. He prayed and taught in the temple. But he also told them that one day, the temple, the symbol that they trusted in, would be destroyed.
In Bury St Edmunds I was vicar of one of the largest and, I may be biased, but I would say one of the loveliest parish churches in England. I loved the building. And I tried to be faithful to the legacy of the past so that it might be enjoyed for the future. But one day that building will be nothing. It will be dust. And for people who lived for the building and not for the God to whom the building pointed, that is not a message that came easy.
As Christians we challenge the idols of this world. The Temple, which was far larger and far more beautiful than St Mary’s, was a gift from God. But it had become an idol. People lived for it and not for Him. People put their trust in the existence of the temple and not in Him. And if we are to be faithful to him, we have to recognise that the idols of this world - whether amazing skyscrapers, or financial systems, or political systems or leaders, or currencies, or works of art, or even the idea of nations – may be gifts from God but they can never be god.
And if, by the very way we live, we challenge the idols of the nations, then perhaps we can begin to understand why we might be hated by all nations.
4. Don’t give up
‘But the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (v13)
‘All this stuff will happen’, says Jesus, ‘wars, famines, false messiahs and prophets, persecution, even hatred from those who once called themselves your Christian brothers and sisters. But I’ve told you it’s going to happen. So don’t give up’.
How should we live before the end comes?
Keep on going. This is a marathon, and yes there are people cheering us on – the heavenly host for a start – but there are also people on the sides jeering at us, and throwing stuff at us, and some of the other runners are trying to trip us up or lead us along the wrong road – and there are times when it just kills us. But the runner keeps on going.
So keep on believing and trusting. Keep on praying, even if you can only manage to pray the Lord’s prayer, keep on praising and thanking God, keep on getting to know God’s word, keep on worshipping and receiving communion, and keep on loving your brothers and sisters - even when you find them very unlovable!
It’s worth it. Jesus speaks of the stones of the temple being cast down. But in ch21 he has already spoken of how he is the stone, rejected by the builders, who is the cornerstone of the new building that God is creating.
And it is Jesus, crucified and risen, who is our glory. He is the one who is strong and solid and beautiful, in whom we can put our trust. There is nothing and nobody who can compare with him. He is the heart of everything that we are and do. He is the fulfilment of the promises of God, the evidence that God is with us and the guarantor that we are sons and daughters of the living God.
And one day, when it seems completely hopeless, and we’ve gone beyond what we think is our breaking point, he will return, and we will see him.