When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus warns his disciples that a time will come when the religious world is in a state of chaos (vs. 8), the political world is in a state of chaos (vss. 9-10), and the natural world is in a state of chaos (vs. 11). Twenty centuries later that prophecy seems to have come true.
If you talk to some people these days they will assure you that religion is on its way out, that science has eclipsed all of our old superstitions and none of them are relevant anymore. If you talk to other people they will assure you that our nation hasn’t been so divided, politically, since the last civil war. They predict the next one could be right around the corner. If you talk to other people they will assure you that the plethora of natural disasters we have experienced lately is not random. They attribute them to climate change and warn that this is just the beginning.
So, when Jesus says that false messiahs will arise who somehow convince people to follow them; that there will be wars and insurrections, with nation rising against nation; and that there will be natural disasters: earthquakes, famines, and global pandemics—he sounds a lot like someone who has just turned off the television news. I read this passage before I went to vote early last Tuesday morning and almost wasn’t surprised to see a bloody red moon hanging over the polling place, a lunar eclipse that looked like the fulfillment of end-time prophecy.
I’ve got to say: there’s not much in this passage that sounds like good news. Jesus makes all these predictions about religious, political, and natural disasters and then he says, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you,” which doesn’t really sound like good news either. He says, “They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons…. You will be betrayed by friends and relatives; and they will put some of you to death.” And if that’s not enough Jesus adds, “You will be hated by all because of my name.” It’s not the kind of thing you would want to put on a recruiting poster and yet Jesus doesn’t apologize for any of it. If anything he exaggerates the demands of discipleship, so that no one will be surprised when following him turns out to be hard. “Even if your discipleship gets you nailed to a cross,” he might add, “you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”[i]
True, but still…how am I supposed to preach a passage like this? I read the text over and over again last week in search of the Good News, and finally began to feel something I can only describe as a presence, looking over my shoulder, reading the text with me. It took me a while to figure out who it was, but then I realized: it was Luke, the author of this Gospel. I don’t always think about him when I’m reading it. I think about Jesus, and the disciples, and whoever else shows up in the story, but I don’t often think about the one who wrote these words in the first place, or what he might have wanted us to see. But as I read back over the text last week I thought about how Luke was the traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, and how Paul experienced exactly some of the things that Jesus describes.
“You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name,” Jesus says. “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Do you remember how Paul was brought before Felix the Governor, in Acts 23 (which was also written by Luke)? And how he was brought before Agrippa, the King, in Acts 25? In both cases, without writing or rehearsing a speech, Paul delivers an eloquent defense of his ministry, as if to fulfill Jesus’ promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” It’s possible that Luke was sitting right there next to Paul, taking notes, and that he referred to those notes when he was writing his Gospel.
When did they start traveling together? We can’t be sure, but in Acts 16 we get a clue. Luke tells us that Paul and Silas and Timothy had gone down to Troas, on the coast of the Aegean Sea, and during the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” In the very next verse Luke writes: “When [Paul] had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” So I wonder: did Luke live in Troas? Was he the local physician there? Did Paul seek him out because he needed a doctor? Did Luke invite them to stay the night? Was it there that Paul had his vision? Did he share it with his traveling companions at breakfast the next morning? And is that when Luke decided to go with them? Again, we can’t be sure, but from that moment on Luke uses the pronoun “we” when he talks about Paul and his traveling companions.
And if that’s true then Luke would have been with Paul during some of those misadventures he describes in 2 Corinthians 11, including the floggings, the lashings, the beatings, and the stoning. “Three times I was shipwrecked,” Paul writes; “for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”[ii]
“You will be persecuted,” Jesus says to his followers, “handed over to prison, possibly even put to death. But before that you will be hated by all because of my name.” And if anyone was ever hated for bearing the name of Jesus, it was Paul. He was eventually imprisoned in Rome, and according to our most reliable sources it was there, under the persecution of Caesar Nero, that he was killed by the sword. In 2 Timothy 4 we have the closest thing we can find to Paul’s last words. He writes: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[iii] Just after that he writes that everyone else has deserted him, that Luke alone is with him. Was Luke with him on the night before he died? Did he ask Paul if it had all been worth it? And did Paul smile and say, “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”[iv]
Apparently Luke was able to get out of Rome alive and over the next twenty years gathered material for the Gospel that bears his name. In the opening paragraph he writes: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, Most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know that truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”[v] Now, we don’t know who Theophilus was, but his name means, literally, “Lover of God,” so that Theophilus could be anyone who loves God and wants to know the truth about his Son, Jesus. But what interests me today is Luke’s assertion that the Good News he is about to share has been handed on to him by those who, “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” that is, his is an “eyewitness account.” But where did he get that account? Who did he talk to? It’s an educated guess, but I’m guessing that Luke went to Ephesus, for two reasons: 1) that’s where John was, the one who is sometimes called “the Beloved Disciple,” and 2) that’s where Mary was, the mother of Jesus.
I’ve been to Ephesus. I’ve seen the ruins of the church of St. John. And I’ve seen the little house up on the hill above it where Mary is said to have lived out her last days. Do you remember that moment in John’s Gospel, when Jesus was dying on the cross and his mother and the Beloved Disciple were standing at the foot of it, and Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold your mother,” and how from that hour that disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own home?[vi] Well, at some point the two of them had to get out of that home. You may remember that the followers of Jesus experienced persecution in Jerusalem shortly after the stoning of Stephen, and that they were scattered across the ancient world. And you may remember that in 70 A.D. the city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans and the temple was destroyed, just as Jesus had predicted.
In fact, all those things Jesus had predicted came true in the years between his death and the publication of Luke’s Gospel. Most of the stones of the temple were thrown down (although some are still there). A number of pretenders claimed to be the messiah. There were wars and insurrections. There were earthquakes, famines, and plagues. And, yes, as Luke could testify, the followers of Jesus were arrested and persecuted. Some of them were betrayed by friends and relatives. Still others, like Stephen and Paul were put to death. Most of them were hated because they were followers of Jesus. If Luke had spent any time at all with John, the Beloved Disciple, he would have heard all those stories, and evidence suggests that he did spend time with him. There is a passage in Luke’s Gospel that sounds as if it came straight out of the Gospel of John.[vii] And the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8? Most scholars say it has the language, style, and grammar of the Gospel of Luke. I think they knew each other. I think they swapped stories. And I think Luke may have had a chance to ask John, “Was it worth it? If you had it to do all over again, would you do it? Would you drop your nets and follow Jesus?” And what do you think John would have said to that? Is there any question that this disciple, the one Jesus loved, would say anything other than yes?
And finally there is Jesus’ mother. If it’s true that she lived in that little house on the hill above John’s church, and if Luke had a chance to interview her as one of his eyewitnesses, what do you think she would say? Would she say it was worth it? I sometimes think Luke must have interviewed Mary. Where else would he have gotten some of the information for his Gospel? Who else could have told him about the time Gabriel came and told Mary she was going to have a baby? Who else could have filled him in on that long trip to Bethlehem and that birth in a stable? Who else would have remembered that old Simeon had talked about this child being destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and then saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too?” A sword had pierced her soul, certainly. How could she stand at the foot of the cross and not feel the pain of a mother watching her son die? I can almost hear her sobbing through that story, and when it was done I can almost hear Luke asking, gently, “Was it worth it?” What do you think Mary would have said? Would she have closed her eyes and started singing that old song again, the one she sang in the beginning?
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on
All generations will call me blessed.[viii]
Jesus was right. He was right about the destruction of the temple and the persecution of his followers. But he was also right about this: that all of these terrible things would give us a chance to testify about the most wonderful thing. For Paul and John and Mary that was Jesus. Nothing was more precious to them than him. No one else was so worth living for, and, if necessary, worth dying for. But maybe that’s not the most important thing to consider this morning. Maybe the most important thing is not to imagine what they would say, but to think about what you will say when someone asks you,
“Was it worth it?”
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Luke 9:23
[ii] 2 Corinthians 11:23-27
[iii] 2 Timothy 4:6
[iv] Philippians 1:21
[v] Luke 1:1-4
[vi] John 19:26-27
[vii] Luke 10:21-22
[viii] Luke 1:46-48