You’ve seen them or passed by them on the crowded streets. They wear their loud colorful shirts and baggy cargo shorts, and they have cameras dangling around their necks. They look out of place, dropped in from a more bucolic landscape, now jostled by commuters and joggers making their way through the city streets, flowing around them, like a stream diverted by a big rock in the way. They lean back, trying to see all the way to the upper floors of the massive buildings or the peaks of the carved monuments. Their eyes are wide, trying to see everything at once, to take it all in with an opened-mouthed stare. They forget their cameras for a moment, amazed at the sights they may have heard about but now see in stone and glass and steel. It’s as if their minds freeze at the wonder of it all.
Residents of the city have learned to ignore them or go around them with a slow shake of the head. But Jesus sees them. Jesus sees the wonder in their eyes, as if star-struck by the architecture. And the truth is that the temple they were goggling at was a wonder to behold. A lot of artistry and craftwork had gone into this edifice. It was designed to bring about this reaction; that was the hope of the architects and designers. And there is no reason to doubt that they did it all to the glory of God and subscribed to the credo that said, “Only the best is worthy of the one we worship above all.” The temple was worth admiring; it was worth celebrating; it was worth giving God glory for the accomplishments represented in this amazing structure.
Yet Jesus doesn’t have time for tourism, it seems. He brings them back to earth with a sharp word and a threatening scenario, like a slap across the face of the ones lost in wonder. A bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think? Maybe. Maybe it was harsh, and maybe it was necessary. We’re in the final countdown, remember. This teaching in the temple is the straw that breaks the temple leader camels’ backs. The clock is ticking on this mission to earth, and Jesus knows it. He needs the disciples to stay on track. He needs to prepare them for what is about to come. He wants to shore them up for the maelstrom that is about to descend on them.
We can debate whether these words are predicting future events or whether these words are describing the immediate future. What seems clear is that Jesus wanted to prepare his followers to stand firm when the world is falling apart. The final verse of our text says, “by your endurance, you will gain souls.” That version (NRSV) reads as though keeping a cool head when everyone else is panicking will win adherents to the faith. The NIV says a similar thing by declaring that you should “stand firm and you will win life.” But is it similar? Or is there a new element, one of self-preservation being revealed? The CEB seems to make it even clearer on that score: “by holding fast, you will gain your lives.”
So, is Jesus telling his followers how to take care of themselves or how to witness to the world? Of course, we could say both; that one doesn’t negate the possibility of the other. But on the brink of his own suffering and death, does it seem likely that Jesus would be telling his followers how to preserve their own lives? Maybe he is; maybe that’s what this faith is about, saving your own life. But it seems much more likely that the followers are called to live a sacrificial witness of faith, that even in the face of devastation and destruction, followers are able to hold on to faith, not for self-preservation or the promise of a life free from suffering but for the hope that life is always bigger than what people can see, and love is always worth living for and dying for.
That is the edifice that is awe-inspiring in this story. That is what we stand before in open-mouthed wonder: Not the created beauty of our hands, but the willingness to live a life of love and transformation, even in the face of opposition and conflict. Structures and systems and empires will rise and fall; of that, we can be sure.
What troubles we have seen,
what mighty conflicts passed,
fightings without and fears within,
since we assembled last.
“And Are We Yet Alive,” vs. 3, Words by Charles Wesley, United Methodist Hymnal, 533