Jesus spoke of calamity with an almost chillingly realistic tone. When asked about the destruction that he hinted would fall upon Jerusalem—an event that could be ominously abbreviated as ‘the end’—he located it over the horizon by sketching out the painful normalcy that must precede.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘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.’
‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’
He replied: ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am he,” and, “The time is near.” Do not follow them.When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’
Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.’
We fear chaos, as perhaps we should. Humanity’s bloodiest runs tend to occur not under the jackboot of empires but rather during the lawless interludes between them.
Appropriately, the torments of uncertain times are painted upon the canvass of both biblical Testaments in the colors of creation’s convulsion. Men and women reel as nature itself shatters both under and above them. Our greatest secular threat does not come via the hammer of totalitarian control but in the time when nobody knows what comes next or who brings the next thing.
There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
With startling equanimity, Jesus sees such moments as opportunity to speak what is most real before the eyes and ears of rulers, suddenly alert and attentive under the gathering storm:
But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.
One hardly anticipates such opportunity with gleeful expectation. The best of times, to lay claim to a well-worn phrase, are at once the worst of times. Jesus pulls no punches about the cost—the suffering—amid which his followers will declare their truest truth.
As so often in the biblical witness, God’s accompaniment—here in the person of Jesus—is the only promise.
Invincibility and vulnerability become features of one swirling moment, when all hell has broken loose and a single word remains. It is a given word, in Jesus’ summary of impending events, a gift of wisdom that will bedazzle those who thought they knew how things worked until sun and moon failed them, the roaring waves drove them wild, and stars became their accusers.
A trembling witness, calmed only by an unseen presence, stands before them and speaks words they cannot refute.