“All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).
As we approach the end of the church year, the Lectionary readings bring together powerful apocalyptic themes that force us to consider our accountability before God. Jesus enters the magnificent temple in Jerusalem and shocks his disciples by saying it would soon be destroyed. This in fact occurs 40 years later during the first Jewish Roman war (66-73 CE). The author of the Book of Revelation, composed on the island of Patmos, the Roman version of our prison at Guantanamo Bay, ramps up the poetry of judgment to fiery heights in describing God’s final judgment of the world.
Today’s passages from Revelation 14 contain a densely layered message that goes back to the first century, is repeated in the feverish buildup of the American Civil War in the 19th century, when abolitionist John Brown was hanged in 1859 for attacking the armory at Harpers Ferry, inspiring the song, “John Brown’s Body.” That popular tune was relyricized by anti-slavery activist Julia Ward Howe in 1861 into the patriotic favorite, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
From that hymn we get phrases like “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” the last public words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr before his death in Memphis in 1968, or “Grapes of Wrath,” the title of John Steinbeck’s novel about justice for the poor during the Depression. In the wake of the events convulsing Ferguson, Missouri, we might add another layer to the central narrative of the struggle for racial fairness in the United States.
In today’s Gospel from Luke 21, Jesus teaches his disciples to prepare for an agonizing time of breakdown and breakthrough, the virtual rebirth of a new age emerging from the old. They are to go forward with confidence that God’s hand is on history and that all that is false will fall before the truth.
Jesus is that truth, the authentic model for the dignity and freedom of every person. No culture or system or government can stand that does not respect and promote human welfare and the common good.
Martin Luther King famously described the choice facing our society in the title of his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? It stands as a call to conversion or it will serve as our epitaph.