Pastor Brian Rajcok
Last week Jesus was asked about the afterlife and we talked about all the different directions the Bible might go when it comes to the question of what happens after death. This week, one chapter later in the book of Luke, Jesus talks about the end of the world—or more accurately, the world’s future.
Now it’s probably not surprising that the Jews of Jesus’ time had a few different takes on this one too. Some believed the Messiah would come and establish the messianic kingdom, defeating Rome and establishing the line of David to rule the world forever. A second point of view believed in the total destruction of the planet and that the Messiah would come save the chosen ones who were patiently waiting for him—and destroy everything else. A third view held to the vision of the prophet Isaiah of “a new heaven and a new earth” which depicts a very utopian vision for Earth’s future with the lion laying down with the lamb, swords turned into plowshares, and world peace forever.
Now if we notice one thing about what Jesus says here it’s that the future sounds pretty terrifying. Jesus is asked about the Temple and he says it’s all gonna collapse, not one stone will be left upon another. He then tells his disciples about all the suffering that awaits the world and specifically them. They will be persecuted, they will suffer, many of them will be killed. It’s hard to see anything positive in what he says, at least until the last two lines “But not a hair of your head will perish” and “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18-19). Jesus ends on a hopeful note, because Jesus knows that out of destruction comes blessing, out of death comes resurrection, out of despair comes hope.
Remember Saint Paul’s words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5).
The reason for Jesus’ frightening words is not to scare his disciples. He wants to give them realistic expectations, for sure. Following this Messiah will not make them rich and powerful. Following the Messiah will lead to suffering and even death, but this will lead to them finding their true selves and to the restoration of the world. While Jesus’ words sound very bleak and scary, the hardships are what will come first—but he promises a new world in the long run.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a theme throughout the Old Testament that continues in the New Testament: a belief that the world’s suffering will lead to a rebirthing of the world, a transformation of humanity and all of creation. Some like to call this promise “God’s Vision of Shalom.” It’s a wonderful anticipation of the world’s future, and is what comes out of all this suffering. Jesus sometimes calls the current state of the world the “birth pangs” and Saint Paul talks about how our “present suffering is not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…[in which] creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21).
So the New Testament is clear that all this suffering Jesus talks about here is leading to something amazing. It’s leading to a world free from its current bondage. Christ’s coming is not just about redeeming human beings, it’s about freeing all of creation to experience the glory of God. Yes it’s true that Christ frees us from sin and sets us right with God. And even more than that, all of creation is set free and set right with God. That’s what the Incarnation is all about. Not just saving the human species, but reconciling the whole universe with the divine.
And in a way that we cannot fully comprehend this is already so. We are already freed from sin because of Christ, even though we’re probably gonna keep on sinning sometimes. We are already set right with God, even though we might not always feel that way. And the world is already pulsing with the divine presence, even if it’s not yet visible to us. But one day, Scripture teaches we will see all of this for what it is. Humankind will live in conscious union with the divine and be the creatures we were created to be. Humanity will experience God’s Kingdom Come, God’s will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is what Jesus taught. This is what Jesus preached. This is Jesus’ message for us today.
But of course, what Jesus talks about in this text is suffering. Jesus offers a sobering reminder to his disciples that even after he’s gone there will be suffering waiting for them. And even 2000 years later we see suffering all around us. Last week we had yet another school shooting in this country. Depression and addiction are epidemics. Heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses take our loved ones too soon. There remains an incredible refugee crisis and wars throughout the world. And our planet itself is on the brink of an ecological crisis. The suffering Jesus talks about is very real in our world today, and was very real for his disciples and the first readers of this Gospel.
Most of the Bible, in fact, is about suffering and the struggles of living in this world. But the Bible is also about Good News. The Good News of God’s love for us. The Good News of God’s presence with us in the midst of our suffering. The Good News that Jesus Christ entered into our suffering and by his suffering made us whole. The Gospel message is that despite all evidence to the contrary, the world is right with God.
What the Bible says about the world’s future is that God is transforming this world, ushering in God’s Vision of Shalom. Bringing the reign of love on Earth. Calling the church to be participants in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5); and promising that even though life seems full of suffering, the world is heading in the right direction. Guided by the Spirit, God’s Vision of Shalom is coming. Out of destruction comes blessing, out of death comes resurrection, and out of the brokenness of this world comes a new creation.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.