Luke 21:5-38, sermon 2 of 3

Sun, 18/11/2007 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

Note: handout for this sermon is at the bottom of the webpage as an attachment


Do you ever read bits of the Bible and wonder what possible relevance they have for today? Two weeks ago, I suspect I turned Luke 21 into one of those bits of the Bible for quite a few of us. You’ll remember how I told my story, how I used to see this as a chapter all about the second coming of Jesus, and therefore bristling with relevance. But how careful study had changed my mind, such that I now think it is about something far more specific. And in taking this passage away as a passage about the second coming, there’s a danger that we also take it away as a passage that has relevance for today. What I want to do this morning is give the passage back to us. It may not be about the second coming, but it still has so much to say to us.

Approach to Luke 21

If you weren’t here a fortnight ago, or if you were here and are trying to recall the details, let me remind you of the approach we are taking to this chapter.

Jesus’ disciples marvel at the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem. That prompts Jesus to tell them that it will be thrown down, brick by brick. So the disciples go on to ask him two questions: When will this happen, and how will we know that it’s imminent?

Jesus spends the rest of the chapter answering those two questions. There will be earthquakes famines, and wars, but not yet. There will be persecution, but not yet. When you see an army gathered around the city, then you know you’re nearly there. What will happen next will be so horrible, that if you’re anywhere near, you should get out. Because the next thing to happen will be the earth-shattering event: Jerusalem will be torn down, and Jesus will be installed by God as the Son of Man, as Lord of this world. It’s a bit like the approach of summer; if you know what to look for you can see it coming. So to get back to the “when” question, the answer is: Within a generation. Within 40 years, all this will have happened. And sure enough, in A.D. 70, the Roman army decimated the city.

Now I haven’t got time this morning to defend that approach to the chapter. We spent a sizeable amount of time on that two weeks ago, so if you weren’t here, I highly recommend downloading the sermon from the church website and following the material there.

And we left off last time with the question of what relevance this has for today. If Jesus is promising the destruction of Jerusalem, and not the end of the world, what use are these promises for us who live nearly two thousand years after the Romans fulfilled this promise?

Relevance. Application. Use. That’s what I want to spend our time on today, and again in a fortnight’s time. Like I say, there’s plenty here of relevance.

How About Matthew and Mark?

But before we get to that, I want to tackle one question that I’ve been asked more than any other: “How do Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of this relate to what you said? You’ve just looked at Luke, which is only one piece of the data. If you’d looked at Matthew or Mark instead you’d have reached a different conclusion because it’s clear that they thought Jesus was talking about the second coming.”

To help us with this, I’ve put a table on the handout that summarises how Matthew, Mark and Luke record this event.

You’ll see straight away that Luke’s account is the shortest. We’ve already thought about what he has to say. Jesus is asked about the temple’s destruction. He answers that it will take place within a generation. Luke then records 3 verses of “this is what it means for you”.

Mark records Jesus being asked the same question that Luke records, followed by Jesus giving substantially the same answer.

He then goes onto include 6 extra verses not found in Luke’s account. In DVD terms, the deleted scenes are included. Either Luke did not know that Jesus said Mark’s extra bits, or he left it out for his own, good, editorial reasons. Either way, Mark kept the tape recorder running a bit longer, so we get to hear what Jesus said after Luke switched the machine off.

Those extra sayings concern what Jesus calls “that day” and “that hour”. Jesus has been talking about “these things”, now it’s “that day and that hour”. Jesus knows exactly when “these things”, the destruction of the (city and temple) of Jerusalem, will occur – he’s just told them that it is within a generation. But when it comes to “that day or that hour”, nobody knows – not even Jesus himself.

So in Mark 13:32, Jesus moves to talk about a different day, an unknown day, a day of calling to account, that is in the future. It makes most sense to me to see those extra 6 verses as talking about the second coming. All this talk of judgement on the city brings to Jesus’ mind the final judgement, and he warns that it’s not imminent, but we need to be ready for that too. When will the temple be destroyed? Within a generation. But if you ask me about that day, nobody knows -so be prepared.

How about Matthew’s account? Well he doesn’t just add a few verses. His account is about 3 times as long as the others! This isn’t just the deleted scenes. This is the 2-disc, full director’s cut, box-set. The first thing to notice is that he records an extra question. In Matthew, Jesus is still asked about the overthrow of the Jerusalem temple, but he is also asked about Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. Not one question, but two, although of course we need to ask “end of which age”?

So Matthew records Jesus’ being asked an extra question, and quite fittingly he also records a lot of extra material that Jesus gave by way of reply.

First, Jesus tackles the question about the end of Jerusalem and its temple. It’s the same answer that Mark and Luke give: within a generation. Jesus goes on in Matthew 24:36 – “But concerning that day and hour, no-one knows”. Time to tackle the question about Jesus’ final return. “How can we know when that is imminent?”, he’s asked. “You can’t,” he says, “so you need to be ready.” And then he tells 3 parables about what that “being ready” looks like – the wise and foolish virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats.

So, no, Matthew and Mark don’t force us to say that Luke is talking about the second coming. They both include extra material in which Jesus does talk about the second coming. There is a clear marker in both gospels as to when Jesus stops talking about Jerusalem and starts talking about his own personal return to raise and judge the world. And the bit that Luke records is the material before that marker. So studying Matthew and Mark actually reinforces what I was saying last time. The sayings of Jesus that Luke records are the ones that refer to the end of Jerusalem and its temple.

So let’s move on and think about how Luke 21 impacts us today. Even if you’re not quite persuaded, stay with us, because it’s vital that we apply this passage to our life today. If what we said last time is correct, what does all this mean for us?

Jesus is Lord of History and Lord of the Nations

Let’s start where we were last week, on Remembrance Day. For those of you who weren’t here we were thinking about how Jesus Christ is in charge of history. The great turning points of modern history were all in his hands. We can’t blame him for the atrocities of the two world wars, but he is sufficiently in charge of the history of this world that he can use even appalling events like that to shape history in just the way he wants.

Now that’s a nice Remembrance Day subject, but why did I say it? Well this passage shows Jesus being in charge in exactly that kind of way. It was the Romans who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But putting together this passage with what he said in chapter 19 on the first Palm Sunday shows that the reason why the Romans dismantled Jerusalem was because Jesus wanted them to do it. This was the city privileged by God above any other; this was where he had caused his name to dwell. And yet the people of that city did not recognise the authority of God’s servants the prophets, and they were about to kill God’s Son.

Well a generation that rejects God in this spectacular way must experience God’s judgement. He cannot ignore such effrontery. And so Jesus promises that his judgement will fall on this city, and it does at the hand of the Romans. This chapter gives an example of Jesus being in charge of history in exactly this kind of way.

But this is more than just one example amongst many. Because according to verse 27, the fall of Jerusalem is where we see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. If you remember, Jesus is referring to Daniel chapter 7, which speaks of a human being approaching God in the clouds to be given authority. And Jesus is saying that God is about to keep his promise in Daniel chapter 7. Jesus is the Son of Man, and he is about to be given all authority over all the nations for all time.

And the point when you will see that this has happened is when Jerusalem falls. Jesus said it would happen; and it happened: He is pulling the strings of history. Jesus was rejected by Jerusalem, and so he looks weak. But Jerusalem falls and he is vindicated -he is powerful enough to disallow his rejection to be the last word. No nation tells him what to do; he tells the nations what to do.

So as I say, the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of a Roman siege is a fine example of Jesus being in charge of history. But it is more than that. This is the once-for-all, definitive demonstration that when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he became the Son of Man of Daniel 7. Now he rules this world.

Which means we need to change our view of history.

History is not a random, purposeless sequence of events. History is moving in precisely the direction that Jesus wants it to.

History is not a chance battleground in which the nations of our world fight for domination and the strongest ones win. It’s not that because the nations that win are the ones that Jesus wants to win. (If he wants to cast a strong nation to the ground, he can do so. If wants to take a tiny and insignificant nation and make it the main player for a season he can do so.) It’s not a chance battleground because as we look around at the world, the strong players we see are only relatively strong. And the weak players we see are only relatively weak. One nation may look strong or weak compared to another nation, but compared to Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, they are all weak and he is strong.

History contains many battles and many wars as one nation fights another. But all of those battles and wars are really mere squabbles on the canvas of history. Jesus is the master painter, the artist, who puts the canvas together. And compared to all those squabbles, the big war was won two thousand years ago. When Jesus died, rose again and ascended he became Lord of this world. He won the war. And now history is safely in his hands.

But this doesn’t only require us to change our view of history. It requires us to change our view of the present too. Jesus is not only Lord of history, he is Lord of the nations.

So who rules this country? We are a monarchy, so Queen Elizabeth rules us. We are a monarchy that had a civil war, so the power of the monarch is kept in check by a parliamentary democracy, so Gordon Brown and his government rule us. But neither of them are in charge. Neither of them have absolute power. Jesus Christ is the sovereign over this country.

I love the prayer for the Queen in the old 1662 communion service. Here’s what we pray for the Queen at the 8.15 service: We ask that “she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory”. We pray for her. That is right and proper; she is our Queen. But we pray for her in the light of the fact that she is not in charge of this country. Her rule is relative.

And by the same token, George Bush does not rule America; Jesus Christ does. Saddam Hussein never did rule Iraq, Jesus Christ did and still does. Jesus Christ rules Saudi Arabia. Jesus Christ rules Uganda, Argentina, New Zealand and Madagascar.

Obviously none of this means we don’t need to obey our earthly rulers. Jesus was clear in Luke 20 that we must. But it does mean we need to see them differently. We need a different view of history, but also a different view of politics, economics, geography and international relations. Because Jesus is in charge of the history of this world, and Jesus is in charge of the nations of this world.

That’s one area in which this passage is of great relevance for today.

Making Sense of Great Britain / Anglican Communion

Another area in which this passage impacts us is in helping us to make sense of what is happening in Great Britain, and what is happening in the Anglican Communion. We’ve seen that Jesus is not just Lord of individual people, but is Lord of institutions as well. And I’m suggesting we think about our denomination and our country.

As we think about our denomination and our country we need to be careful. Do you remember the story in John 9 of a man who had been born blind. Jesus’ disciples asked him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind”. Those were the only options they could see. If he was born blind, someone sinned to cause it. Draw a straight line from the man’s suffering to the sin that caused it. And Jesus’ reply is a warning we must never forget. He says, “Neither”. In short, “It doesn’t work like that”.

We need that warning because Jesus explained quite explicitly how Jerusalem’s downfall was because of her sin. We are not privy to such inside information when it comes to institutions of our own day, so we need to be careful.

So, the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the group of denominations around the world that are Anglican. And it appears, if you read the papers, that the Anglican Communion is falling apart at the seams. The American branch thinks it is highly desirable to have people in active homosexual relationships as Bishops; the Africans and Asians think this is utterly undesirable. And the English are left in the middle, with our Archbishop of Canterbury trying to hold everything together.

What’s going on? Well long before homosexuality became the issue, the Anglican church in America rejected Jesus’ authority as the Son of Man. I’m talking institutionally. Lots of individual American Anglican Christians and lots of Anglican churches have sought to be ruled by the Son of Man, but institutionally the Anglican church in America turned its back on Jesus’ right to tell them what to do. How will Jesus react if large parts of the Anglican Communion reject his authority as Son of Man? Well he’s Lord of the Anglican Communion; and if he wanted, he could demolish it just as easily as he demolished Jerusalem and its temple.

Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus hasn’t told us his plans for the communion. But this passage does tell us that he is Lord of the Anglican Communion and could demolish it. Indeed this passages suggests that he may well do so, insofar as this is an institution that has turned its back on him.

How about our country? There are senses in which this used to be a Christian country. But we’ve turned our back on our Christian heritage. At many levels of our national life, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not respected in the way he once was, and his will is not heeded in the way it once was.

Now, again, Jesus runs this country. He can do what he wants with this country. He could turn this country into a complete pigsty if he so chose. He could destroy Great Britain as easily as he destroyed Jerusalem. Indeed, this passage leads us to believe that he should do so and has every right to do so. The nation of Great Britain is another institution that does not respect the authority of the Son of God, and Luke 21 tells us what Jesus can and does do with institutions like that. Indeed you may think there is evidence that things are already beginning to fall to bits.

We need to remind ourselves of our warning again: We are not privy to Jesus’ plans for our country. But this passage tells us rather soberly what he could do to us, even what he should do to us, if we continue to conduct our national affairs as if what Jesus thinks is of no relevance.

How God Treats His Churches

Jesus: Lord of history, and Lord of the nations. Bring it closer to home: Jesus is Lord of the Anglican Communion and Lord of Great Britain, which means he could reduce those two institutions to rubble if he so chose. Now it’s time to bring it closest to home. What about St James Audley? What are the implications of this for us as a church?

The way Jesus judged first century Israel shows how he treats his people when they fail to recognise his authority. Do you remember that parable of the vineyard? Israel were given the privilege of being tenants in God’s vineyard, but were unwilling to give God any of the fruit they grew. They mistreated the servants he sent and finally they killed his Son. God couldn’t ignore that; he destroyed the tenants and gave the vineyard to new tenants

Which means we are now the new tenants in God’s vineyard. Which means that the story of how God treated his previous tenants should be a story of great personal interest to us because it’s our turn now. The phenomenal patience of God, sending servant after servant, should be an enormous comfort to us. The amazing love of God to send his own Son should reassure us. But the fact that God is a landlord who will expel ungrateful and unfruitful tenants should sober us.

At which point it’s tempting to say that that was then. This is now. God wouldn’t do that to us, would he? We are living in an age of grace, I hear you say. Well there are a number of Bible passages that warn us not to presume on God’s grace. Passages that warn us against this very specific presumption – the presumption of saying that what God did to 1st century Jerusalem couldn’t happen to us. Some of them are printed on the sheet tucked inside your service sheets.

So, Romans 11. Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree. God cultivated an olive tree, his people in the Old Testament. He then broke off the branches because they were unfaithful. And by his grace he grafted in some wild, uncultivated olive branches to share the roots and the sap of this plant that he has tended. So, verse 21: For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.

Or Revelation 2. The book of Revelation was written to be circulated around the churches of Asia Minor, and 7 churches get a particular mention. The setting is a vision in which Jesus is walking amongst and knows everything about each one of his churches. Those churches are represented by lampstands, and Jesus is walking amongst the lampstands. The church in Ephesus has a particular word for them. They have been a zealous, persevering, hard-working lot.

Let’s pick it up at verse 4: Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. This church has lost its love for the risen Christ. And if they don’t repent of that, the threat is that he will remove their lampstand – the church will be no more.

The church in Ephesus would have struggled to believe this threat. They were one of the largest, most thriving, and vibrant churches of the day. The letter written to them, Ephesians, is one of the most encouraging in the whole New Testament. And yet in 263 A.D. the city was totally destroyed. Today there is nothing at Ephesus; the ruins of the city can be found near the small Turkish village of Ayasaluk. Jesus removed the lampstand.

I haven’t printed it, but Jeremiah 7 is worth thinking about as well. Jeremiah stood in the courts of the temple a few years before Babylon destroyed it in 587 B.C. People felt safe because they were in the temple. The Babylonian army would not be able to touch them because it was the LORD’s temple. And Jeremiah’s message was this: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

God directs their attention to Shiloh, where the tabernacle spent some time before the temple was built. The Philistines captured the ark and carried it away because the people were unfaithful. God is saying: “Jerusalem isn’t the first place I’ve chosen to live. Look what happened then when the people were unfaithful.” And yet the people of Jeremiah’s day were saying, “It couldn’t happen to us!” This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.

So, no, we mustn’t find ourselves feeling presumptuous. We might be tempted today to recite “We have the grace of the Lord, the grace of the Lord, the grace of the Lord”, and God would say to us: Look what I did to Shiloh. Look what I did to Jerusalem.

We have a God who removes lampstands. We have a God who breaks off olive branches. And nowhere do we see that more clearly than in Jerusalem in 70 A.D..

The passages we’ve looked at encourage us to think of all this corporately. Sure, individual Christians can be disobedient and can incur God’s discipline, but that is not the issue before us. The city of Jerusalem, the institution of the temple, the church of Rome, the church at Ephesus. The church in Audley. St James.

The destruction of Jerusalem warns us not to presume that there will always be a church in Audley. Our history has been an experience of great blessing from God. Praise God for that! We have good reason to believe that the Son of Man will continue to bless us.

But, without saying that this is the case, should we, as a church, reject Jesus’ authority over us. Should we cease to allow him to tell us how to conduct our affairs. Should we cease, corporately, to love the risen Christ. Then we need to hear the warning. If we do these things, he could remove our lampstand from its place.

We’ve been out of the building now for 6 months. By God’s grace, we haven’t dwindled to nothing in that time, but he has continue to bless us and grow us. But that’s not an automatic right; that is by God’s grace. In fact, the presence of a church building in the village with no Christians in it is a graphic picture of what Jesus could turn us into in just two or three years, if he so chose.


Like I say, this is where this passage comes closest of all to home. Yes, he’s Lord of history, but that’s in the past. Yes, he’s Lord of the nations, but they’re out there. Yes, he’s Lord of the Anglican Communion and of Great Britain, but those are big institutions. He is also Lord of St James church, and he is Lord of each of us. The risen Jesus still walks amongst his lampstands, even today.

As a landlord, God is incredibly gracious and patient with his tenants. Servant, after servant – even his Son! But let’s make sure, corporately, as a church, that we do not receive his grace in vain, that we do not presume upon it. We need to recognise God’s grace as the privilege that it is, and we need to be a church that treats Jesus as the Son of Man that he is.

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