Our Only Comfort in Life and Death
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
We often say around here that we begin the sermon right where we left off the week before. This morning that’s not exactly the case. One commentator called the location of the chapter break between Luke 20 and 21 “unfortunate,” meaning that because of the close linking of themes they should be kept together. So rather than beginning in v. 1 of chapter 21, I’m actually going to read the last handful of verses in chapter 20 and then go all the way through 21:24.
In this passage Jesus talks about future events. Some of the events Jesus describes are both future to the first audience and still in the future to us. And some of the events were future to the audience who first heard Jesus say them, but they are now in our past. In other words, some things have already happened, and others have not.
But since Jesus is here talking about events in the future, I’d love to just take a moment to mention a few events happening at our church. Then we’ll read the passage and pray.
First, there is the men’s retreat, which is coming up in early April. It looks possible that all of the men in my small group are going to attend and room together. If you’re in a small group, I encourage to consider doing that too.
Second, for the last two years our pastor-elders have been slowly working to give our church Constitution and Bylaws a long-overdue update. We are almost done with that, and we hope to share the new document with you in late March, and our members will be voting on the proposed changes late April. We don’t anticipate it being controversial. It’s simply a better version of what was already there.
Third, we have typically only done baptisms at our church in September, when we attend Graybill Pond and make a picnic out of it. We still hope to do that. But we are also going to do baptisms at our church during the worship services on May 19. If you are a Christian, and you have not been baptized as a sign showing your identification with Jesus, we’d love to talk with you about that.
Fourth, a few years ago, in an effort to bless the full-time teaching pastors and invest in the longevity of our ministry here, our church graciously added a sabbatical policy. This summer Jason has reached seven years of ministry here, and I guess you’ll be stuck with a little more of me. I feel like Jason is going to come back, and it’s going to be like what Buzz says to Kevin McCallister in Home Alone: “It’s pretty cool you didn’t burn the place down.”
Fifth, I’ll mention we are still hoping to plant a church in the city of Harrisburg, not next year but, Lord willing, in the spring of 2021. That’s a project that is getting a lot of attention and prayer and our pastor-elder meetings, and over time it will be a project that gets more and more attention and prayer among all of us on Sunday mornings.
Now, sixth and finally, let me mention that someday in the future Jesus is coming back. And that’s part of what Luke chapter 21 is about. So let’s get to the passage.
Follow along with me as I read from Luke 20:45–21:24, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
21 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, 2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.3 And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. 4 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”
10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”
I mention now and then that I enjoy cycling. My current road bike has 15,484 miles on it, which is not that many miles on a car, but on a bike that you pedal, that’s a few miles. But somewhere around 20 years ago as I was just getting into cycling and Lance Armstrong was winning races in France, I didn’t really know anything about anything, and that included my knowledge of cycling gear.
While on vacation with my family I distinctively remember seeing a mountain bike of a certain brand. It was chained up near the side of the lake. The bike was yellow with the brand name written in red. Now, this brand made very hi-end bicycles but also very low-end bicycles. So, you could buy one bike at Walmart and another at a fancy bike store—same brand but different models. I didn’t know that. But over the course of the week, I remember being fascinated that someone would just chain a bike that cost a few thousand dollars to a tree. I later learned, no one had chained a bike of a few thousand dollars to a tree. The book wasn’t even worth a few hundred. But again, I didn’t know anything about anything. I had to be taught the true value of things.
There’s this line in the first part of the passage where Luke writes, “And in the hearing of all the people [Jesus] said to his disciples . . .” (20:45). In the midst of all that is going on, the love Jesus has for his disciples—the love that he has for us—compels him to teach.
This passage, along with the parallel passages in the gospel of Matthew 24 and Mark 13, are notoriously difficult, which means I won’t be able to answer every question. I won’t be able to answer every question partly because there is not the time to do so and partly because, not only do I not know every answer to every question, but I don’t think I even know all of the questions.
But I do know with certainty is that Jesus is warning us not to put our trust in what seems so shiny and sturdy in the eyes of the world. That’s a real temptation for all of us, to put our hope and trust and reliance in what seems shiny and sturdy and what seems worth thousands of dollars but is not. Instead, Jesus wants us to put our trust in what really is sturdy; he wants us to put our trust in God.
1. What’s going on?
Let’s start by taking a few moments to see what is going on in these verses by looking at each group of verses, even if only from a 30,000 ft. level. First, as I said before, in the hearing of all the people Jesus speaks to his disciples. He warns them. Look again at what he tells them:
46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
A few things to notice. The religious leaders love receiving favor. They love it. They crave it. They pray long and loud prayers, not to be heard by God, but by men. And look what it says about widows: They “devour widows’ houses” (v. 47). We don’t know exactly what is meant by that, but in some way—or perhaps several ways—they took advantage of a widow’s weakness. I won’t go back and read it, but in last week’s passage one religious group asked Jesus what seem like a hypothetical question that was certainly designed to trip him up. The question is about a widow who loses not one husband, but loses seven husbands to death, and then they ask Jesus whose wife will she be in heaven? I think this was hypothetical, but you can see how cruel they are so lightly tossing around death and grief. A woman who has lost one husband has gone through no small amount of grief, let alone a woman who has lost seven.
This is then contrasted with the widow who does exist, the one Jesus sees. The rich are putting their large offerings in the offering box. In our context, imagine as we pass the offering plate someone in a fancy suit clearing his throat loudly, then turning over a gallon Ziplock bag full of silver dollars. As he passes the plate to the next person coins slide off the edges. Then a poor woman puts in a few quarters. Famously, Jesus exalts that woman’s offering.
And since money is already being discussed, we read in v. 6 that some people comment on the beauty of the temple, which had been undergoing a massive renovation project. Some of the marble stones were huge—three times larger than our largest SUVs.
Here’s a picture of the temple in Jesus’s day (From the ESV Study Bible; see this blog post by Justin Taylor for several other pictures.) It was almost a mile all the way around the outer courts of the temple, and the temple itself was 10 stories tall. It’s said that from a distance the temple looked like a golden mountain because so much of the temple was covered in gold. Perhaps some of the rich who Jesus saw giving had contributed toward the renovation project, perhaps having their pictures taken while they held up one of those giant checks with lots of zeros on them.
And Jesus says that which looks so impressive, is all going to be destroyed. Let me read vv. 5–6
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
It would be something else to have Jesus at your party. “Hey, Jesus, the renovations at the epicenter of our faith are going pretty well, aren’t they?” “Those? Yeah, it’s all gonna burn.”
So they ask a natural follow-up: “Jesus, when will this happen?” I won’t re-read his answer in detail; I’ll only summarize. Jesus doesn’t answer them with an exact timeline. Instead, he describes the types of things they should watch for: wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilence, persecution by religious people and government people, and even one’s own family. Jesus also speaks of great signs in the heavens. These are fairly general things. But he’s also very specific about a few things. He speaks of Jerusalem being surrounded, and when it is, it’s a sign that Christians should get out of the city, and if when all of this starts to go down they are not in the city, then they should not return to the city.
2. What’s the main point?
If that’s what’s going on in the individual parts of this longer passage, what might we say is the main point of all of this? Let me say the main point, and then show you how I get there.
Here’s the main point: Jesus sees sinful reliance upon what looks shiny and sturdy, things such as clothes, money, favor with certain people we deem to be important, and the beauty of the temple and even the protection of the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus sees that lust in the eyes of his religious opponents, and he warns his disciples not to be tempted to trust these same things.
That’s the main point: don’t put the weight of your soul upon things that look only sturdy but in reality are not sturdy enough for that kind of weight. It’s like building a bridge out of Legos, it can hold a Lego car as it drives over the bridge, but you can’t drive a real car over a bridge made of Legos.
The way Jesus brings this main point home is through the use of contrasts. It is contrasts that often help us see things best. I suppose in some sense I could consider myself a good runner, but if you put me in a race with someone who runs the 10k at the professional level, you’ll see pretty quickly—like in the first 50 meters, or maybe even the first 5 meters—that there is a great difference between us.
Jesus uses a series of contrasts to show us that we are not to hope in what looks shiny and sturdy in the eyes of the world, but rather, place our hope in God, which often seems to the eyes of the world like a silly thing to do.
What are some of these contrasts?
- The rich are “putting their gifts into the offering box” while the widow “puts” her two coins in the offering box. They are putting, which takes time. She puts, which took almost no time. They give out of their abundance, while she out of her poverty. And yet, in the accounting of God, it was she who gave the most. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… We would think that the religious leaders would be the heroes we should emulate, but it’s the religious leaders who used widows as stepping stones. Jesus instead exalts a widow’s trust in God as what we should emulate. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… The temple is glorious and large and seemingly indestructible. But in d. 70 the then Roman general Titus (who later became emperor) left not one stone upon another. It looks like it was sturdy, but it wasn’t. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… There are great dangers coming upon the world (wars, famine, persecution). And in that kind of dangerous environment, it would be very natural to trust a walled city for protection. But Jesus said don’t do that; get away from the temple and Jerusalem, which would have seemed silly in the eyes of the world. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… When Christians experience fierce persecution, it would be very natural, even wise, to plan out everything that could possibly be said in our defense and in defense of God, but Jesus says don’t do that. Instead, trust that in the right moment God will give you the right words to say. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… It would seem that these moments of persecution are the least likely time when a Christian could make a difference for God, but Jesus says, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (v. 13). We think when all the stars align perfectly and a celebrity becomes a Christian, then the testimony of Christians will be strong. Jesus says that when you are considered as sheep to be slaughtered, and you continue to cling to your faith, then God is glorified. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… It could seem like all of this destruction was random and certainly outside of God’s control, but yet we read that it is to “fulfill [of] all that is written” (v. 22) and that all this is happening “until times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 24). In other words, it would be natural to conclude there is no plan, but Jesus tells us to trust the plan of God, which can’t be seen. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… When the persecution seems to come in every direction—e.g., all will hate you; religious persecution (synagogues) and governmental persecution (prisons and governors) and by your family—know that God is for you. When all are against you, God is for you. That’s a contrast.
- Here’s another contrast… It could seem like when Christians are handed over to rulers, even some handed over unto death, that this will be the end of our story. But we’re told not a hair of our heads will perish. Jesus promises that though you experience trials here not the smallest fraction of our eternal wellbeing can be harmed. That’s a contrast.
- One final contrast… When it might have seemed like the followers of God wouldn’t be able to function without the centerpieces of their religious life, centerpieces like the temple and the city of Jerusalem, Jesus says, you can. You will. Jesus is giving us a new centerpiece—his death and his resurrection; his cross and his empty tomb and his Second Coming that will split the sky open the way the temple curtain was torn in two.
I mentioned at the start that this passage is notoriously difficult, which means I won’t be able to answer every question. But I do know that all of these contrasts show the main point. Jesus sees sinful reliance upon what looks shiny and sturdy. And Jesus sees that lust in the eyes of his religious opponents, and he warns us not to be tempted to trust these same things in our contexts.
3. What does that mean for us?
So what might this mean for us? Perhaps there are things you are trusting in, things that the world has no problem with, but you’re asking them to bear more weight than they can hold? Career, body image, relationship status, a new job or a new city or a new spouse, or more kids or less kids or better kids. Jesus is saying, don’t do that. Whatever you’d put on that side of the contrast, don’t. That’s one thing this passage says to us.
This application is underscored by one historical detail: the timing of the destruction of the temple given its recent renovations. I mentioned it quickly but let it sink in. Around 20 bc Herod the Great began renovations on the temple. Those renovations continued, as best as I can tell, until about ad 63 or 64, so over 80 years of work. They overlaid it with gold. They expanded the perimeter of the various courts. They added decorative sculptures. They installed marble stones, some almost as big as a tractor trailer. And then in ad 70 it was crushed. It’s like they had the 52 cards in the deck all arranged into a beautiful, giant structure, and they stand back to admire their handiwork just a moment, and all of a sudden, a draft blows across the room and does what wind tends to do to houses of cards. Church, don’t build your life on sinking sand.
As I reflect on the widow in this passage, other things come to mind. It’s possible for us to feel like everyone else out there is making a difference in big and extravagate ways, just like the rich. But you know what seems insignificant and piddly, is investment in the local church, doing things like watching children in the nursery and changing poopy diapers. You don’t get awards for that. You don’t get applause for discipling a new Christian or inviting a new person over to your house for dinner. No one sees that in the world and says, “Oh boy, that’s some significant stuff.” But I think there are many things, that were we to have the perspective of Jesus and to understand the accounting of God, we would see them for the beauty they have.
If we only hear from this passage what idols we are to avoid and what places we must serve, we haven’t heard all that Jesus is saying. Not only are we instructed about what idols to avoid, but we are told what hope we are to believe in and to know what great love God has for us. He doesn’t want us to hope in what seems shiny and sturdy but in reality is not. He doesn’t want us to spend our lives building houses of cards, because he knows there is a better, more sure foundation—his love and protection for us.
Earlier in the worship service, we read from the Heidelberg Catechism’s first question. I’d like to read it again as we close.
- Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?
- That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
The temple, the centerpiece of their religion, might soon be crushed. But a new centerpiece is in its place—the death and resurrection of Christ, the cross and the empty tomb. It’s not flashy. It’s seemingly ignoble. But it’s not. Jesus isn’t just giving us idols to avoid but a hope to embrace.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up to lead us in a final song. Let’s pray . . .