The rotunda below the dome at the United States Capitol is amazing. Although it’s been a long time since I was there, I can still remember standing there staring up at its repeated pattern of images that go around and around and higher and higher. It’s the kind of sight one can get lost in.
Imagine, then, standing in the rotunda with your family. Kids and grown-ups alike staring up at the dome. The children are amazed, and the equally amazed parents explain to them why this is such an important building. “It’s so beautiful!” one child remarks. “How did they ever do it?” another one asks. Then, right at that moment, a stranger walks up and says to your family, “The days will come when it will all be torn down—not one stone left on another—all will be thrown down.”
That’s the image I have in Sunday's gospel lesson when Jesus walks up to the group in the Jerusalem temple and predicts its destruction. As Luke recalls the story, they were admiring how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. They were in that moment of awe, and Jesus brings it crashing down. The temple was the center of life for Jerusalem. Having been destroyed and rebuilt, it was a symbol of national identity. Although a part of the Roman empire, the holy city still maintained its religious independence, and the temple was a place where the mechanics of worship—that which defined the Jewish people as distinct—took place. Jesus’ prediction, therefore, isn’t just a foretelling that a beautiful building will be destroyed. It’s a statement that everything the people hold dear—the very structure of their lives—will come crashing down. This must be Fun Jesus, huh?
But Jesus’ terrible prophecy seems only to be a means to an end. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel (if you can call it that). Jesus explains that the temple will be destroyed and that nations will engage in war and that earthquakes and famines and plagues will afflict the earth and that his followers will be arrested, tortured, and killed. But, he says, they will be taken care of. Don’t worry. Despite all of these things, there is reason to hope: “not a hair of your head will perish.”
He’s right, of course. Terrible things do happen. The temple is destroyed about 40 years after his death. The Romans crack down on the Christian movement. Terrible persecutions occur. Yet, somehow, there are still followers of Christ boldly proclaiming the gospel even today. Hope, I suppose, isn’t always comforting. Hope, it seems, isn’t always nice. Sometimes the content of our hope is difficult to accept. We must die in order to be reborn. All that we hold dear will be stripped away. Yet we still have hope. It’s not a platitude. But it’s not Polyanna either. Hope is real and sometimes hard.