Jesus seems to predict in the gospel an event that did come to pass in the year 70AD, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Titus, a Roman general, later to become the Roman Emperor, arrived in Israel to put down an uprising with 3 legions, he easily took some of the major cities and towns and went on to destroy Jerusalem, burnt down the temple and dismantled both the city and the temple stone by stone. Everyone in the city was put to the sword, men, women and children. It was a catastrophe of great proportions, they now had no land to call their own (the biblical lands were joined to the province of Syria), they had no city (it was destroyed), no temple to worship (it was burned down), no priests and no leaders (they were all killed). It was a catastrophe that would take them 20 centuries to overcome.
Today we are marking also a human catastrophe that is hard to digest, hard to take in, hard to get your head round. We are marking Remembrance Sunday, a day in which those who have died in war are remembered by the nations. In particular we remember on this day those who have died in the great wars of the 20th Century. In the Second World War about 110 million people lost their lives. Countries like Poland lost 17% of their population and Russia 14%. Russia lost 16 million in civilian casualties and 10 million soldiers, figures and numbers beyond our comprehension. First World War 18 million lost their lives, with whole nations losing large swathes of its young men. A small country like Serbia lost a quarter of its population.
These years see us marking the centenary of the battles of the WWI and the pain of those days doesn’t leave us. Men foolishly sacrificed in a war of attrition. Survivors who returned absolutely traumatised and damaged by what they had seen, witnessed and been a part of. The memory of it lives on even today – young men mowed down by enemy fire, young men drowning in a sea of mud, the deafening noise of the guns heard miles off. At times the sole aim seemed to be to inflict enough casualties on the enemy that they could not continue, could not get up, could not defend or attack.
These wars were human catastrophes beyond comprehension. No wars had inflicted such depth of human misery on such a wide and universal scale. No wars have inflicted such numbers of people wounded, killed and such destruction of towns and cities as these did. People had shown great bravery and heroism and such courage but we must say from where we view the battle field that the cost was too high, far too high.
We should never fail to name war as just that, a human catastrophe. If we want proof of that we don’t just have to look at our history books but rather look to our TV screens now in this present moment to see that catastrophe unfold. Syria and Iraq show us that. Whatever the ideal that people believe they are fighting for, whatever the hoped for result the human cost is very great. Bombs raining down on hospitals and schools and neighbourhoods packed with people. The sole intention is to frighten, to subjugate, to crush.
When Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem was he really predicting the events of 70AD or was he just foreseeing what was in human history? – wars that come and destroy that which seem unassailable. Kings that you thought would always be there but then are not. Cities that you couldn’t imagine not being there and then being obliterated. Temples that you thought would stand forever being razed to the ground. Civilisation which had taken a millennia to build up, in a moment destroyed forever.
In times of catastrophe and disaster, whether it be war or natural disaster or personal tragedy, Jesus only advice is this: stand firm, hold your head high. It doesn’t seem very good advice, better advice would be run for cover, keep your head down, dig a hole and hide, come out when you think it is safe . But his words are not those of a general to his troops. These are words that are different, when things seem to be falling apart, when your ideals are destroyed, when everything you believe in is in danger of being wiped out, stand firm, hold your head high. These are words that ask for courage, resoluteness, firmness of purpose.
It’s an appeal to that thing that is locked within each of us deep reservoirs of human courage. Deep wells of staying power. Deep wells of perseverance and sticking with it. There is something within us that keeps going. In the end Jesus says, it is this, this endurance, that will win us our lives. He means by this not just an earthly life but something beyond this.
It sounds to me like dry bread to swallow, cold comfort. A bitter cup to drink, that there is the end only endurance, only keeping going which is left to us. Its sounds like a call to a stiff upper lip.
But don’t read into his words a sense of weary hopelessness or a tired resignation to what is to come or a giving in to what seems envitable . Endurance is a strong quality – to keep going in the face of adversity, to persevere when things are hard, to keep going when it would be easy to give up, to be firm in belief and hope. Far from being a counsel of despair, this resoluteness, this endurance is deep and wide and strong and lasting virtue.
How often we have heard of that kind of endurance and courage in times of catastrophe. The person who endures over illness, disappointment in difficult relationships, in financial crisis, in times when faith is challenged. Stand up, hold your head high is exactly the advice that they take.
Jesus says we have it in us. Deep down within us there are reserves and deep pools of endurance and courage that allow us to keep going until the new day comes, until the dawn arrives, until the situation turns, until the troops come to relieve us.
These are words that many of us stick to and live by, pin our hopes on, these are the flag we raise. We wait for the new dawn, the situation to move on, we wait to see where the pieces fall. We wait to see what land God is going to lead us with out our temple that we held onto, without our city that we put our trust in.