“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
It is never easy to read paragraphs like these. For judgement isn’t some abstract concept to be talked about light-heartedly. It is ultimate reality.
Was Jesus harsh and angry when he spoke these words? Not at all. Luke has already shown us Jesus’ state of heart and mind for, even in the joyful celebration of his approach to Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city at the prospect of the foolish decision it was about to make regarding him and at the awful consequences that would inevitably follow. There wasn’t even a hint of vindictive pleasure in his voice. He was filled with compassion.
Jerusalem had been given every opportunity but had refused to repent. Its religious authorities had become increasingly secular and corrupt in their tenancy of the vineyard, interested in money and power, like the pagan nations around them. They were about to hand the Owner’s son over to its Gentile overlords and persuade them, against their better judgement, to execute him. Great miracles would be done in the city that would witness to the true identity of Jesus as both Lord and Messiah. But they would reject the evidence. And God would hand them over to the Gentiles. The temple would be no more. Jerusalem would lose its distinctive witness for God, since it had long since given up being distinctive and loyal to him, and it would become a Gentile city.
There was to be no deliverance. When Christ’s disciples would see the Gentile armies approaching, they were to flee from the city. God was not going to save it. “For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written.”
It is difficult even to read the details. The distress of those coming days would be immense. Daily life would be precarious. The Lord is aware of that. He singles out for particular thought pregnant women and those seeking to get on with the task of caring for the new-born, perhaps as an indication of where most support would be needed. People would die in the conflict or have their livelihoods and families torn away from them as they were taken into captivity.
Did it have to happen like this? Was there no other way? Perhaps we can at least see the point of judgement falling on the corrupt leaders. But what about the pregnant women? And the innocent young children? Surely they were not responsible for the widespread corruption of their God-given faith, the greed, the lust for power, the perversion of truth, and the murder of Messiah?
I understand why some are so horrified by such descriptions of judgement that it drives them away from any belief in the God who judges. But I wonder if they are not at least equally horrified at the world in which such a response leaves us?
“Imagine there’s no heaven”, John Lennon taught the Western world to sing, “It’s easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky”. A world without an afterlife. Nothing beyond this one. A world, therefore, where there is no hope of ultimate justice.
Will we sing about a world where the pleas of abused children and violated women, if not answered in this life, will never be answered? A world in which those who exploit the poor, sacrifice the lives of tens of millions for the sake of their political ideology and lust for power can, if they feel that earthly justice is catching up with them, simply put a bullet in their brain and never face justice? Will we celebrate a universe without justice?
I wouldn’t be singing. I would be weeping, if I believed that death ends everything and that our instinctive longings for justice will simply mock us as we face nothing but the eternal and empty silence of a universal grave. I haven’t an understanding big enough to answer all the questions that such raw portrayals of judgement raise, but to use the moral judgement the Creator gave me to call into question the Creator himself is a fundamental self-contradiction. Moreover, when I realise the compassion of Christ not just here but supremely in his self-giving on the cross, I am convinced I can trust him, even when I can’t understand.