As Jesus leaves the temple he predicts its destruction. When the disciples ask him when this will happen he begins to speak about the end of the world too. However, his first concern is to make sure they are not sidetracked by the wrong things as the end approaches. We can see in the passage three things that might sidetrack us in our faith:
1 Distractions. The disciple who marvels at the size of the temple’s stones is typical of the way original sin distorts our understanding of value: our hearts are like broken scales, we are disproportiantely interested in lesser goods, but often indifferent to spiritual goods. Just as the Church has often been tempted to distraction, so we can readily recognise our over-interest in temporary goods, such as comfort, pleasure, money, sex, food and entertainment, and our odd indifferent to things that have eternal value. Jesus’ answer is to help us to “see…” (vs 2.) God calls us to admit our need for his healing and to ask him to give us his perspective, he then enables us to discern the true value of things and live well-ordered lives.
2. Deception. Jesus warns that the end will be delayed long enough that many will come claiming to speak in his name, making blasphemous claims. We can see this fulfilled throughout the Church’s history. The journey to Christ-likeness is also longer than we expect: the morality we are called to and the doctrines we believe can be hard to hold on to, especially in the face of pressure to compromise. But Jesus says, “Watch out that no-one deceives you!” (vs 5) Just as none of history’s false-messiahs have fulfilled the promises of Jesus’ return, neither do moral or doctrinal compromise bring the fulfilment they promise. Our beliefs and the moral law bring us to fullness of life, those who live in them are like fruitful trees, but those who abandon them become like chaff. (Ps 1)
3. Despair. Jesus tells the disciples not to be alarmed when they hear of wars. The temptation to despair when we witness great evil is strong, a kind of reflexive timidity in the face of evil’s “shock and awe tactics”. Many times the disciples and the Church have faced the temptation to despair and to give up in the face of seeminly impossible odds. In our faith too, there are times when we are pushed towards despair by the scale of challenges we face, perhaps sin or unrelenting temptation or some seemingly irresolvable situation. We wonder what the point of resistance is. Jesus’ answer is that these situations are just the “beginning of birthpains.” (vs 8.) They are the moment when it is most valuable that we don’t give up, but act on hope because God is beginning to bring to birth new things. We see this in the lives of the Apostles and in Church history. As we act in hope, in our culture and in our lives – even in the smallest ways – God acts on our faith and fights the impossible battles for us, doing more than we ever expected.