November 13, 2016
You can watch a video of this sermon here.
“Joy to the world, no more election news coverage and political ads!” Maybe that isn’t the good news you were expecting to hear this morning, but isn’t it a relief to have a break from all the hoopla? I don’t know about you, but the election process has left me feeling worn down and beat up. If nothing else, it has shown us that there is more division in this country than we might have realized, and that we need to get better at listening to one another instead of talking at one another.
The thing that I’ve struggled with this week is how we as a community of faith can come together and heal through all of this. Some of us are very excited. The candidate of our choice won and we are happy. We want to celebrate. Others of us are disappointed that our candidate lost. We want to mourn, we are afraid, we aren’t feeling very celebratory.
How can we all find hope together? As your pastor, I am challenged to try to help us all navigate through these experiences, and to recognize that God is active in everything that is going on today. God is present in the midst of fear and disappointment, as well as exuberance and joy.
Then, we come to this reading from Luke about stones crumbling and wars and other disasters, and I just want to throw my hands in the air. But when I stop worrying about how to navigate post-election stress disorder with you, I realize that this passage in Luke comes just when we need it.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” – Luke 21:5-19
This passage is an example of apocalyptic literature at its best. Descriptions of wars, natural disasters, persecution, and imprisonment are peppered throughout. But it’s not about the end of the world. In fact, the word “apocalyptic” doesn’t refer to “end times” as we often think it does. It refers to revelation, specifically, God revealing himself to us in a direct, visionary way.
That’s right, this is not necessarily a passage about the end of the world. But we like to know the ending. We want a timetable. And the disciples were like us in that respect. They wanted answers. So it isn’t surprising that, when Jesus starts talking about the way things will be “at the end of the Age,” his disciples want to know “When, Lord? How will we know? What will be the sign that these things are about to take place?”
To put today’s reading into perspective, we need to backtrack a little. A couple of weeks ago, Jesus was still on his way to Jerusalem, a journey that began back in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel. We have followed him along the way, and listened along with his disciples as he taught about the Kingdom of God. But All Saints’ Sunday took us out of sequence for a week, so we skipped over an important moment in the story.
While we weren’t looking, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches. Today’s lesson puts us smack in the middle of Holy Week. Within a few days, Jesus will complete his journey to the cross, where he will die for my sins, and for yours.
Jesus spends much of this final week in or near the temple, worshiping and teaching his disciples. It might be helpful to understand a bit more about this temple in Jerusalem, the place where faithful Jews came to worship, and the center of Jewish identity.
Remember that Solomon had built the first temple, and it had been a thing of grandeur. Solomon used the building materials his father King David had collected, to erect an amazing structure. Solomon’s temple replaced the tabernacle that had accompanied the Israelites on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land. The Ark of the Covenant rested in this temple, just as it had in the tabernacle. Solomon dedicated the temple with burnt offerings and prayers, and God’s presence filled the temple, just as it had filled the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord was real, and evident to the people of Israel.
But they did not stay faithful to God. First the nation of Israel was divided, and then, when the people continued to ignore God, they were carried off to Babylon. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and left as a heap of rubble. It was out of that rubble that Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the temple when they returned from exile. The temple was rededicated. However, the presence of God, the glory of the Lord, did not fill the temple as it had before.
Fast forward a few centuries, to Herod the Great. Herod was known both for his brutality, and for his building projects. Even though Herod may have considered himself of the Jewish faith, he was not considered Jewish by the Jews of Judea, particularly the Pharisees. Herod was little more than a puppet king, serving Rome and his own ego with more devotion than he offered to God. His greatest building project, the temple at Jerusalem, was more of a monument to himself than to the Lord of Abraham and Isaac.
Herod had leveled the old temple and laid a new foundation of stones so immense, that some weighed well over 100 tons. The temple gleamed from the top of Mount Moriah, white stone and gold making up every visible surface.
The temple itself, inside the 35-acre compound, probably only took about three years to build, but the whole structure required more than forty years of labor, and may still have been under construction at the time Jesus walked there. But, just as there is no record of God’s glory filling the reconstructed temple of Ezra and Nehemiah, we have no indication that God’s presence was ever evident in Herod’s temple.
So we need to keep in mind that, as far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is only talking about the destruction of this structure, Herod’s temple, not “the end of the world as we know it.” Luke wrote his gospel twenty years after the Temple had been destroyed, to show Jesus giving an amazing prophetic message to a people who don’t yet know they need it. And it’s also a message for us, people who realize that structures and leadership can and will fail.
Jesus tells those admiring the splendor of the temple that one day, soon, this temple will fall. No stone will be left on top of another. And this means a shift in the way Israel worships.
If there is no Temple, then where will they sacrifice? If there is no temple where can they go to be near the Holy of Holies? If there is no temple, their entire way of life must change.
Not only does Jesus tell them there will be no temple, but that before that happens there will be war. There will be earthquakes. There will be famine. There will be signs in the heavens. Things will be more unstable then you’ve seen them before.
Every time the media brings us news of another disaster, we may wonder, “Is this it, Lord?” Earthquakes in Kansas and Oklahoma, hurricanes that wipe out entire coastlines, floods and wildfires that drive people from their homes. And those are just the natural disasters.
We’ve seen so many pictures of war’s destruction that we are unmoved by the before and after images of Aleppo, where the Syrian civil war has devastated one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities. Where beautiful buildings and plazas once stood, there is now only rubble. But Jesus says, “The end is not yet.”
And Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.”
This word, “terrified,” only appears twice in the entire New Testament. Here, and in 24:37, as Luke describes the reaction of the disciples to the risen Christ, because they think he is a ghost.
Other places throughout the gospels, we are encouraged to stop being afraid, especially when we encounter God at work among us. But when Jesus says, “Do not be terrified” here, he is referring to a future condition, not a present reality.
As Jesus lists the suffering his followers can expect, being terrified might sound like a reasonable reaction. You will face persecution. You will be hunted down for your faith by the religious leaders and civic leaders. You will be put in chains.
While we may think we are safe here in America from religious persecution, Christians in more than 50 other nations fear for their very lives as they boldly continue to follow Christ. The persecution that Jesus predicted for his disciples is still going on throughout the world.
None of this sounds like good news, does it? The world as you know it will fall apart, you will lose your freedoms. Not what any of us would sign up for. Then we get to verse 13, and we learn why we can look forward to such suffering: This will give you an opportunity to testify.
All of this will happen, so that you can tell the good news of Jesus Christ, not after you’ve survived your suffering, but right smack dab in the middle of it. You will be betrayed, hated by family and friends, but Jesus will be with you, giving you the testimony you need to bear witness to God.
Maybe you only think of giving testimony to your faith as sharing the good things that have happened. Sharing about a healing. Sharing about a bad thing turned good, and those are important things to share. But I think the kind of testifying Jesus is referring to here is that ‘midst of the storm, no end in sight’ testimony. This is the kind of testimony that acknowledges God is God, no matter what the world may look like.
And Jesus also says that, when we are called to testify because of our faith, we don’t need to prepare an elaborate speech, because he will give us “words and a wisdom” that our opponents will not be able to contradict. Stand firm to the end, Jesus tells us. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
How shall we endure? Jesus is not telling us that we must do this in our own strength or by our own force of will. If we want to endure through hardships, we must place our trust completely in God, and depend on him. We can endure because we are children of God, completely dependent on God’s grace alone.
This is what Paul meant when he wrote:
“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)
And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul quotes a hymn from the early church:
“The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.” (2 Timothy 2:11-12)
How can we endure the suffering that comes with being a follower of Jesus Christ?
By being a follower of Jesus Christ.
For it is in following Christ that we gain our souls. The word Luke uses here describes the essence of who we are. Some versions translate it as “very life.” By your endurance you will acquire your own very life. This is life that is full, rich, abundant, and eternal.
Such life, such endurance, is God’s gift freely given to all who believe, to all who claim Jesus both as Savior and as Lord. No matter what trials we face, no matter what disasters overtake us, we have the power to endure to the very end if we accept God’s gift to us. That gift of unshakeable faith will see us through whatever may come, whenever it happens.
The temple’s destruction testified to the truthfulness of Jesus’ words. In the same way, we testify to this truth: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Christ has died that we might have life. Christ has risen, that we might have eternal life. Christ will come again, that we who endure may enjoy eternal life, abundant and full, as we reign with Christ in glory forever and ever.
If you have never claimed this promise of enduring, abundant, eternal life for yourself, I invite you to do it now. Place your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, and turn your life over to him – not only so you can endure to the end, no matter what trouble comes your way, but so that you can receive the life that Jesus wants to give to you, a life of peace and wholeness, a life of joy, a life that has been changed, so that you are free of fear and able to endure. Then you, too, can testify to what the Lord has done for you, as you trust in him, and are transformed by his redeeming love.