Originally preached at Alive@5 at Ada First UMC
Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:5-19
It’s been quite a week for this country, hasn’t it? Maybe it was my youthful naïveté, but I thought I was going to feel relieved once the presidential election was over.
But I’m not.
And I’m not talking about who I voted for – that wasn’t a political statement. I’m really just stating the fact that I’ve seen things get uglier since Wednesday morning when the election results were finalized, not any better. And I don’t know about you, but it’s getting harder for me to find a hopeful note in the midst of this.
Does anyone else feel this way? Or am I the only one on Twitter or Facebook, or the only one who reads the news?
Well today, in our present situation, I think that Gospel text that was just read for you from Luke has a good word for us in this mess. So let’s dive in here.
The first thing you might’ve noticed with this text is that it’s one of those Scriptures where it seems like Jesus is predicting the end of the world. And let’s be honest – many of us are uncomfortable with Scriptures like that. Including me. I’ll be honest – when Mary Jo and I were talking about me preaching here at this service, I agreed to this date more because it worked for my schedule than for the Scripture. So when I sat down to really read this text this past Monday, I thought “What have I gotten myself into? Because here’s this strange teaching that the writer of Luke has coming out of Jesus’ mouth. What’s Jesus talking about here?
Well first, we have to understand the context of this passage. Jesus’ disciples and a bunch of other people were standing around the Jerusalem Temple admiring it. Now the Temple was HUGE – the outer court alone could hold 400,000ish people, and on the high holy days it often did. So there was a lot to admire there, right?
Now to really get what Jesus is saying here, we have to understand how important this Temple was. In the Jewish faith in the first century when this took place, the Temple was where YHWH – God in God’s very Self – was supposed to reside. God was over all the earth, but the Temple in Jerusalem was God’s special home, among God’s Chosen People, the Israelites, the Jewish People.
Basically, the Temple was the single strongest symbol of God’s presence with the Jewish people. They definitely didn’t worship the Temple, but the presence of God and the Temple were absolutely bound together.
That might sound foreign to us, but think of the symbols we have for God’s presence with us – candles, the Communion elements, stained glass windows, the baptismal font, images like a dove or flames of fire. Think of the symbols of God’s presence you have in your own spiritual life. Draw up those feelings in your mind – the feelings of God’s immanent presence these symbols give you – then multiply it by about 50, and I think we might be able to understand a bit of what the Temple meant for the Jewish people
But…here’s Jesus predicting the Temple’s destruction. He tells the disciples “as for the things you are admiring [the temple], the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
That’s some serious stuff.
If we read further on in this chapter, Jesus gives an even more specific, and kind of insane, picture of this. Jesus says “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that its destruction is close at hand. At that time, those in Judea must flee to the mountains, those in the city must escape, and those in the countryside must not enter the city…How terrible it will be at that time for women who are pregnant or for women who are nursing their children.” (Luke 21:20-21, 23)
This is a big deal. And pretty disturbing. What’s going on here?
Well if we read on in our history books, not in our Bibles, we learn that the temple actually was destroyed in AD 70 by the Roman Army following a Jewish revolt. Jesus was predicting that very destruction. So remember talking about how meaningful the Temple was for the Jewish people, and imagine what its destruction would’ve been like. It almost would’ve been like the Romans had killed God. It really would’ve seemed like the end of the world.
No more Temple. No more God. No more hope.
Now, even though Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple and the war and the misery that would surround that, He uses general enough terms that Jesus could have been talking about today.
Wars and rebellions. “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other,” Jesus says. Think of the civil war raging in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. Think of the ongoing fight against ISIS. Think of the Arab Spring revolts and uprisings in the general Middle East area. Think of North Korea continuing to threaten war. Think of the revolts, rebellions, and wars in Central and South America over the last couple decades.
Jesus talks about natural disasters – think about Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Andrew. The earthquake in Haiti. The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, the tsunami in Chile just last year.
But think even beyond what Jesus said here, to everything else collapsing in our world. Institutions are collapsing, the mainline church is declining.
And we’ve just gotten through what might have been the most contentious and difficult and poisonous presidential election in our memories. Literally at least half the country is despairing and upset because of the results. No matter who you voted for or if you even voted, we can’t ignore the hateful and poisonous and harmful rhetoric that has been spewed out for the last several months, and has continued to be splashed across my social media pages for the last several days since the election.
We as a country have done harm to each other.
And I don’t think it’s stretching the text too far to say that this could’ve been included in Jesus’ litany of destruction in our text today.
I think one word can sum all this up, and that word is Despair. Despair – the absolute loss of hope; the deep feeling that things will not get better, they will only stay the same at best, if they don’t get worse. I wonder if we’ve ever found ourselves in this place of despair, where God feels distant or nonexistent; where there’s no way we can see our situation improving. Anyone who’s ever struggled with depression can tell you what this feels like.
Despair. Jesus seems to be painting a picture of despair here.
And yet…I have to believe that there is Good News here. This is the Gospel, after all.
Let’s look more closely at the end of the passage. In verses 16-19, Jesus tells us “You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.”
Did you hear that? There’s a contradiction there, isn’t there? Jesus says “They will execute some of you…” but then he says “…by holding fast, you will gain your lives.” What is Jesus talking about?!
Well I think it can be summed up in one other word, and that word is “Choice.”
You see, some people see this passage as part of Jesus’ prediction of the end of the world, but I think it’s different than that. I think this is Jesus saying, “Wars, plagues, famines, natural disasters – all that stuff will happen, because this is the world you live in. Yet I am still with you.”
There’s a theologian I like named Frederick Buechner, and he has this really simple quote that sums this up beautifully. He said “This is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
You see, it seems like the world presents us with only one option – live a life filled with fear and anger and disappointment. But Jesus – the Word of God – speaks a Word of Hope and Light into the darkness of Despair. And it’s more than that – Jesus is the Word who offers us a different story than the one the World would tell.
In Jesus, we have the choice to despair or to hope. We have the choice to give up or to keep on fighting. We have the choice to run around like Chicken Little screaming “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” or to remain faithful, remain in Christian community, and remain in Christ.
This is the key message here – Disasters and destruction and war and decline and collapse do not let us off the hook. We still have the choice to hold fast. When the world is falling down around us, we have the choice to hold fast to our faith, to hold fast to Jesus. All that bad, awful stuff is going to happen – it’s inevitable in a broken world, you don’t need me to tell you that. But we have the choice to continue following Jesus, even in the face of a world that seems to be against us.
The good news is that we are able to choose Jesus, to choose love, to choose mercy, to choose community, no matter what the world tells us.
Jesus tells us “By holding fast, you will gain your lives.” The Good News is that by saying that, Jesus says “You are able to hold fast and gain your life.” You are able to choose Jesus, you are able to choose love.
Now how does that work? It’s a nice idea, but in a world that is so good at pushing you down and beating you up, how is it possible to make the choice to hope in the face of despair?
If you count yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, then Christ gives you the ability to choose either to despair or to hope. But it’s not automatic – it still requires you to make a conscious choice. We are able to choose hope in the midst of despair, but we have to choose it.
And sometimes we need an outward and visible sign of it. You should’ve received a piece of paper when you came in. Could you get that out, with a pen? [Online-only readers: find an index card and pen] We’re going to give you some time to reflect on this. There’ll be a song playing. And during that time, I invite you to write three words on that piece of paper. Specifically, these three words: “I choose hope.”
Then take it home with you. Tape it on your bathroom mirror, put it on your nightstand beside your bed, put it in your purse or wallet, put it somewhere you’ll see it often, and use it to remind yourself that you are able to choose hope in the midst of despair, and to remind you to keep making that choice each and every day