Scripture Readings: Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65: 17-25
Were you prepared for the Y2K? How many of remember when computer technicians predicted a melt-down of global data systems at the year 2000, due to an early computer programming error? It sounds far-fetched now. For the most part, Y2K turned out to be a non-event. Some credit that to computer programmers, who raced to fix the problem. Others speculate the problem wasn’t as significant as originally thought. But at the time, considering how computerized global infrastructures had become, the fears of accidental apocalypse were not totally unfounded. Many people—maybe even some of us here—reacted to the dire predictions by fortifying their homes, stocking up on essentials. We wanted to be prepared.
Be prepared! I think these words characterize the way many people live in a time when fear of world-ending catastrophes is an undercurrent to daily life. Nuclear annihilation is still a specter on the horizon, but now it is complicated by international terrorism. There’s also the crazy weather, which we all suspect portends global climate change, but no one can be quite sure. And there are the numerous “wars and rumors of wars” and the various earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes which have caused epic damage over the past decade. Thanks to the news media, we are witnesses like never before to the awful suffering of victims worldwide, and we all too aware that ours is an age of tribulation.
Be prepared! These seem to be wise words. But sometimes, instead of preparing for effective action, we become slaves to self-preservation. Against the looming backdrop of fears, we often feel small and powerless. Frightened people go into survival mode, just getting through and grabbing tight to whatever we can. And we are easily misled to the transient and the trivial.
For there plenty of people are clamoring to manipulate our fears for personal or political gain. Every day, as Jesus predicted, we hear someone saying, “I am he!” and “The time is near!” Inundated with products to purchase “now or never,” and paraded with celebrities to worship, it is difficult to follow a clear path. Sometimes we just refuse to move, entrenching ourselves in fortresses of functional survival, trying to keep head down and nose clean.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is not a bad thing to keep a few extra groceries on hand in case of an imminent blizzard. But, as individuals or as a church community, to practice a long-term ethic of survivalist self-preservation is to deny our faith in the “just, peace-bringing, salvation-making God” we know in Jesus Christ.[i] So, how, then, shall we live?
Across the ages, in our gospel lesson from Luke, we hear Jesus speaking to just these questions. He begins with prophecy. “Not one stone will be left upon another,” he tells some folks gazing at the impressive Jerusalem temple. It’s hard to overstate how unbelievable and terrible this must have sounded. Unbelievable, because of the temple’s enormity. People could hardly imagine the feat of strength to put its foundation stones in place, let alone that they might be thrown down. And terrible, because of the temple’s splendor. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus reports that “at the first rising of the sun, [it] reflected a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.”[ii]
For those who originally heard these words, the destruction of this resplendent house of the eternal, the wealth and pride of the people, was unthinkable. But there’s an interesting layering of times in this passage. The gospel-writer Luke is actually recording these words a generation after Jesus’ earthly ministry. By that time, the community for whom he wrote had witnessed “these things” come to pass. In 70 A.D., the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, as the Romans put an end to Jewish revolt. Luke’s audience not only knew how possible such a cataclysmic event was, but they had to cope with its aftermath. It had become urgent to know how to “be prepared” for future cataclysms. Chief among these was the expected return of Jesus in glory. As Luke writes in 21: 27, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
The church today continues to look for Jesus’ promised return, the “day of the Lord” at the end of history. We believe it will be the ultimate judgment of human history, the time when the real reality—God’s truth—will be finally revealed in fullness. All the seemingly reliable masterpieces humans have falsely placed at the center of life will be shown for the fragile edifices they are, cobbled together on unstable foundations of injustice and violence. They will thrown down to make room for the eternal city built by God. We wait in anticipation, both fearful and hopeful.
And so there’s this question: “When will this be, and what will be the sign?”
As usual, Jesus’ way of preparing us is not quite what we expected or wanted. When we want to pinpoint an exact calendar date for the end-times, Jesus tells us, “Beware that you are not led astray.” Any who claim to know the day and the hour are mistaken. And when we want to entrench ourselves in fortified houses or institutions to outlast all wars and disasters, Jesus tells us “Do not be terrified.” And when we want him to give us a hug and tell us everything will be all right, Jesus looks us straight in the eyes and refuses to sugarcoat the truth. “Let me tell you, this in-between time will not be easy. Bad things will happen. And you, my disciples, will not be exempted from suffering.”
This doesn’t sound much like good news, does it? It is a sobering speech—no motivational step-by-step, no emotional pep-rally here. Jesus takes deadly seriously the suffering of people and creation, caused by the continuing presence of evil in our world. After all, he is speaking these words just before his own suffering begins. As the story in Luke continues, we learn of Jesus’ betrayal and death by crucifixion, as he takes upon himself our sin that we may be free of it.
Yet sobering as these words are, if we listen carefully, there’s a life-giving Word here which can sustain us through any tribulation of our times and help us resist our own trivialization. Jesus’ instructions encourage us to take evil seriously, too, preparing ourselves by being alert to its presence within and without us. Yet he also tells us, in his words and in his actions, to quote one theologian, “we must not take evil more seriously than we do God.”[iii]
For Jesus knows, and wants us to know, with a steely certainty that can face down all dire predictions and all dreadful circumstances, that evil does not get the last word. As we face trials and terrors in our lives, unprepared and powerless though we may be, we will be given opportunities to testify, and we will be given the last word, a wisdom no opponent can withstand or contradict.
What is that wisdom?
The destruction of the temple is not the end. War or natural disaster is not the end. Nor are the trials, betrayals and persecutions Jesus’ followers may experience because of his name. As awful as any catastrophe in our lives might be, it is not the end. That is why Jesus can say, in the same breath, that some will be put to death, yet “not a hair of your head will perish.” Neither his suffering nor his death was the end, and neither will ours be. On the third day, when Jesus was raised from the dead, the powers of death and darkness were decisively defeated, and everything before and after is being transformed.
For in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the wisdom to know, in the hands of our creative God, the end is always a new beginning. A new creation is even now coming into being from the rubble. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth!” And what a joyous vision! No more weeping or suffering. The end of infant mortality and long life for everyone. Every person enjoying the fruits of his or her labor. Harmonious relationships throughout creation, and God in our midst. The new day Isaiah proclaims is the life we have always longed for.
It is the life which begins to take shape in us, as the Holy Spirit gives us the wisdom of this vision. We are transformed from self-preservationists heads numbly down to stay out of trouble, to disciples who boldly stand up and raise our heads to see our redemption draw near.[iv]
We become those who share generously, sacrificially, of our time, money, and talents, trusting God’s abundant provision in every circumstance. We become those who speak out against injustice, who take courageous action on behalf of the most vulnerable people, people who fight evil in our time and place.
And finally, we become empowered to endure: every transition, every test, every illness, and every world-ending loss. We gain our souls as we testify in words and deeds to the eternal truth which outlasts everything else: God’s powerful, purposeful, ever-present, all-renewing love.
“Live Like You were Dying,” a recent country song by Tim McGraw, depicts well what it might look like to seize the opportunity to testify we’re given in world-changing times. It’s the story of a man confronting his imminent “end,” who finds, instead, a new beginning.
The first verse goes:
“He said: “I was in my early forties,
“With a lot of life before me,
“An’ a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
“I spent most of the next days,
“Looking at the x-rays,
“An’ talking ’bout the options an’ talkin’ ‘bout sweet time.”
I asked him when it sank in,
That this might really be the real end?
How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news?
Man whatcha do?
And in the second verse, he tells us what he did…
He said “I was finally the husband,
“That most the time I wasn’t.
“An’ I became a friend a friend would like to have.
“And all of a sudden goin’ fishin’,
“Wasn’t such an imposition,
“And I went three times that year I lost my Dad.
“Well, I finally read the Good Book,
“And I took a good long hard look,
“At what I’d do if I could do it all again.
And the chorus:
An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”[v]
My friends, our lives between the times will not be easy. But we don’t have to wait for new life. Every day has an ending, and every day has a new beginning. Every day is the day of the Lord, an opportunity to live an eternal life, in and through the everlasting love of God.[vi]
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Eugene Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 146.
[ii] Josephus in The Wars of the Jews, quoted by William Barclay in The Gospel of Luke, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, 259.
[iii] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 284-285.
[iv] Luke 21:28