We probably ought to issue a disclaimer for the next few weeks: “What you are about to hear can be disturbing and could keep you awake at night.” I think, as a child, I stayed awake for a month when I first heard this stuff, fearing Jesus was coming soon, and I hadn’t asked forgiveness for some unknown sin. Warning – don’t take these readings literally. It’s the genre of apocalyptic, symbolic warnings about the future. In our day anything apocalyptic is catastrophic – doom and destruction, like global warming, weather disasters, typhoons, or an injury to Aaron Rogers. Now that last one’s apocalyptic.
Today Jesus leaves the Temple. Some in his entourage mention the Temple’s beauty, elegance and majesty. It’s huge – holds about 400,000 people on high holy days – a little larger than our seating capacity here. Jesus casually drops a bomb: “Take a picture while you can. One day the Temple’s going to be leveled.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the response they want. The church building, the jewels, stones, memorial plaques, altars, gold inlays – the center of national and religious life – the meeting place with God – where sins are forgiven, prayers offered and alms given – is coming down? All they can think to ask is: “When? Give us a sign so we’ll be ready.”
Here is where we need a serious disclaimer. Folks, the Temple did fall, 40 years later, but we are still here. Time didn’t end. So today many yawn when someone says all these wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues means Jesus is coming soon. On the other hand, if someone says, “Did you hear, Republicans and Democrats in both houses have agreed on debt reduction, balancing the budget, health care – and they were last seen skipping down Capitol Hill, holding hands, and singing “Kum Ba Yah,” I’d run for the hills. That would be scary. The sky may be about to fall.
Confusion comes when you read on in this chapter that the heavens will shake, and the Son of Man will appear. But even when that happens, redemption is merely drawing near, not time is up. Years ago in a Bible study a woman, obsessed with the end of the world, wouldn’t stop warning us that we needed to save the unsaved while there was time. People grew impatient with her, including me. (Another warning–Jesus means we really do have to love annoying people.) I, too, want everyone to know God’s love, but fear, guilt and panic are not God’s ways to get us home. Didn’t someone once say, “There is no fear in love?” It’s in the Bible.
Another disclaimer and warning: Jesus never says, “Follow me, and I’ll airlift you out of trouble.” Somehow the rapture and “Left Behind” people miss that. Jesus comes to be with us in times of trial, hardship, betrayal, persecution and portents, which sounds serious. Jesus does say: “Watch that you don’t get led astray. And when you face a firing squad, pay attention. I’ll tell you what to say. Hang in there. Don’t give up hope. Herein lies eternal life.” Keep the faith regardless because we are God-bearers for the world. We are being made signs of God’s nearing reign by our faith, endurance, our love, our striving for justice, mercy and peace. That’s why Christians look and act so strange. We hold dual citizenship – not of the world, but in the world. Our hope rests in God, not Wall Street, Washington, family or any social systems. That’s why we will hang in there with God for no better reason than that’s what we’re supposed to do – endure, and do something. That’s why we make enemies into friends and include annoying people. God’s bigger picture helps us see the present moment more clearly. That makes us different, not better.
It is our Christian belief that the world as we know it came to a grinding halt nearly 2000 years ago in Jesus of Nazareth. The battle of good and evil, of life and death, of the sovereign God and the world’s powers, of corrupted temples and the Living Temple has been won at a cross and empty tomb. God is Lord over all, doing a new thing, saving us from ourselves. We are the Lord’s, and we are safe in God’s love, even when heaven and earth tremble and shake.
Gathered in any congregation for worship today are people whose worlds have collapsed, may be collapsing, whose hopes are shattered, whose dreams are crushed. If that’s you – remember Jesus’ resurrection and know God does new things – and hang in there. Remember your worth — your identity given in baptism: God’s beloved child, this day and forever.
Others are here to support, encourage and pray for those who struggle to draw their next breath, and no longer have hope.
Anne Lamott tells a story of a sparrow, lying in the road on its back with its little legs straight up in the air. A horse comes by and asks the sparrow what it’s doing. “I heard the sky is falling and I want to help.” The horse laughs: “Do you think you’ll hold back the sky with those scrawny little legs?” The sparrow replies: “One does what one can.” (From Stitches)
I don’t expect the sky will fall – not today anyway. We still need to help – do what we can – just one thing really. We need to tell others this good news that no matter what happens, we are all good and right with God. And if you get scared or stuck for what to say – try anyway. Someone promises he’s with you – and he says he’ll help us get the words right. Endure – keep the faith – love God and love people home in God’s love. Simply put – that’s our mission and our purpose in God’s new reign.