A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 2010. The lectionary readings are Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19.
At about 5:30 in the morning, I really thought the end of the world had come. It began with a bang, then a muffled thump, then a scratching and shifting, then more banging. It sounded a little like an enormous radiator turning on, like a giant ship creaking into a berth that is too small. I haven’t been in an earthquake, but I imagine it sounding something like this, except that the building was not shaking. But something was attacking the Stable Inn, the little conference center where we stayed during our recent mission trip to South Africa.
At first I thought it was a dream, but the noise was too loud, and too random. It would quieten down, and then start up again, even more ferocious. Were we being attacked by a lion, or an elephant? No—we were Springs, a small town about 15 miles from Johannesburg. Was the building coming apart? Maybe. Was a truck about to back into my room? Possibly. Finding jeans and jacket, and looking around for a club or a weapon, I decided that I had to go outside and see what was going on. If this was the end, well, I had said my prayers, and I suppose I was ready to go.
I went outside, my heart beating in my throat, and looked back up to the roof. And there, spread out over the tin roof of the hotel, were 7 peacocks—playing, chasing each other, having a grand peacock time, at our expense. Then I REALLY wished I had a suitable weapon.
Hearing all of that racket, in a strange place, I actually did wonder for a minute or two if that was the end of me. But as it so often the case—I was worried about the wrong thing. I had nothing to worry about then. I might have spent more and better time wondering how the experience of being with Sharron Dinnie, her congregation and Kwasa Center, might change me or affect the outlook of those of us from All Souls? I might have spent more time considering how I use the resources God has given me, about how I might be called to share those resources more creatively– as opposed to worrying immediately about my own safety and wellbeing.
I don’t know about you, but I often worry about the wrong things. I worry about old age, but don’t pay enough attention to what I’m eating now. I worry about family members who will die one day, and yet I don’t connect with them now the way I could. I worry about things that scare me in the abstract, while ignoring the practical, here-and-now, everyday things that I attend to, which might even affect those more outlying, abstract things.
When it comes to thinking about the end of the world, about death, or about when Jesus comes back, about what some call the “rapture,” a lot of people do just that—they eagerly read the latest “Left Behind” novel by Timothy LaHaye and Larry Jenkins—but I wonder to what extent they’re willing to change their lifestyles so as perhaps NOT to hasten the ending of the planet. During Advent, our Adult Forum will be with Seth Walley, who will lead through a study of “the rapture,” the end times, some of the literature around it and some of the questions we might have.
Sometimes I hear people get upset about the Book of Revelation, as though it’s filled with scary stuff about the end of the world. I point out that Magiddo is a big hill in Israel where most of the major battles were fought. To say, “Mt. Magiddo” is to say, “Har Magiddo,” which became “Armageddon.” 666 is thought to be a twisted and bad number only because 7 is thought to be a perfect a number. Anything less than 7 would be off, would be warped, would probably be the sign of something trying to pretend to be perfect. On and on, the coding and symbolism continue. The Book of Revelation is a book of encouragement, written to Christians during a time of persecution. It would be as if a rabbi during Nazi Germany wanted to write a letter of encouragement to Jewish congregations—he would necessarily fill it with misleading images and symbols to fool the Nazis, but these symbols would be understood by their intended audience. It’s that way with Revelation. I sometimes marvel at the energy people will put into being afraid of odd terms found in Revelation, while the real thing to fear is the lack of biblical literacy by people who claim to be Christians.
Throughout scripture there is particular literature called, “apocalyptic” (from the Greek word for “the lifting of a veil” or “revelation”). Apocalyptic literature reflects a particular mood for a particular time—sometimes, it’s when a prophet preaches that the end times are near. Other times, people begin to sense that they are living in the last days when there is a calamity like famine or drought; or when there is an invasion or a war; in the days leading up to a new millennium or even during times of rapid cultural change.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of in such a time, of such a time. He makes it specific when he says that even in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, will soon be no more. The day will come, Jesus says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.” The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way—the disciples ask him, “Teacher, when will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?
Sensing their anxiety, Jesus slows them down. He begins to warn them about those who will come and take advantage of their sense of the final days. Some will make the most out of a sense of impending calamity, and some will do what they can to exploit fear. Some will say, “the time is near,” Jesus cautions. Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But again, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way. In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus seems to warn them that as his followers, the religious leaders are going to question them and perhaps punish them and perhaps even persecute them.
But in the face of all of this, Jesus counsels that they should remain calm. They shouldn’t even plan beforehand what they might say. They should trust in God and trust in Jesus. He says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” which is not quite true given that soon after, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith.
But beyond being a history lesson, what does this say to us?
Most of us do not risk being persecuted for our faith. Much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition. It’s an emotional or psychological crutch. It’s thought to be quaint; just a nice, old-fashioned cultural affectation.
For some in the church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. But for others of us, our faith holds within it the same power it had for those early disciples. Something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and was raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in these final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take. Whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”
I think the great challenge of living as a Christian in our day, in our culture, is not worrying so much about raptures, and end times—but by trying to live a simply faithfulness in relationship to one another, in our families, in meetings, with our colleagues, at the school conference, in traffic, in the line at a store, on the kids’ soccer field,… wherever we may be.
Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus promising, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our families (if we live with them) and going through the activities of the day, with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.
The offertory motet today is by Mendelssohn, and even though the melody may not stay with us, I pray that the words would be engraved on our hearts:
They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
WE that endure to the end, shall be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.