The following sermon was preached in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd as part of Preaching 1 on November 10, 2010.
Joseph P. Mathews
10 November 2010
Luke 21.5-19/ Is. 65.17-25
In the name of the God who was and is and is to come. Amen.
Can you feel it? Do you feel the tension mounting? Do you feel the beginning of the end? If you’re feeling anything like me you’re definitely feeling the tension of the end of the semester creeping up on you. That systematics paper is due, the liturgics paper is due, and unless you turned it in today you’ll have a church history paper due. And two extemporaneous sermons yet to do in this class. And then another liturgics paper and a church history final.
But that’s not the ending that I’m asking if you’re starting to feel. No, I’m talking about the end of the world -- and the end of the church year. We’re in a liminal space right now and the designers of the lectionary know that. We’re moving. On Sunday we remembered those saints who have gone before us, those whose temporal lives have ended. Parishes all over the Church baptized people, and part of their lives ended as they were born anew in water and the Spirit, and now they are between the Font and the grave.
All Saints’ is a sign to me that we’re winding down a church year, that Advent is just around the corner. We’re in between extremes right now: the days are getting shorter, and the temperatures are getting cooler. All Saints’ has passed. Summer has ended but winter is not yet here. In my mind, with Advent comes the cold. With Advent comes the dark. With Advent comes the end of the world. And with Advent comes a new reign and ordering of the world. But we’re not yet to Advent. We’re in an in between space that gives us foreshadowing of that season yet to come.
In our Gospel passage today Jesus tells his followers that the temple would be destroyed and that the end was coming. With what had to be startled alarm, they ask Jesus when it will be and how they’ll know it’s coming. Rather than saying “Y2K will be the end of the world,” Jesus tells them not to be led astray. Led astray? The want a date. And he says that people will claim to be him and will tell people the the end is just around the corner, maybe even with a specific date!
Whenever I read apocalyptic material, I think about these people who know the date of the end of the world. I don’t mean the people who have calculated it based on the Myan calendar, but those people who have cracked the Bible code and know just the year, the month, the day, the hour, the minute, the second that Jesus will return. And I think “Have you not read the Bible that you claim to take so seriously?! We aren’t supposed to focus all our energy (if any!) on the end of the world. Don’t you remember what Jesus told his followers?”
I also think about a Southern Gospel song based on the apocalypse in Matthew It was sometimes sung my traveling quartets in my childhood church, and the refrain says, “We are living surely living in the days he speaks about/all these things we now are having every day/Let’s be ready for his coming let us meet him with a shout/for he tells us in his word to watch and pray.” The third verse talks about “all these things he speaks about” “Many wars shall come upon us when the end of time is near/ Many earthquakes will be numerous in those days/All of these today we're having and in Matthew it appears/We should live our life for Him and sing his praise.”
Yes, Jesus does talk about wars and earthquakes. But in Luke’s version he’s pretty clear that, well, they don’t mean much...neither do the famine and plague all over the world or Comet Halebop. All the stuff that Jesus lists wasn’t all that new. One of the things that differentiated Jesus from the other messiahs running around first century Palestine was that he didn’t lead an insurrection against the empire. But in all of those things, we won’t yet be to the end of the world...and we won’t yet be to Christ’s reign. Before those things come to be lie challenges that many of us in the United States will never face: persecution by civil authorities for taking the name of Christ and following him on the Way. We are blessed in this country to have the freedom to gather and worship whatever we choose. This hasn’t always been the case, as St. Lawrence -- roasted alive on a grid iron -- St. Perpetua -- mauled by a wild cow in the arena and then beaten -- and all those saints in Fox’s Book of Martyrs will tell you. But the point of Jesus’ talk about the end times isn’t about being martyred. No, the point of his talking about the end times is that he wants people to follow him and trust him.
In the midst of adversity and persecution Christ’s followers are given the opportunity to testify. When non-believers say, “Okay Christian” or “Okay chaplain,” or “Okay priest, what do you have to say for your God now?” Jesus’ followers are given the opportunity to tell their truth of the Good News. And how does he want them to testify? Not by rehearsing elaborate speeches to share or trying to think of every possible situation and how to answer it. Not by giving them easy answers. No, Christ wants his followers to trust him for the words to say.
I don’t know how many times in the hospital this summer that’s all I could do. Pray before going into a room when I knew it was going to be rough, listen, and keep praying. We’ve all done a unit or two of CPE. Take a minute to think about those experiences where there was nothing that you could say, where no amount of role play during orientation would have helped you know exactly what to do when a social worker invites you to be a part of a care conference before the decision to withdraw life sustaining care from the ninety year old -- or the four year old is made. What defense could you prepare to give to those survivors whose world as they knew it was ending?
When I think about those times, if I said anything at all, I often don’t remember what I said. What I remember is faces being in pain and looking for peace. What I remember is Christ being present in the space between us. What I remember are holy moments that I didn’t make, moments where Christ guided me. And I remember feeling like I’d made something of a mess when I tried to go it on my own. At the end of the world -- as we know it and live it or temporally as governments grow more and more oppressive -- this is what will be expected of Christ’s followers. But we’re not there yet.
And how different that is from what comes after the end, that new heaven and new earth that Isaiah writes about where no more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress. Where no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime, where one who dies at a hundred shall be considered a youth. In Christ’s reign, which we’ll celebrate next week, violence is no more. The wolf and lamb eat together, and the lion no longer attacks another creature as prey, but eats grass with the ox. Society is just: those who build their houses don’t have them taken away by people with more money. Those who tend the fields are not the slaves of oppressive systems. But we’re not there yet.
We’re in an in between space. We’re between the saints who’ve gone before us, and we’re moving toward the Reign of Christ and the end of the world. And in this in between space we have to remember that we’re not the ones in charge of anything. We look to that day when in the fullness of time all things will be put in subjection under Christ and made well. But we’re not there yet. Right now we’re in a place of looking to the Christ who loves us and died for us, who conquered death and the grave, showing our feet the way.
Jesus tells us to not prepare our defenses in advance, though he doesn’t say anything about not preparing sermons or classwork in advance. In telling us this, he’s inviting us to trust, listen, and follow him. We follow him when we answer the call to different types of ministry. And we follow him when we do acts of service for the poor in field ed. We follow him when we take up our crosses and give of ourselves to others. And we hope that we’ll follow him in the resurrection to his New Reign. But we’re not there yet.