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November 17, 2013 - Luke 21.5-19

“REAL Life”

Luke 21:5-19

November 17, 2013

 

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

 

I love to be in a great worship space.  Chapel at Duke.  National Cathedral in Washington.  Here.  There can be no denying that there is an emotional response within each of us when we enter a Sanctuary where the grandeur and beauty is sufficient enough to create in us awe and wonder.  From there it seems to be a shorter leap to the awe and wonder of God.  After all, that is the very purpose of such buildings.

 

Some of us have an “Edifice Complex.”  In the text for today, the Disciples have such a moment when they are overwhelmed by the structures of the Temple.  “Look at these stones!”

 

Jesus says that all these stones will come falling down upon each other.  It will not last.  Just like the Tower of Babel, it will fall down – and it did.  Jesus was right.  Go to Jerusalem today and you will see that the Temple is gone.  Jews come and wail at the on part of one wall that is left standing.

 

Sometimes, the things that we think are the most REAL turn out to be the things that only seem to last, and often the things we take for granted are the most REAL of all.  Following God is much more REAL than any building you might follow God into.

REAL life – that is, a Life of following God -  is about new beginnings.  Our God is a God who brings life out of death, who creates new worlds out of old chaos. Just as there is no painless birth, so there is no painless future. Christians are those who can live with the present pain and difficulty in the hope that God is working a new, glorious future for us in the midst of present challenges. But in order for there to be new beginnings, something has to end.  And that scares us to death.

Ernest Becker – The Denial of Death.[1] Winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize.  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the existence of the physical things around us that we forget that the physical exists to promote the spiritual.  Churches die because they forget that the physical is temporary and God’s purposes for their existence are eternal.

 

Charlie Mayson’s old church in Virginia had a tree growing into the foundation of the church.  It had been given by Buford’s mama or something and the church would not consider cutting it down or altering the physical structure of the church.  One day, that church WILL collapse, the only question is going to be which will collapse first, the church or the church building?

 

The scene for this text is the temple.  It is a prominent place throughout this section of Luke.  Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the Temple (19.28-40), cleanses the Temple (19.45-48), deals with hostile questioners at the Temple (20.1-40), denounces the scribes (20.45-47), and points out the generosity of the widow at the Temple (21.1-4).  The Temple is truly where Jesus belongs by virtue of who he is, but it is there that he is profoundly unwelcome.  Why is that?  Jesus is a challenge to the corruption and pretentiousness that had overcome the Temple and the system that ran it.

 

Jesus and his disciples, walking by the magnificent temple, get into a conversation about the beauty and permanence of that great structure. Such huge stones! A building like this, with such huge stones will surely last forever! We usually build our churches and temples bigger and heavier than they need to be. Our creations will last forever.

 

But Jesus tells his disciples that stone will be cast down off stone, the whole place will lie in rubble, a short time from this conversation. And he was right. Just a short time later, the Romans at last had it with these rebellious Jews and utterly destroyed the center of their national life. The temple was in ruins, not one stone left upon another.

 

It should be no surprise to us that when someone makes a comment to Jesus about the beauty of the Temple, Jesus has a different opinion.  Any misguided religious display, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, is doomed if it ignores the very God for whom it exists.  Look at his response.  This place is gonna fall.  The day will come…when will it come, Lord?…Listen, you will hear a lot of people say it is time…don’t listen to them…when you hear of wars and such, be not afraid…before any of that, you will be persecuted by the powers of this world…you will be hated because of me…but you need not worry, you will be kept safe.  Wow, not exactly good news at a first reading.  And the persecution of the church in the first century bore this out.  Luke’s readers were being persecuted.  Martyr after martyr, they died.

 

Lest we feel that we in North America are without any kind of persecution of which Jesus speaks of here, think again.  We are persecuted, it is simply a much more “civilized” form of persecution.  Jimmy Carter, our former President and one of the most recognizable Baptists in the world, is still ridiculed and mocked because he admitted to having sinned by “lusting in his heart.”  Such a vulnerable and honest comment of his faith in Christ has been turned into slur.  Our culture finds us to be irrelevant to its goals and machinations.  While our time here is not as violent as the readers of Luke, there is still a massive rejection by our society, sometimes complacent, sometimes hostile, that rears its head whenever the gospel is witnessed to.  God’s reign poses a serious threat to the power structures of this world, and while reactions are normally not so violent as at that time, we deceive ourselves if we think our power structures are any less resistant.

Verses 16-18 seem to be a paradox.  They will kill us, but not a hair on our heads will be harmed.  However it is a paradox that we can understand if we know that they can kill us here, but can never do anything to us that will last.

 

We can be so short sighted, thinking of our reality as the only reality.  Writer Reynolds Price was told by his oncologist that he had only a 5% chance that he would recover from his cancer, even though he had just had surgery to remove the tumor on his spine.  While he struggled with the reality of dealing with the specter of his impending death, Price wrote about a vision that he had.  He said that he awoke on a beach beside the Sea of Galilee, fully clothed in a modern business suit.  The other 13 men around him that were sleeping on the beach were dressed in tunics and cloaks, as they would have been in first century Palestine.  Then one of the men rose, and came toward him.  It was Jesus.  Jesus approached him and beckoned him to follow.  They came to the edge of the water, and Price knew that he was to shed his suit and clothing and follow Jesus into the water.  The two waded out into the water until they were waist deep.  Jesus then began to baptize him, and Price said he could feel the water running down the puckered scar on his back.  Then Jesus spoke to him.  “Your sins are forgiven.”  Then Jesus turned and waded to shore, apparently done with him.

Price writes, “Is that all?  It’s not my sins that I am worried about!”  He had the gall to shout to Jesus’ back, “Am I also cured?”  Jesus turned to him and said, “That, too.”  Then Jesus left the water, really done with him.  Price followed him out of the water, and then awoke.  His vision tells him that Jesus performed the greater miracle first.  The forgiveness of our sins is a greater fact than any reality of our suffering in this place.  It seems almost a non sequitur to ask for physical healing after Jesus has forgiven our sins.  After our sins are forgiven, after Christ has come into our hearts, then our physical state becomes a moot point.

 

In times of great danger and stress, it is natural for people of faith to turn to God for a future and a hope, for the promise of deliverance.  Look at the faith community that gave us the great Negro spirituals, for example.  They were born out of great suffering and oppression.    While we share in that hope, we must admit that we are at a different place than they were.  For a faith community like the church in North America, that has the resources and potential to reach so many with the gospel and transform so many lives for Christ, for us to encourage an idle preoccupation with prophecies of the end of time is surely a perversion of Jesus’ gospel.  Look at Jesus warning to his disciples.  “Don’t listen to anyone that claims the time is near.”  Verses 7 through 11 provide a warning of great force, saying that such claims are made by charlatans that prey upon the innocent and gullible.[2]

 

The gospel does not offer us a means to predict the end of the world, or when a great time of tribulation will occur.  What it does provide is a very real hope for a very real future, and the very real spiritual resources to cope with adversity and hardship.  Every generation has its people whose religion is little more than a form of escapism into the fantasy of futurism.  But, every generation also has its courageous and prophetic visionaries who give themselves completely to Jesus’ call to make the gospel real to the world, to preach the forgiveness of sins, oppose injustice, to make a place for those that are excluded.  The world needs us to bring something NEW to bear, but even more than that – it needs to be REAL, and nothing is more REAL than the hope of Christ.  

 

We need help. We are facing huge problems, seemingly insoluble dilemmas. What we need is something new, something from outside our systems of management and expectation. We're coming to the end of the church's year, but in that ending, and these scriptures that tell of ending, is also the promise of a new beginning. The God who kills also makes alive. The God who casts down our puffed-up expectation for ourselves, also builds up a new heaven and a new earth.

 

The person that walks with Christ may lose their life, but they can never lose their soul![3]

 

Amen.

 

[1] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973).

[2] The New Interpreters’ Bible, p.402.

[3] Barclay, William; The Daily Study Bible: Luke, p. 259-260.