A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on November 14, 2010
Pentecost 25 (Proper 28 Year C)
Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
If you weren’t already scared before you came in here today, you just might be after hearing this passage from the Gospel of Luke!
Luke lived in scary times. And so do we.
Most of us here cannot remember a time when things felt like they do now. Millions of people throughout our country, including right here in our own community, find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Home foreclosures continue to threaten many people. We experienced a tragedy right here in Andover this week when a homeowner facing foreclosure was found dead in an upstairs bedroom of his burning house. The house was scheduled for public auction on the 18th. The housing market, many experts tell us, has not stabilized, and the same is probably true of the banking system. Meanwhile, we continue to be at war in Afghanistan and dealing with ongoing conflict in many other areas of the world. Terrorism lingers as an ever-present danger. And global warming and critical environmental problems bring in their wake the threat of famine and other hardships here and around the globe. (Just have a look at this morning’s New York Times front page.) We could go on and on. The litany of problems facing the world today is seemingly endless.
Economic crises and wars have of course been a part of human existence from time immemorial. What we are going through today is nothing new, no matter how vivid and painful it may be for us right now. And we have been through far worse. Just ask those here today who remember the Great Depression of the 1930s or the horrors of World War Two and the Holocaust. The truth is that no age and no place on earth is immune from these or other problems. They are seemingly part and parcel of the human condition.
Throughout biblical history, we see the scriptures – both Hebrew and Christian – dealing with questions about these and similar quandaries. What are we to make of the conflict and violence among the nations of the world? How are we to explain the persistence of natural disasters, disease, hunger, corruption and political instability? Are all these tribulations somehow related? We wonder, are they signs of God’s displeasure – or, on the other hand, harbingers of better things to come? Most importantly, where is God in all of this? And where are we?
For the evangelist Luke, these questions converge in his understanding of Christ and his mission on earth. And the answers to these questions are, for him, absolutely critical to the everyday lives of Christians in the here and now. Keep in mind that Luke writes with the benefit of hindsight several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And he tells the story in a way that seeks to bolster the faith of his contemporaries. Keep in mind that he is also writing only a decade or so after the destruction of Jerusalem. That’s roughly the amount of time since 9/11 for us, and we know what an impact that has had on how we see the world. But imagine if it had not been only the World Trade Center towers, but the entire city of New York that had been leveled. That’s what had happened to Jerusalem – the ancient world’s most magnificent Temple totally destroyed – not one stone standing upon another; and the entire city had been turned into a pile of rubble, where the only voices heard were the voices of weeping and wailing. Think Dresden. Think Hiroshima.
These are fresh memories for Luke and the community to which he is writing his gospel. Even so, he tells the gospel story with passion and conviction: Jesus suffered a senseless death on the cross, thereby subsuming the sin and evil of this world into his own flesh; and then he conquered the powers of this world in his resurrection, revealing for all time the possibility and the reality of an end to suffering and even death itself.
But for some in Luke’s day and age, the questions remained the same as those of the bystanders in today’s gospel account: When will these terrible things happen? What will be the sign that all this is about to take place? Where is Christ now when we need him? When will he, at long last, return and fix things for good?
And always lurking behind these probings is the question: When will we, God’s people, be forever safe from harm? When will things “get back to normal?” or better yet, when will everything finally be put right? When will we finally realize the peaceable kingdom of which the Prophet Isaiah speaks when he says as we heard a few minutes ago, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth… The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…” (Isaiah 65)?
Today’s gospel narrative is Luke’s profound – and perhaps profoundly troubling – response to these questions. For it seems to Luke that the troubles of this world are sure signs that things are developing as they should and in accord with God’s eternal plan. If the present age is replete with terror and fear, it is only because the world itself has been in some sense knocked off kilter – but is now being set right by the power of Christ’s resurrection and his continuing presence in the world.
Far from losing heart in the face of adversity, Luke asserts, Christians must come to know that these things – war, earthquake, famine, and plague – will but provide “an opportunity to testify” to the deeper truth of the gospel itself. For everything in the here and now already contains within it the promise of salvation to come.
As much as the Christians of Luke’s day might have expected and wished for the Lord’s speedy return and an end to their trials and tribulations, they were not to lose heart nor be “led astray.” It would have been all too easy for them – faced with persecution and hardship – to turn away from following Christ. But “not a hair of your head will perish,” Luke reassures them. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” It takes endurance – and great faith – to see Christ already present amid the turmoil of the age. But that is the challenge Luke sets before those who are followers of Christ.
And it is our challenge today. We, too, need reassurance of Christ’s nearness and presence in our world. Everyone wants change. Every one of us wants a better future for ourselves, our children and grandchildren. And yet, some days we feel like we’ll be doing well just to get through today!
It is easy to think that the world has changed significantly in our own time; that our current problems and challenges are unprecedented. And guess what: we are not the first to feel this way! If we live in scary times (and we do), we also live in sacred time, if we but have the eyes to see it – sacred time not unlike the time of Luke and his community in the first decades of Christian faith, who learned through their adversity as we must in ours, that by our endurance we will gain our souls. (Luke 21:19)
Paul was Luke’s mentor in the faith and his partner in mission. I think he might challenge us just as he challenged the Thessalonians of the first century in the epistle reading we heard today: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”
By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I am indebted to the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus for the basic structure and some of the language of this sermon. I adapted it freely and he bears no responsibility for anything I have said here. His original version can be found at http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/sermons_that_work_125423_ENG_HTM.htm