Year C, Pentecost 23
Luke 21: 5-19
We have a prayer that comes right after we sing the Gloria. It changes every week and often echoes themes found in the readings. Today’s is a favorite of clergy and seminary professors:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…
It’s a great opening prayer, but it seems an odd choice for the readings for the day, especially the first one that starts with: “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord o hosts…” We are supposed to read, mark and inwardly digest that? That would give most people indigestion. And that’s just the first reading.
This Gospel reading for today is typically referred to as apocalyptic literature. Most of you are probably familiar with the word “apocalypse.” It’s thrown about quite a lot in popular movies and books. It’s typically refers to the end of the world. It fascinates a lot of people. It always has. The Jews of Jesus’ time were no different. They too wanted as much information as they could gain about the end of the world. But that is not how this conversation started. It started in a fairly benign way. Jesus and his disciples were in the temple, as they often were. Jesus had just remarked on the widow who gave everything she had—often referred to as the widow’s mite. (That is the reading right before this one.)
Then after that profound teaching about the importance of sacrificial giving, some person starts talking about how pretty the temple is. They were probably trying to change the subject. Apparently people didn’t like talking about stewardship anymore then than we do now. But it’s true, the temple was stunning. The temple that existed during Jesus’ day was one of the finest temples that had ever been built. It was built under the reign of King Herod in about 20 BC. This temple was twice the size of the old one and the outer walls were covered with gold plating. Pilgrims poured into the city and were overwhelmed by its magnificence.
That is why Jesus’ declaration that the temple would fall was so unbelievable. It would be like telling Americans that the capital would soon be rubble. When the Jews heard Jesus say this, they assumed that he was talking about the end of the world. How else would such a formidable structure—one that was blessed by God—fall? What we know, and the people who were first hearing this Gospel knew, was that the temple would be destroyed less than 40 years after Jesus said this. The world didn’t end, but it seemed like it would. It was a horrible war that decimated the Jewish population and destroyed much of Jerusalem.
The disciples didn’t know any of this, so they immediately started asking questions. When will this be? How will we know it is coming? First Jesus warned them about false prophets who would try to tell them that the end is near. We’ve had a few of those, haven’t we? Then Jesus went on to say that when you hear about wars and insurrections, do not assume this means the world is ending. That is comforting. Then he said what a lot of people perceive as apocalyptic, “Nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.” Sounds terrifying. Sounds a lot like what is going on now, what has been going on for awhile. Then he tells them that before this happens, “they will arrest and persecute you…you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.” Also sound pretty scary, and it was. Every one of the disciples was persecuted. Days after Jesus shared this “apocalyptic” statement, he was betrayed by his friend Judas. All the things that Jesus predicted, happened and many of these things are still happening. These things might not be happening to us right now, but I can guarantee you that somewhere in this world right now, is famine, war, insurrection, plagues, persecution. Every single one of those things is happening now and has been happening for millennia.
It doesn’t mean that the world is ending. It means that life is happening. There is a lot of bad news in the world right now. There have been two cases of the bubonic plague in China…this week. Children are being shot down in their own schools. Parts of our country are on fire. I don’t need to elaborate. You all have read or watched the news. Jesus wasn’t preparing his disciples for the end of the world, he was preparing them for life. He’s preparing us now as well. What does he tell us to do? Testify. Talk about Jesus. Talk about love. Testify that there is light in darkness. Despite the horror of our world…no because of the horror in our world, it is our job to testify.
Now you might think, Episcopalians don’t do that. We don’t know what to say unless it’s in our prayer book. Well Jesus has an answer for that as well, “So make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict,” Don’t tell me that Episcopalians can’t testify to the love of Jesus, because Jesus gives us the words. That brings up back to the opening collect. “Grant us to hear the scriptures, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life…” The scriptures don’t always tell us what we want to hear. They tell us what we need to hear, what we need to know to be followers of Jesus Christ.
A lot of Christians use readings like this to scare people into submission. These words of Jesus were not meant to scare people. They were meant to prepare people and even bring comfort. He’s telling us that through the hardest times in our world and our individual lives, he will equip us with the tools and the support that will help us endure. He won’t remove us from the hardship, nor will he remove the hardship. He will support us, love us and be the light for us when all we can see is darkness. We are surrounded by darkness, but also by points of light. These points of light are each of you here, each of you who think you don’t have the words you need to testify, or don’t have the faith or credibility to do so. You don’t have to have faith in yourself. You don’t have to even believe in yourself because God sent his son to this earth to prove—-that he believes in you. The temple in Jerusalem was breathtaking, but it was not evidence of God’s love or power. We are the evidence of God’s love and power. We are the temple that cannot be destroyed.