November 13, 2016, Taking the Long View – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Jesus said something like this: The days are coming when there won’t be one board or piece of stained glass in St. Philip’s Church, there won’t be one brick in the Norwood town hall, there won’t be one stone in the White House, not one thing left upon another; not one thing left that hasn’t been knocked down and destroyed.
That’s how it would have sounded to the people who were listening on that day, when Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was their place of worship and their center of community and the symbol of nationhood for Israel, all those things rolled into one. To predict its destruction was to predict the end of life as they knew it. And that’s exactly what Jesus was doing. Less than 50 years after that day, while many of the people that were there to hear Jesus speak were still alive, Roman troops beseiged Jerusalem, killing hundreds of thousands of men and women and children, and burning the Temple to the ground. Life and worship in Israel was never the same again.
On that day, Jesus was speaking to a particular group of Jews – those who had become his followers and friends. He warned them that a time of persecution was coming. “There are bad times ahead,” he told them, “You’re going to see wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues. But that’s just the usual stuff. Soon they’ll be coming after you. You’ll be dragged before the authorities and thrown into prison. You’ll find yourselves betrayed by the very people you trust: your own parents, your closest friends. Some of you will even be put to death. It’s going to look a lot like the end of the world. But don’t panic; don’t pay attention to any of the doomsday prophets that try to lead you astray.”
In the face of the persecution that was coming, Jesus had two promises for his disciples. The first was reassurance. “Don’t worry,” he told them. “I will always be with you. When you are called upon to speak out I will give you the words to say. I will put my own words in your mouth:” literally, Jesus said, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom.” “I will give you words of such wisdom and power that your enemies will be completely overcome. Some of you they will even put to death. But even then I will render them powerless. No matter what they do to you in my name, not even a hair on your heads will perish. You have nothing – nothing – to fear from them.” That was his first promise.
And his second promise was this: “By your perseverance, you will gain your lives.” He was promising even more than protection, even more than preservation, even more than just “making it through the fire unscorched”. Jesus promised them that the very act of perseverance would be a source of life for them, new life, abundant life.
These are promises for all those times when the whole world seems to be crashing down around us, when the changes in our lives are so great, so unthinkable, that we are hard-pressed to even imagine our lives going on afterwards. These are words for all those times when the dust of death begins to settle around us, and the future stretches out before us, impossibly strange and sad and hard. They may be times of national crisis, times of war or natural disasters like floods and hurricanes and wildfires – and we know that those kinds of things are happening to people in the world this very moment. But these words are also for us in our times of private, individual crisis.
Jesus speaks to us in times when we experience the loss of people near and dear to us. It is the end of our world in a very real way when we lose our mother or father, our husband or wife, our good friend, whether it’s through death or abandonment or divorce. It can be the end of life as we know it when an illness or an accident robs us of our ability to do those things that have always given us meaning: caring for others, being productive and creative, .For a lot of people, retirement or the loss of employment presents this kind of crisis, when they are faced with losing the very thing that has defined them, maybe for decades. For many people, to lose a job means not only loss of security, but also loss of dignity, loss of a sense of purpose, loss of a reason to get up in the morning, loss of a sense of being needed.
We haven’t yet experienced the kind of devastation that was about to happen to the people of Jerusalem, but for every human being, there are times when the world as we know it comes to an end in some way. And in those times we can hold onto the promises of Jesus: that the powers of the world to do us harm can never ultimately destroy us because he will never, ever abandon us to them. The world offers us death and despair in a multitude of shapes and sizes. But in Jesus Christ we find life, always.
But the deeper truth of the words we read today is that the day is really and truly coming when the most basic things that comprise this world we live in will pass away – when all human structures and organizations, all human religions, all government and all the powers and prinicipalities of this world will come to an end, not one stone or brick, not one constitution or treaty, not one slogan or clever saying of man left standing that has not been cast down.
It seems to me that this is a perfect passage to read, and to think about, and to meditate on, in the wake of this past week’s elections. There’s a lot of division, a lot of fear and frustration, a lot of anger and resentment going around, even within the church. To our shame, the church of Jesus Christ has listened eagerly to the false prophets and doomsday messiahs of the world and been led into self-righteousness and judgmentalism and mean-spiritedness. In so many ways, the American church has brought down upon itself the condemnation of the world around us, and justly so.
But the word of Jesus Christ to his church is this: know that a day is coming when every government, every political party, every human authority and power will have passed away. Therefore his call to us today is this – persevere, be steadfast. We, the people of God, have work to do that won’t pass away, ever. Our true life’s work, as followers of Christ, is not to influence public policy or to lobby for our religious ideals; our life is to persevere in following in the footsteps of our Lord: to love God and our neighbor, to show mercy, to be gracious, to be peacemakers, to have compassion, to seek wisdom, to be kind, to care for the “least of these” because Jesus was sent into the world exactly because of the love the Father bears for all his children. And his love has no end.
The works of the kingdom don’t belong to any political party, any nationality, any race. They belong only to our Lord Jesus who showed us the way by walking it before us. All the glories and powers of this world will fade away. The life of this world will sooner or later be spent and wasted in futility. The good news is that the life of the kingdom will endure. In perseverance, in steadfast endurance, in holding fast to the agenda of the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, we will gain our lives.
It was important for us to exercise our freedom as citizens of this country this week, to get out and vote our consciences. It is important for us to work hard and to be responsible in caring for the things of the world that we are stewards of, like taking good care of this church building we love, by putting a new roof on it. But the true work of our life, the life force that fuels everything else that we do, is to persevere in following in the footsteps of Jesus. He will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what happens, no matter what losses we suffer in this world. We have his promise that no matter what happens, ultimately not a single hair on our heads will perish. The end of life in this world is always death. But the way of our Lord, the way of love and mercy and grace and kindness, that has no expiration date. In our steadfast following of his way, he will bring his beloved children into new and undying life.
And I wasn’t sure how to end this sermon. I want to make clear that by persevering I don’t – and more importantly, Jesus didn’t – mean gritting our teeth and hanging in there waiting to get to heaven. Persevering is the work that we do now. The world needs us to be the people of God. The world needs us to get out there and be the church, to be Christ to them, to love them, to demonstrate what love and grace and mercy look like. That’s our job. That’s our life. We have not yet come to the place where the lion lies down with the lamb; though I know we are all longing for that time. We’re not there yet. And until then, we persevere. We walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We serve the world as he came to serve us. That is our life. Amen.