November 18, 2018, Designated Survivor – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000108
There is a show on TV called “Designated Survivor”. The title comes from a real contingency plan that’s been in place in our government since Cold War times. It says that anytime the President and Vice President, and all the other potential successors to the Presidency are going to meet together in one place, like during the President’s State of the Union address, there has to be one person, somewhere in the line of succession, in a physically distant, secure, undisclosed location. And that person is called the Designated Survivor. In the TV show the main character and designated survivor is a man named Tom Kirkman, who is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, which is way down there in the line of succession. And of course, in the very first episode of the series, during the State of the Union address, there is a terrorist attack on the Capitol Building that kills everybody, including the President and every single person in the Presidential line of succession, so that Tom Kirkman is suddenly and unexpectedly President of the United States.
I didn’t really think it was a great show, so this is not a recommendation, but in that first episode, when they show the Capitol Building as just a pile of smoking ruins is utterly chilling. Whether you’ve ever been to Washington DC or not – whether you are critical of our government or not – those buildings, the White House, and the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, those are symbols of our nation. They’re statements, written in stone, of what we stand for as a people at our very best, freedom and justice and democracy. So the devastation in the images of that first episode cuts very deep, because the attack becomes an attack on the heart of our entire nation, on the heart of every single American.
And of course it cuts all the deeper for us, because it doesn’t take much imagination at all for it to feel very, very real. It wasn’t nearly long enough ago that we experienced something like this in reality, on 9/11, when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked and so many people’s lives were lost. It’s still disturbing, isn’t it, 17 years later, if we see old photographs of the New York City skyline with the Twin Towers and remember the events of that day all over again?
And it is exactly that kind of event that Jesus is warning his disciples about in the gospel reading today. They are in the great city of Jerusalem, in the Temple that had been built by the returning exiles hundreds of years before. They’ve been sitting by the treasury, where Jesus pointed out the poor widow that Carroll talked about last week. And as they are leaving the Temple, one of the disciples exclaims in wonder at the magnificence of the stonework, and the beauty of the buildings themselves. It reminds me of when I was in St. Louis with my sister last year, and we walked into the Cathedral Basilica, and I gasped in awe – it literally took my breath away. The Temple would have been like that, utterly breathtaking to look at. But it was much more than just beautiful and impressive. The Temple was the symbol of everything the Jews held sacred as a people. It was the place of God’s Presence among them. Like Washington DC, but so much more so. And then Jesus said to his disciples, “Take a good look at all these great buildings. There won’t be one stone left on top of another; the whole thing is going to be completely destroyed.” Ground zero in Jerusalem.
And the disciples asked Jesus exactly what you or I would have asked him. They knew him well enough not to think he might be mistaken. What they wanted to know was, “When? How soon is this going to happen? And what signs can we be watching for?” And, being human, like us, I am pretty sure they would have preferred it if Jesus had just told them plainly, “The Romans are going to come in and level the whole thing to the ground in 70 A.D” which, it turns out, is what actually happened. There are written records about the horror of that time, telling about the enormous number of casualties (over a million people) describing how the outer court of the Temple overflowed with blood.
But Jesus didn’t just give them a date and time, because he was foretelling more than just the physical destruction of the Temple. He was talking about the end of everything they believed and depended on to identify them as the chosen nation of Israel, and the people of the One God. The end that was coming was the end of the whole sacrificial system and the end of the primacy of the Mosaic law and the end of their separation from the surrounding nations – absolutely everything they thought they knew for sure was coming to its appointed end. The destruction of the Temple was just a symbol for all of that.
But there’s more – because Jesus wasn’t only talking about the end of Judaism as they knew it. He was also talking about what we call the “end times”, the end of all history, the end of all nations and the end of every magnificent human construction, whether buildings or monuments or political systems or constitutions. All left in smoking ruins. Not one stone left upon another. “Nation will rise against nation,” Jesus said, “and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” And then he gave them a warning, “When you see these things, don’t let anybody lead you astray. People will show up claiming that they are coming in my name, but don’t get sidetracked.”
Ever since the time of Jesus, there have been people who have popped up here and there, claiming to have the inside track on when Jesus is coming back. They preach scary doomsday stuff and they set a Judgment Day date and get people all excited or completely terrified, and then the day comes and goes and nothing happens. In our time, about 1970, a man named Hal Lindsey claimed to have the book of Revelation all decoded. In his book “The Late Great Planet Earth” he told people that all that stuff the angel revealed to St. John in exile was actually about the United States and Russia and the Middle East, beginning with the establishment of the nation of Israel. And people just ate it up – the book sold 28 million copies. It was all going to happen in the 80’s, Lindsey claimed, writing, “The decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” An awful lot of people got sidetracked. And the world is still here.
But the truth is that there will be an end. You can pretty much ignore anybody who claims to have secret knowledge about the date and time, because Jesus himself said he didn’t even know, that only the Father knows the day. But there will be an end. There will be a day when everything mankind has ever built up to make a name for ourselves, the good, the bad and the ugly, will all come tumbling down and left in smoking ruins, not one stone left upon another. Everything we ever looked to for our identity or true meaning or national pride will be gone forever. And not only the great Capitol Buildings and Cathedrals of the world, but all the personal “monuments” we construct to identify ourselves: that the meaning of “me” is that I am American, and White, and Episcopalian, and a Democrat. Every bit of that will come crashing down as well – that’s what Paul means when he says that in the kingdom there’s no more Jew and Greek, Slave and Free, Male and Female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. Because when all nations and kingdoms, all walls and all monuments and all our little classifications are lying in smoldering ruins at long last, then we see Jesus, and we find that he is the one in whom our real identity was found all along.
And the surprise ending is that the end is not the end, but only the beginning. Listen again to what Jesus said to his disciples: “ nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” These are the birth pangs, not the death throes, not the last gasping breaths of mankind, but the pains that tell us new life is surely on the way. I can remember many times when I was in the hospital having a baby, the doctor would come in and if I was really in pain he was just delighted. It was very annoying, but of course he was right. The intensifying of the pains was a sure sign that the birth was coming soon.
Now, more than ever, we need to not get sidetracked. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus, because all our human symbols and monuments and walls and classifications – no matter how glorious or admirable or reasonable they are – they are all going to end up as smoldering piles of rubble, not one stone left upon another. Jesus alone will remain, the Designated Survivor, the last and only man standing among all the idols of this earth. So, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “My friends, let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds (don’t you love that phrase? Let’s see how we can provoke one another to love and do good!) encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”