There will be a lot of sermons today on the inevitability of God’s plan. Rightly so, people will try and tie the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD to the assassination of JFK, this being the fiftieth (yes, fiftieth) year since that tragic event; to the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001; to the events surrounding Katrina and Sandy and the recent storm that slammed the Philippines; and maybe even to some particularly local tragedies. The idea will be to remind listeners that no matter what happens, no matter how bad things really seem to be going, God is still in control. That is, of course, always a good sermon reminder. Sometimes, life’s events seem to be so overwhelming that we forget our Lord has already redeemed us. For many today, it may be even more appropriate. Not a small number of people wonder whether our country will be able to survive our debt. Two or three decades ago, it would have been as impossible for Americans to consider a world without us; now, after tons of personal bankruptcies brought on by bad spending habits and economic forces, people wonder whether the shining light of our democracy is fading. It is important that we remind ourselves that, whatever happens, God still is committed to all of us who claim Him as Lord through the work and person of His well-beloved Son. No event on earth can frustrate His promise to us.
I wanted us to focus, however, on a different lesson in today’s readings from Luke’s Gospel. In truth, part of my motivation stems from a Facebook discussion I had with some other clergy, theologians, and parishioners. There was a bit of discussion about whether the signs of our Lord’s Second Coming are upon us. After all, we have two comets in the east-southeastern dawn sky. We just had a super storm slam the Philippines. I’ve lost track as to how many official wars are happening right now, never mind the constant combat that some are seeing despite the lack of a formal declaration of war. Certainly our companion dioceses of Swaziland and Nzara remind us that hunger is an issue for our brothers and sisters there. We in the Midwest have experienced a couple harsh droughts the last two summers. I have not heard which one is “rampant” this year, but I figure there will be another deadly flu epidemic at some point in our future, be it swine or bird or some other animal flu.
And what of Jesus’ other warning, the persecution and imprisonment and killing of Christians? I am not a huge acceptor of the claim that we Christians in the United States are persecuted. We are, to a degree. Yes, I understand that we are forced, through the new healthcare plan, to fund procedures and practices which we or many of our fellow brothers and sisters consider immoral. I think, to the extent that many have raised their voices in the election process and availed themselves of the legal system in an attempt to make sure our rights were not abridged, we have made it clear what we support and what we do not. The same is true for other, let’s call them social decisions. Pick an easy issue around here, gambling. I think the voices that predicted years ago the negative consequences of allowing gambling have born fruit. I would imagine that, some day in the future, if we survive our city councils, sociologists will look back on our decisions and scratch their heads. The same might be said of other more controversial issues.
The fact of the matter, brothers and sisters, is that we are not really persecuted. Or, if we prefer, maybe we should testify that we are persecuted-lite. We have the right to speak. We have the right to run for office. We have the right and the opportunity to make our opinions known and to debate them in the public square. It is a sad, but undeniable fact, that we have often lost. Yes, we are sometimes mocked and teased for our positions, but, in losing, nobody is burning down our churches as they do in some countries in the world. Government or quasi-government forces are not bursting into churches and gunning churchgoers down. Obama supporters were not rounding up Romney supporters and killing them and taking their property after the last election; similarly, Bush supporters were not rounding up Gore supporters and treating them likewise. Clergy are not being hauled off to jail or prison camps in an effort to kill a congregation by removing its head. Spend some time talking to Bishops Elinah or Samuel, where the despot rounds up all who offend him or army groups kidnap your sheep. That, brothers and sisters, is persecution. That, brothers and sisters, is costly discipleship. Talk to an Anglican brother or sister in Pakistan; speak with a Coptic Christian in Egypt; engage a Christian refugee from Iraq if you want to begin to understand the persecution of which Jesus speaks in this passage.
The passage our lectionary editors chose for today is interesting because of the debate that can come from them. As I have mentioned already, we can wonder whether the signs are aligning, signifying His imminent return. In our discussions last week, I spoke of how futile it is to guess the moment of His return. The same Christ who prophesied the utter destruction of the Temple in 70AD also gave us a couple other instructions regarding His return. He tells these same disciples that only the Father knows when He will return; He promises in many places that His return will surprise everyone like a thief in the night or returning bridegroom; and He also instructs us that His return will be obvious, glorious. We do not have to worry about missing His return. All the world will know it!
The passage is also interesting because it focuses our attention on Jesus as prophet. In the Christian tradition, we acknowledge that Jesus is the Prophet, the Priest, and the King. Next week we will look at His role as King, and we often spend time discussing how He sacrificed Himself to atone for our sins. We tend to neglect, it seems to me, our discussion of Jesus as Prophet. We discuss it around the Transfiguration, when He appears with Moses and Elijah, but we tend to not pay close attention to the role for the rest of the church year. Jesus is teaching the disciples, and by extension us, of what we are to expect when we pick up our crosses and follow Him. Has any generation of disciples ever not experienced persecution? No. Has any generation never heard of wars? Natural disasters? Signs even in the heavens? Even His death? No. In a sense, verse 32 of this chapter is repeated over and over, although it is beyond the scope of our reading today.
The truth of His prophecies, brothers and sisters, are not just academic exercises. How were men and women in Israel to determine whether one was a prophet? Prophets could say nothing which contradicted God, and their prophecies had to come true. Israel was commanded to take prophets very seriously. If someone claimed to be a prophet, Israel was instructed to judge their words against God’s torah and against the prophesied event’s occurrence. If they prophesied an event that did not come to pass, they were to be considered false prophets and killed. They were not to be tolerated in Israel.
Now, in our story today, along comes this rabbi who is teaching in the very center of what should have been the spiritual heart of Israel. What does He say? As magnificent as it is, it will be utterly destroyed. Those hearing this statement were clearly disturbed. In their collective memory is the story of the Exile and return. God has allowed His house to be destroyed once. It was not a good time for them. Along comes this miracle worker from Nazareth who prophesies its utter and complete destruction. Who wants to revisit those times? Who, listening, really wants to think that the unthinkable could happen again? Who does He think He is claiming that God’s house of worship could be taken away . . . again?
Those of us who study history know that this prophecy is one of the reasons for which the Sanhedrin convicts Jesus of treason. In their efforts to convict Jesus of blaspheme, they will try to cite this prediction. We also know that Jesus is proven correct. Judea rebelled against Rome in 66AD. It was a relatively modest conflict by length of time. The end result was that Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman legion in 70AD, after a dreadful period of warfare and occupation. Those more interested in this war can turn to Josephus and his account in the Jewish Wars. Josephus describes survival for the Jews in stark terms, going so far as to write that the Jews consumed the flesh of dead babies and children in order to survive. Looking at your faces, I can see that you now understand why Jesus goes on to lament that the period will be especially brutal for nursing moms and soon-to-give-birth women. He tells all who hear this prediction that they should flee to the hills, when they see the encamped army, to avoid the coming devastation that will ultimately destroy much of what they hold dear.
Jesus goes on to comfort those who hear His prediction. Times will be bad. All will seem lost. Even then, in the midst of the devastation, God’s people will have reason to hope. One day, He will return and the world will tremble. In that day, if we are alive to witness it, we are to rejoice because our salvation is upon us! What others will dread, we will look upon expectation. Of course, that day is at some point in the future. As expert as Jesus is about prophesying, he is far more focused on the day to day living of His disciples. We are not told to sit and speculate; we are told to go and make disciples through daily living. People are, in part, to be drawn to Him by our faithful lives. Not just our words, but our examples, even our examples in the face of catastrophes, will entice others to join His people. It is a powerful passage, to be sure, but it derives its power not just from the fact that Jesus accurately forecasts an incredible event in Israel’s future. As our Collect reminds us today, there must be something for us to hear, to learn, and to inwardly digest from this passage. What could be a message for us today? What is the power which it hold for us this day?
It seems to me that the passage ought to cause an interesting response from three different modern groups. For those among us who are seeking this Jesus, to see if His love for you is true and able to be believed, this ought to be one of those passages that reassures you. One of our claims about our Lord is that He was raised from the dead by God. He is the first fruit of the world to come. Imagine the honor and glory! Do you think God would bestow that upon a liar, upon someone undeserving? Christianity rightly claims that Jesus of Nazareth was unique because of the Resurrection. There are, however, other stories which are meant to draw others into the conversation. For some, it may be the healing miracles; for others, it may be the feeding miracles; for still others, it may the realization that Jesus foretold events. If His prediction about the Temple proved true, what else might be true of His predictions? What other messages from God might He have born? Put differently, His role as Prophet might well begin a conversation with those who do not yet call Him Lord.
Another modern group which must confront this passage is the descendants of the Jews. Hear me carefully, I am not at all a fan of browbeating people into believing in Jesus. I am one of those who believes that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be a light to the world and a nation of priests. When we condemn the Jews for the crucifixion; we are in reality condemning our own family. When we condemn Jews for being Jews, we condemn the people of our Lord. Jesus challenged those who walked apart, but He was eagerly willing to love them into His kingdom. Not quite two chapters prior to this passage, our Lord laments the fact that Israel missed the time of His coming to her. We do well to remember His example. Nor, however, am I a fan of condemning others by avoiding the difficult questions and allowing them to continue in error. If Jesus truly is the Son of God and Son of Man as He claimed, and if He truly was raised from the dead as His disciples testified, those of us with Jewish friends can use this prophesy, its use by the Sanhedrin, and the Resurrection to challenge some assumptions of faithful Jews in our lives. Did Jesus utter these words? The Sanhedrin, the group that really plotted to have Jesus killed, themselves testified that He did. Did the prophesy come true? Absolutely. What does that suggest about Jesus’ relationship to God? That He really was a prophet. More importantly, though, if even those who opposed and ultimately condemned this Jesus testified that He made the prophesy and history teaches us its accuracy, what else might be true of His claims? That He is truly the messiah.
Of course the strongest message in this passage is for His disciples. Before His return, before even these portents and signs occur, we will suffer persecution because of Him. Notice, we do not need to provoke others. They will be at enmity with our Lord because of who He is. We will suffer simply because He is our Lord. They will hate us simply because we believe Him to be the messiah. We will be arrested and brought before the powerful of the world. We might even be betrayed or abandoned by our families. How should we respond? Should we be afraid? Should we reconsider? No. Our Lord promises, just as He will after the Resurrection, that He is always with us. He will give us words; He will give us wisdom. And in the end, simply for running the good race, for persevering in our faith, for struggling to do what He commands, we will gain our lives. We may lose these bodies and see these mortal frames perish, but we will live forever with Him. And as we reminded ourselves last week, that future with Him is nothing like we have ever experienced. What is to come is beyond our wildest dreams or hopes. And we will continue in that blessed state for al eternity. That is His promise; His promise is sure.
To those of us who are His disciples, there is also a warning. He tells us not to be deceived. People will come along and claim to be able to interpret the signs and even to be Him. We need not worry about missing Him, about being left behind, about anything regarding His Second Coming. Though His return will be sudden, it will not be hidden. Our lectionary editors choose not to read part of the warning, but it is part of this teaching in Luke. The cares of the world are real. This world really does cause pain and hurt. But we are not of this world. We are only sojourners here, travelers looking expectantly toward that day when He takes us to His Kingdom. If we are not attentive, He teaches, it is possible that we will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life and find that day like a closed trap. We are called to gather together to worship, to pray, to exhort, to teach, to study, to comfort and be comforted in times of mourning, and to celebrate in times of joy, always cognizant of His imminent return and with no reason to fear that day, and always, always mindful that He has entrusted to us the responsibility of inviting others into His kingdom.