Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

I am in the preaching rotation this week at my parish, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA.  Somehow I manage to “rotate” into days with difficult texts – this week it’s Jesus’ description of destruction in Luke 21:5-19.  But I found some excellent inspiration.  I’m posting my sermon below.

(Texts:  Luke 21:5-19; also Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

This is one of those texts that has given rise to a strangely fascinating assortment of end-times movements over the centuries.

A quick Google search: led me to this list of “dates predicted for apocalyptic events” starting in the year 634 BCE and continuing to the present – including several predictions for the future.

I unroll this scroll – so to speak – to set the tone for the day.  We would not be the first generation, and certainly not the last, to make the mistake of seeing this gospel as merely an apocalyptic warning, as nothing more than a kind of insider trading tip.  “Big picture” vision is needed today.

Jesus and his disciples are in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, in the temple.  Pastor Daren showed us pictures last week of what is thought to have been the floor plan of the temple.  The outer court was said to be able to hold 400,000 people.  By comparison, Qualcomm Stadium seats 71,294 people.  When Herod upgraded the Temple, he went all out.  So it’s understandable that in such an impressive place, people would comment on its lavishness.

Even though Herod really upgraded the Temple to reflect on himself instead of God, it was still the place where the worship of God – Yahweh – took place.  When Jesus and his disciples stood there on this particular day, it was still under construction, and wouldn’t be completed until 7 years before its total destruction by Rome in 70 CE.

The socio-political reality of Rome’s occupation of Judea was a constant source of tension and unrest.  Jesus could see that this wasn’t going to last; he was quite aware of the temporal nature of things on this earth.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Don’t put your trust in the building.

Luke’s gospel is believed to have been written about thirty years after the destruction of the Temple, approximately 100 CE.  Luke is speaking to an audience that had already experienced the death and destruction Jesus lists in this passage.  They’d also likely been taught from childhood about the destruction of the first Temple by the invading Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the exile of most of Israel to Babylon.  There was no shortage in these peoples’ conscious memory and historic understanding of bad things happening.  REALLY bad things.  They’d seen what came of putting one’s trust in a building.

OK – so what is Jesus saying here?  “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die”?  “You must become the calm individual, the Zen Master”?  Worst of all, is he saying that it’s simply a matter of finding your happy place?

By no means.

For Luke’s audience, the disaster that is forecast in the text has already been seen.  The Temple was long gone, reduced to a smoldering ruin thirty years before.  It was true in Luke’s time, and it’s true today – any congregation, any group that gathers to worship and study will always include people whose worlds have been shattered, whose hope has been trampled.  Some of them may even have been around long enough to have learned to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection, even in the midst of the seeming triumph of death.  Others will need to be supported while they just figure out how to draw another breath.

This scene in Chapter 21 is one that pictures God’s people always gathering to wait together for resurrection.  We do this most vividly every year at the Easter Vigil (accompanied, of course, by marshmallow roasting).  Week after week, we gather to wait together, because sometimes endurance isn’t enough – not by a long shot.  Only resurrection will do, and we continue to claim that hope.

Our first lesson, from the book of the prophet Malachi, gives us another facet of a picture of a day of judgment: one that contains salvation.  Instead of the term “sun of righteousness” being co-opted as a cutesy play on words referring to Jesus, the book of Malachi uses the image of the actual rising sun to mark the dawning of a day when the cause of God’s justice, fairness, and community solidarity pervades the earth.  The community of Malachi – like the community of Luke – and like us – seeks the confidence that faith still makes sense.  I know from where I stand that many times, I’ve only been able to grasp that confidence in the midst of this community.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are holding me up.  We work and wait together for the dawning of that day.

Think back in Luke’s gospel to Jesus’ first time at the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not when he enters on the colt, to the shouts of “hosanna”, but when he is just a baby.  Mary and Joseph bring him to the temple for his dedication, in accordance with Mosaic law.  And there at the temple, they meet Simeon and Anna.  We are not sure of Simeon’s age, but Anna, identified as a prophet, was said to be eighty-four years old.  Both had watched and waited, hoping for an answer to their long-offered prayers for a Messiah.  When they encounter the child Jesus, they are both moved deeply, believing their prayers are answered.  From this encounter comes the song of Simeon, which we know as the Nunc Dimittus:

“Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people:  a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon and Anna, heads lifted up, looking for resurrection, see a glimpse of that for which they watch and wait.

John Donne, the seventeenth-century English poet, has this to say about that for which we, along with Simeon and Anna, watch and wait:

“He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light, and he can bring thee summer out of winter, though thou hast no spring.  Though in the ways of fortune, understanding, or conscience thou hast been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied, now God comes to thee, not as the dawning of day, not as the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon.”  (Emphasis mine.)

I have paused this week to think about the thousands upon thousands of people whose lives have been shattered by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  I can only imagine how they need that sun at noon – they need clean water, they need food, and they need shelter, and they need it yesterday.  I am grateful that in times like this, our government, our ELCA churchwide organization, and our international Lutheran relief agencies don’t sit on their hands and try to pinpoint which of the disasters in Jesus’ narrative THIS one might be – or worse yet, try to assign blame for the disaster to some marginalized group.  They waste no time in deploying help and working on solving the inevitable problems of resource delivery and access to remote areas.  In the inimitable words of Larry the Cable Guy – they “git ‘er done.”

In our second lesson, Paul chides the community at Thessalonica for NOT “gittin ‘er done.”  A look at the Greek in verse 11 reminds us that this is NOT about social welfare and entitlements.  The Greek word that is translated to ‘work’ is ergazomenous, and the one translated to ‘busybodies’ is periergazomenous.  The prefix peri means around – the busybodies are getting around real work by working detriment to the community.  We’re all more than passingly familiar with this modus operandi – regardless of where it’s found, it always derails the mission of the organization.  It’s not a matter of who did how much work and therefore how much bread they should receive – it’s a matter of simply working for the mission and good of the community.  The free gift of the gospel is intended to produce a life of good works that builds the community.  We need look no further than Bethlehem Serves to realize how true that is – it builds both the community we serve, and our “beloved community.”

Finally in our reading, Jesus tells those gathered “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Honestly, these are noble words – but there are many days when they just make me feel very tired, like my years are catching up with me.  Perhaps you’ve felt the same.  We look at the world – at the pictures of utter and complete destruction – and it seems there’s just too much to do, even though we hunger to make a difference in this world.

Is there a time in history in which there HAVEN’T been earthquakes – famines – great storms – wars – and so on?  If we close the door and hide, do our problems go away?  Unfortunately not.  That hunger to make a difference remains.

But maybe that’s a good thing, that this hunger is not easily filled.  Maybe it’s God pushing us to not be complacent, to not be afraid of what may come.  Maybe it’s God reminding us that the life of good works, flowing from the freely given gift of grace, and manifested in the community, is the whole point.  Maybe THAT’S the endurance.  We are to be compassion, poured out for the world.  Because heaven knows – the world needs it.

And so gathered in the beloved community, around the table, at the foot of the cross – we find our strength for the journey.  We find our endurance.  You who are tired and hungry, you who are afraid, you whose lives are shattered – and you who don’t fit any of those descriptions – come to the banquet of the Lord.  Feast on God’s mercy and grace, and find solace and comfort in a weary and broken world.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Hold on to one another.

Hold on.


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