My sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Pacific Beach (San Diego), CA. on November 18, 2018.
Grace and peace and light to you this day, from our loving creator God. Amen.
My own experience – the birth of my son – gives me a bit of perspective when it comes to this text.
The “beginnings of the birth pangs” were to me, a first-time mother, both thrilling and frightening. We went at least twice to the hospital, where it was determined I wasn’t anywhere near dilated enough to be admitted.
Back home we went, feeling a bit sheepish.
But from the distance of twenty-five years now, I look back at the whole of my son’s birth story, and I look at this text, and after the past week, I REALLY don’t think we’re in the beginnings of the birth pangs.
I think we’re in full-on active labor.
Full-on labor pains that encompass the screams of our siblings caught inside the Borderline Bar and Grill.
Labor pains that bear the screams of the folks running for their lives from deadly wildfires, one of which wasn’t far from the Borderline.
Maybe I’m being dramatic, but damned if this past week hasn’t been Just.Too.Much. And I recognize that I say that from my place of white, housed, privileged person with means.
And I find it so ironic, in this week of horrific loss, that this whole story today begins with one of Jesus’ disciples admiring the building. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How many times have any of us done that?
Admired the new sanctuary. Or fellowship hall. Or columbarium garden. Or whatever. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it seems that we think something about it – its size, the amount of money it cost, perhaps – makes it PERMANENT.
But Jesus makes a point, that every one of us living in California, between earthquakes and wildfires, is only too familiar with: that in a flash, in the blink of an eye, every material thing that we hold dear can be wiped out.
Every. Single. Thing.
The photos we’ve seen from the past week from the Camp Fire up in Paradise, and the Woolsey and Hill Fires near Thousand Oaks and Malibu, have made this clear. Not one stone will be left upon another, unless maybe it’s a chimney column standing alone in a pile of smoldering ash.
The disciples ask Jesus for a sign, a way to know that this will be coming.
We see this wondering today, with the fascination with “end times” and calculating exactly when the end of the world will happen and Jesus will return.
As if Jesus can be triggered only when certain conditions are met, like a payoff on a slot machine when you hit all three cherries.
No, we have known and seen the signs Jesus describes over and over and over in our lifetimes. IN OUR LIFETIMES.
And our ancestors have done likewise.
And here we are.
I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ list of signs:
Rumors of wars. Check.
Nation rising against nation. Check.
Kingdom against kingdom. Check.
For like the last several hundred years.
Simple calculations would tell us that taking this text literally does not add up. As Biblical non-literalists, Lutherans strongly claim that such literal interpretations are irresponsible at best.
I think Jesus names the big signs – the really obvious ones – to put them solidly in a lesser category. To remind us that worrying about these things that are, for the most part, out of our control is a waste of time.
I think there are other signs in front of us.
I think the signs we are called to notice – are different.
Signs that awaken us to the situations of the metaphorical widows and orphans among us.
Signs that point us to ways that we have the chance to be workers in the kingdom of God, made manifest here and now.
Some of you may be familiar with comedian Bill Engvall, of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
Probably his best-known punchline is “here’s your sign!”
It’s a way to describe the insanely obvious that sits right in front of your nose.
So if we were to name our signs, what would they be?
ANYTHING that strips God’s precious creation of its beauty and dignity.
In our gospel story, I find it really interesting that when the disciples ask Jesus about signs, he doesn’t answer the question right away. (Typical Jesus.) Instead, he warns them not to be led astray.
And this is where this text burns relevant for us today.
Don’t be led astray. Don’t buy the nonsense being peddled at every turn.
Don’t listen to people who say that a building is EVERYTHING and without a building there can’t be church.
Don’t believe it when people say that there’s nothing we can do about homelessness in San Diego. That “those people” just want to live like that.
Don’t believe it when you hear that hard-edged voice saying “it’ll never work.”
Don’t be swayed by the one who claims they have the One Great Solution that will solve all your problems. Because you can be sure this broken world will invent more and newer problems for tomorrow.
And whatever you do, don’t believe anyone who tells you that you’re on your own. If we are the church we claim to be, NOTHING could be further from the truth.
Instead, remember what lasts.
Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
As the author of Hebrews reminds us:
“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, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
THAT is not being led astray.
THAT is responding to the signs that are before us.
THAT is being the church.
And that doesn’t require anything but you, and me, and what God has given us: life in Jesus the Christ.
I remember a story my mentor pastor’s wife, Patti Harman, told me about a church she belonged to when she was at Gustavus Adolphus College.
One night, the dreaded phone call came. The church was on fire.
The congregation gathered while the fire department did their best to contain the damage, but it was a total loss.
In the chill night there in St. Peter, Minnesota, the depth of their loss settled on the congregation.
And then a voice began to sing:
Built on a rock, the church shall stand
Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in ev’ry land,
Bells still are chiming and calling.
Calling the young and old to rest,
Calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting.
As Lutherans raised in a different time were wont to do, they sang through the entire hymn that is regarded by some as second only to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” And they were reminded that God’s people remain God’s people, whether they gather in a magnificent cathedral or in the ashes of destruction. And they knew deep in their souls that God stood in those ashes and sang with them, and God would walk into the future with them. Their sign is ours.
There is a verse of that hymn that’s not usually included in hymnals, but it reminds us of the central things of that sign:
Here stands the font before our eyes
Telling how God did receive us.
Th’altar recalls God’s sacrifice
And what his table doth give us.
Here sounds the word that doth proclaim
Christ yesterday, today, the same
Yea, and for aye our Redeemer.
(point to cross)
Here’s your sign.