Sermon for Nov. 17, 2019, Pentecost 23C, on Luke 21:5-19. Audio will be available here for several weeks.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
The revolt started in the building where the tax records were kept. Like the people on the streets 30 years ago at the wall in Berlin, or today, in Bolivia, Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon, and Bagdad, they had had enough!
People tend to be long-suffering, but there are limits beyond bearing. It is one thing to tax people for roads, schools, or social security, but quite another to tax people just to make the oligarchs richer, and their lifestyles more lavish.
Eventually, people are willing to risk whatever may happen, and they take action in the streets.
So, they broke into the tax record office where the log books of their debts to the corrupt ruling class were kept, and burned them. It started as a civil war; the majority poor, saying, “Enough!” to the people with soft hands and full bellies.
The revolt is called the “First Jewish War.” It started around 30 years after Jesus walked the earth, in the year 66 CE during the twelfth year of the reign of Nero. When the revolt started, the Jewish king, a Roman puppet, fled Jerusalem.
To make a long story short, it ended in 70 when the Roman legions came down from Syria, put down the rebels, sacked and burned the temple in Jerusalem. The temple, by the way, was the building where those tax records were stored.
Jesus Followers and the Revolution
What were the Jesus-followers doing while all this was going on? We do not know too much, but a few things seem clear. When the movement began, followers of Jesus in Israel thought of themselves good Jews who simply considered Jesus Messiah. “Messiah” is what the Greek name “Christos” or in English, “Christ” means. So they continued to worship as Jews, on the Sabbath at Jewish synagogues.
Nevertheless, scholars see evidence as early as Matthew’s gospel, that the separation had begun quite early. When it became clear that followers of Jesus were doing things like accepting uncircumcised gentiles into their fellowships, not keeping kosher, and allowing worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, tensions grew.
In those days, “tensions” did not just mean insults. Early Jesus-followers (they were not called Christians yet) were actually persecuted. The book of Acts describes Paul as one of those early persecutors.
It is difficult to talk about Jewish persecution of the Jesus movement nowadays, after all the centuries of brutal Christian anti-semitism, and especially after the Holocaust. But history is not made for our convenience; we have to report it as it was. There is no excuse for modern anti-semitism, at all.
So, the early Jesus-followers most likely kept their heads down during the Jewish War, and tried to stay out of it, even though most of them were poor and probably supported the rebel cause, at least emotionally.
They had multiple reasons to keep out of it. Jesus had, after all, warned, “those who live by the sword would die by it as well.” Admittedly, some of this is speculation based on the little we know for sure.
Luke’s gospel, from which we read today, written after the First Jewish War, records the warnings of Jesus about a coming calamity. Most scholars think Luke wrote this section with the benefit of hindsight. It is about that Jewish war and the persecution of Jesus-followers.
I wonder if you noticed a conundrum in that text? On the surface, if you read it quickly, it seems to say, no matter what happens, you will be okay. You will survive. Luke reports Jesus as saying,
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified… not a hair of your head will perish,”
But whatever that meant, it also included the possibility that the people in charge, would, as it says,
“persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
It is certainly a conundrum that you could both face prison, betrayal, and even death, and at the same time, that “not a hair of your head would perish.”
Separating the metaphor from the literal is a challenge. The metaphors abound. The language of
“great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; …dreadful portents and great signs from heaven,”
is certainly metaphorical for large scale chaos, which is what the First Jewish War brought.
The Doomed Temple
This warning from Jesus about the coming calamity was sparked by a comment about how beautiful the temple in Jerusalem was. Jesus’ reply, was “Yes, but….” Beauty alone will not save it.
The temple, under the control of the aristocrats, the Sadducees, had become the center of an oppressive system, in collaboration with the Roman empire, that caused enormous suffering. Like Jewish prophets before him, Jesus predicted calamity.
Nevertheless, Jesus was saying to his followers, in effect, hang on to the vision. Do not let the coming calamity make you loose heart. Be relentless in your resolve. We have something more precious and more lasting than these beautiful historic stones. Even if they persecute you, imprison you, betray you, even kill you, hang on. Jesus concludes,
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The Message version translates that line this way:
“Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved.”
“Saved” yes; maybe imprisoned, maybe killed, but saved. What kind of salvation is that? This is not about going to heaven when you die. And I do not believe it means saved from hell, because I do not believe in hell.
The word “saved” is the same word for “rescued” and “healed.” What kind of condition could we be rescued from, while still being imprisoned? What kind of illness could we be healed of, even at the cost of life itself?
A Meaningful Life
I think the answer is found in the question, “What makes life meaningful?” or, put another way, “What makes life worth living?”
Certainly, it cannot be a life lived for the self alone. I have never been to a funeral at which I heard praise for someone for being self-centered, self-interested, or self-aggrandizing. In fact, just the opposite. The people who are remembered for living well are the ones who gave their lives in service to others. The ones we praise are the ones who were relentless in their quest to make the world a better place.
The people who live a meaningful life are those who, like the early followers of Jesus, opened the door to everyone: to uncircumcised Gentiles, to people who had been marginalized, the indebted poor, the diseased, the people with bad reputations, the people who had gotten off track along the way and ended up feeling lost. These are the ones the early Jesus-followers welcomed to their tables.
An Early Christian Creed
One of the earliest creeds of the church, according to New Testament scholars, is embedded in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It appears to have its origins in a baptismal liturgy that Paul became aware of, and approved of. It says,
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one.”
This is the vision Jesus passed on to his followers. No “Jew or Greek” — means ethnic distinctions do not matter to this community.
“No longer slave or free” means class divisions do not matter to us.
“No longer male and female” means that gender identities do not matter in this community of Jesus-followers. We are here for each other, period, without distinction.
We call this love. It involves constant ego work, since we are human, and humility is not our default position. It requires that we become experts in forgiving each other, since no one is perfect, so that our communities remain healthy and do not become toxic.
It requires that we share with each other around common tables, breaking bread, sharing wine, and affirming each other’s value, as we give thanks to God for this amazing, healing vision.
In other words, it requires relentless commitment to being true followers of Jesus. This is salvation. This is the path to the meaningful life. This is worth risking it all for.
The Cross and the Kingdom
So, our symbol is the cross, because that is what it meant for Jesus, who risked it all for us. He got arrested, mistreated and killed for shutting down the temple that day.
He was against the oppression by those elites. He was relentless on behalf of the regular people who were suffering.
He acted non-violently, but intentionally, confronting systematic abuse. It cost him his life. Jesus, we can say, is our hero.
His vision continues to live in us. Jesus is alive in our hearts, as we continue to be inspired by his vision. He called his vision the “kingdom of God” — what the world would be like if we acted as if God were running things — if God’s will for justice and inclusion were actually done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.
When we learn that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of all oppressed people, we begin to heal. When we receive the gifts of people who were previously outsiders, we are enriched. When we call people “family”who previously we called “enemy,” we become a living temple in which God is pleased to dwell.
This is a miraculous community, inspired by Jesus’ vision. It is worth risking everything for. It is worth giving of our resources to support. It is worth making commitments to, not just giving impulsive acts of charity. It is worth doing whatever it takes in our generation, so that the next generation can share this vision, no matter what calamity it faces.
This is why, once a year, we commit ourselves to support this community for the coming year, as we do today. We have no idea what the future holds. We have no idea what challenges future generations will face. We do not know what changes the church will go through. We do not even know if, long term, it will include these beautiful walls.
But we do know that this is a place of healing, and we know it will continue to be. As we welcome all people, without any exceptions, just as Jesus did, we know that many will be drawn to join us as Jesus-followers. As we study Jesus, imitate Jesus, and reach out with acts of mercy and compassion as Jesus did, we will find our healing, our transformation.
So, we are relentless followers of Jesus and his vision of the inclusive, compassionate kingdom. We are not ignorant of the costs involved, both actual and potential, but we have thrown our lot in with him. Our lives have meaning and significance because we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and longer than our lives on this planet.