Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Baptism, discipleship, end times, Jesus, temple
We’ve hit that disconcerting time when the church year ends and a new one begins. Now is the season we hear of the “end.” Persecution, destruction, famine, and death. This is the future Jesus foretells. What an uplifting gospel!
Jesus walks through the temple, and notices the peoples’ admiration of the great building. The temple is the place where God is met and worshipped. It’s the center of religious life, where all the sacrifices take place. It is a huge structure! There’s gold plating on the walls. There are expensive religious artifacts. It’s magnificent, and took years to complete.
Even so, Jesus declares that not one stone will be left on stone. It wouldn’t be the first time: the temple has been destroyed before. It was a difficult and dark time for Israel. The Babylonian Empire destroyed the temple, crushed the monarchy, and took many people, including important political and religious leaders, away into exile in Babylon. For a people who had been promised their own land and worshipped God who was present to them at a specific place, exile and the destruction of the temple were major traumas to the fabric of faith in that time.
Jesus doesn’t say what will happen to the temple, only that nothing of the current structure will remain. When the people ask for more details: when this destruction will occur, Jesus remains vague in his reply. He describes various other destructions that will take place. There will be plagues and famines, earthquakes, wars, portents and signs. Despite all these terrible things, the end will not be yet.
Jesus steps back to talk to his followers. He tells them they will face difficult times even before these signs hit the earth. They will be persecuted, arrested and charged by both the religious and political establishment. Rather than teaching his followers to avoid these trials, Jesus seems to rejoice in them, glad that they will provide an opportunity for the believers to witness to their faith.
The people who first received this gospel would experience the future Jesus spoke of. The early Jesus followers were cast out of their synagogues, arrested by authorities, rejected by family, and some were even killed. The occupying Roman forces would come into Jerusalem to put down a revolt and destroy the temple. Today, only a wall remains.
The book of Acts describes many of these events. Even as Jesus warned the disciples that life would become difficult for them, Jesus promised that he will give words to those who found had the opportunity to defend their faith. One story shows how those early believers took Jesus’ encouragement to heart, as they trusted in him for an opportunity to witness in the midst of their own persecution. This story begins in Acts 3. The disciples Peter and John are going to the temple to pray one day. On their way in, they notice the handicapped man who always lays outside, asking for money. He can’t walk, or even stand, so he isn’t able to get any work. His family and friends carry him to the temple every day so that he can receive money from generous worshippers. “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. …
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. When they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.
Peter and John felt in this instance God’s power at work within them: giving them words and courage to witness boldly to their faith. It might have seemed safer to keep quiet, to walk past the man, to avoid making a scene. But the Holy Spirit is at work among them, pushing them out of their comfort zone, getting the work of God done. Jesus’ promise is made true in their lives. They faced persecution, and yet God filled them with the words and courage to give a testimony that may have started a change of heart and faith in many others. We know that later, Peter was killed because of his faith. Jesus who was faithful in giving Peter the words he needed surely has also been faithful in ensuring that Peter has gained life even though he died.
Today, we live in a very different world than those who first followed Jesus. Yet, as we hear Jesus talking about trials and destruction, we might wonder if Jesus had our time in mind. The impulse to find ourselves in these “end” times has been real for every generation. Wars, famines, persecution: they have been present throughout each age, and who doesn’t want to see that difficult reality as a sign from God that the final moment of God’s decisive victory is about to come?
I do think we are at the edge of an end of sorts. Not the kind of cosmic end that inspired the Left Behind and Armageddon craze of a decade ago. I think we are facing an end to the way the church has been for generations. Ever since Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity was the official and protected religion, the shape of Christianity has been shaped by the structures of power and privilege. I think of that great temple in Jerusalem, shining with wealth, inspiring because of its majesty. Jesus says that temple will be utterly destroyed. And then I think of Jesus, whose achievement of glory was at the moment of his least powerful and most shameful, as he died on he cross. This Jesus, God raised from the dead. It’s through Jesus’ identification with the suffering, poor, sinful, outcast, that he wins for us the title of beloved children of God. It’s not the symbol of religious establishment and power, but the emptying of power from our incarnate Jesus Christ, that is the center of our faith.
Today we in the West are said to be at the end of this connection between Christianity and power, at the end of the era assuming everyone is Christian, or knows about Christianity, and at the end of the assumption that the society and government should help people be Christians. People call this Post-Christendom. I don’t think it’s really come to us here in North Dakota yet. But it’s worth thinking about as we consider where we are in this gospel from Luke.
Can you imagine what it would be like if your following Jesus went against the grain, if it was difficult and even dangerous? What if you had to choose between your family’s wishes and following God? What if you lost money, lost your job, lost your standing in the community, all because of your faith?
These are the risks those first disciples faced, and today, we may soon find ourselves needing to choose between faith that’s committed even through persecution and difficulty, or falling away because we judge the costs are too high. Right now, most people around here tend to think that being a member of one church or another is just what good people do. We expect the school calendar to respect our religious holidays and typical days for Christian worship and education. We’ve long used membership language to describe how we relate to a worshipping community. But the time may soon be here when we need to step away from seeing the church as an ever-present institution that serves us when we feel the need for spirituality in our lives, and move towards a more radical life of faith that doesn’t expect faith to make life easier or more peaceful, but looks forward to sacrifice as an opportunity for witness.
At Our Savior this morning, we’re going to baptize little Shelby Overland. I don’t think her family and sponsors are bringing her to the font because they want to make her life difficult, or put her in any danger. It’s the promise of God that draws us towards the font. There God claims us as children, marks us with the cross of Christ, and gives us the gift of life forever. We receive great promise at the font. Yet we are also transformed and set out on a new life path. We are reoriented towards living for Christ. That’s what our baptismal promises are all about: we promise, either as the one being baptized, or on behalf of that one, to put ourselves in places and communities where we will be formed into people of God, and we promise to work for the good of our neighbor. When we entrust ourselves to God so completely that we’re willing to be put under water, we’ve set out on a life of trusting God to lead us wherever God wills.
That life may be easy or difficult. There may be times where faith and faithful living seems too difficult and unrewarded. But we’re in this for the long term. The horizon of God’s decisive action to heal and restore the world has been before God’s people for many generations. We are only called to follow faithfully at our own time. But we do not follow blindly. Through any persecution, trials, or suffering, Jesus has already gone before us. True to his faithfulness, Jesus died for us. We never need to fear that we are alone, when we stand up for our faith. Jesus is always with us. The world may change and we may perceive the church and the community of believers dwindling, yet God is still active among us. Even though the temple crumbles, God is still in the midst of God’s people.
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