Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ,
A little over a week ago, a typhoon slammed into the Philippines, killing thousands, displacing many more, and destroying homes, businesses, and a rhythm of life.
I cannot imagine the fear and the chaos that families are sorting through. Where there were once plans and schedules for getting through each day, now tasks as basic as getting water, finding food, or securing a safe place to sleep can be impossible.
I’ve never faced that much disruption in my life. I consider myself very lucky for being on the serving, helping side of disasters: volunteering with the Red Cross when the Rock River flooded people out of their homes a few years ago, or traveling to Puerto Rico to help rebuild after a hurricane. But even I have gone through some personal disruptions: life transitions, deaths, birth, and job loss.
Maybe you could tell stories of displacement and disruption in your own or your family’s lives. What are those times when what you always thought would be secure suddenly wasn’t? When what was stable crumbled away? What you thought was long-lasting simply ended?
As a nation, we sometimes encounter events that shatter our sense of how the world works. These include school shootings, the attacks on 9/11, JFK’s assassination, and political coverups and corruption. Our national myths about America being the best place to live or the safest country or a shining example to the rest of the world are threatened by these events.
Personal events of disruption threaten our way of life and our plans for the future. National events of disruption threaten our sense of security, community, and identity.
There’s another category of disruption that overlaps with the personal and political- that is the religious. Its effects are felt on the individual and communal levels, changing the ways we relate with other believers, the way we relate to God, as well as our sense of identity, security, and future.
Religious disruption is what we hear Jesus describing in today’s gospel. Jesus and his followers are walking around the temple. The temple was the center of their religious life, where God dwelt and interacted with God’s people. As one disciple admired the great building, Jesus remarked that “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”(Luke 21:6b). Jesus continues on to speak of other signs that the end is coming, but is not here yet. I imagine this was hardly the response the disciple was expecting his admiration to elicit! Instead of agreeing with his awe, Jesus declares coming disruption.
In these last weeks of the church season, and the beginning of the new one with Advent just around the corner, we encounter some challenging texts from the Bible. They often contain scary imagery, unsettling or disruptive, and warnings of things about to change.
Maybe warnings isn’t quite the right word. They are proclamations that God is about to do something new- that God has done something new- and they contain a call to us to be ready to welcome that change.
It can take a bit of work for us to bring Jesus’ message in Luke’s gospel forward to our time. After all, the backdrop of the temple doesn’t mean much for us. We’re not used to our faith lives centered around one temple, where all of God’s people meet God. But many of us are used to church, and a weekly, or semi weekly gathering here or at a similar place. Part of why some of us come to church is for the sense of familiarity, security, and peace it gives.
If you’re one of us who feels that way, these readings in November and December might be especially hard for you. They might really be warnings. Warnings that Jesus- God- is at work to disrupt you and push you out of your comfortable place. That can feel strange, especially as we gear up for the holiday season, a time when we are most connected to comfort and joy through traditions.
In our reading, the disciples with Jesus were admiring the temple. They felt secure in its presence. Sure, it had been destroyed many generations prior, and was always being rebuilt and restored. But they never would have imagined that by the time this gospel was written down, it would be completely destroyed, and still remains destroyed today.
Jesus doesn’t encourage his disciples to do what they can to protect the temple. He seems confident that its end is near. The way people have related to God, the very location where God dwells, is about to change drastically. The temple is no longer central to God’s mission.
The mission of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ life, is bringing in the kingdom of God. The struggle for us is that this kingdom doesn’t look exactly like we might expect.
This kingdom of God is being established here, today.
We practice, we embody, this kingdom of God when we gather as a church. For many, church is the final place of refuge from a world that seems to be in constant flux. With a world going crazy, disruptions all around us, the last thing we want is for the peace and comfort of church to be shaken. So, to remember that this place is a reflection of the kingdom of God, a reflection of God’s priorities and mission rather than our own desires to model its goals after our own, can be just as shocking as hearing from Jesus that the temple will be destroyed.
God’s mission is greater than we can grasp by our own understanding of what the kingdom is. God’s goal isn’t stability, but re-creation. God is working for the transformation of the whole world- the transformation of our lives, our community, our church.
Among other things, this transformation looks like an upsetting of the social order. Consider how the early church, the community of Jesus followers was described in the Bible: The apostle Paul describes Christian community as a culture in which those members with least honor are given the greatest honor, where the vulnerable and poor are protected and valued. The community of Acts practiced a radical sharing of all their resources, keeping nothing back as individuals. Jesus talked to women, and let them touch him, he welcomed children instead of focusing on the important adults, he shared his life and his table with outcasts and sinners. These are all examples of disrupted norms of relating. These disruptions were necessary because God’s kingdom doesn’t look like typical human culture.
God really is about shattering expectations. It can be uncomfortable to think about God acting otherwise than we expect. But if God was bound by our expectations, we wouldn’t know the greatest gifts God has given us. Sometimes we’re so used to the idea that Jesus came from God, that Jesus had a virgin mother, and that Jesus didn’t stay dead that we miss how really huge these claims are. These unexpected truths are central to our faith.
The disruption the destruction of the temple caused forced people to look for God in other places. One of those places was in Jesus. The gospels record Jesus speaking of himself as the temple, a temple that will be destroyed and raised up in three days.
Jesus doesn’t promise the disciples an easy life, rather he foretells times of great danger, rejection even by family members, and persecution. Jesus does promise to be with them through those difficult times, and to give them the words they need to witness to Jesus before a hostile world.
At the time Jesus and the disciples were walking and talking around the temple, there were many people who believed in different Gods and philosophies. Gods fashioned after people’s own expectations fought for the same things many people do: power, control, pleasure, and separation from all experiences of discomfort. Jesus leaves a place of power and control at the Father’s side, to enter into the discomfort of human life lived in close caring community with the poor, sick, and outcast. Jesus shows us that our God acts unexpectedly, according to God’s own loving mercy and care for us.
The teaching at the temple reminds us that God is always bigger than we expect. It also reminds us that what we think is secure and stable may not be. It points us to Jesus as the one who will be by our side through whatever disruptions we face in life, whether they be natural disasters, life transitions, or religious persecution. Jesus is drawing us into God’s kingdom right now, making it possible for us to participate in the radical welcome and healing God intends for us.
I don’t believe God intends disasters, transitions, loss, and tragedy for any of us. But I do believe God works through those disruptions. God is using whatever ways are possible to break into our lives and establish God’s own kingdom there. God is creating mercy, love, trust, forgiveness, and welcome even in the sometimes rubble of our own lives and communities.
Amen, come Lord Jesus.
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