Monday, November 19, 2007

An Opportunity

An Opportunity
Luke 21:5-19
November 18, 2007
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: As the church moves to the conclusion of the liturgical year, our gospel texts for this week take on a more apocalyptic tone. This week, Jesus tells his disciples and others of the destruction that will come to the temple, and the persecutions and disasters that foretell the end of things. In this midst of this, Jesus offers words of astonishing reassurance. Jesus assures us that he himself will give us words (literally “a mouth”) to testify to the truth of the gospel, and that by our endurance we will gain our souls.

Sermon Function: To instruct listeners about Jesus’ presence in the midst of our own tumult and chaos, and that Jesus’ promises for the events to come translate into a present assurance in a world which is right now filled with war, famine, and pestilence.

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In theological and liturgical circles, Jesus is understood to hold three simultaneous offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. Next week is Christ the King Sunday, and my wife Sara will explore the Kingship office of Jesus. We celebrate the Priestly office of Christ when we remember his self-sacrifice on the cross on behalf of sinful humanity. This week, we get a specific look at the prophetic character of Jesus. In our text, Jesus announces the forthcoming destruction of the temple, and event that would actually happen about 40 years after the discussion recorded here by Saint Luke, and he offers us some startling reassurance.

Let us listen now to God’s Word to us.

[Read Scripture - Luke 21:5-19]

Opening Comments

Many people wonder how long it takes to come up with a sermon to preach on Sunday. The simple answer is: It depends. Pastors each have their own process for structuring a sermon. In my case, I usually sit with the text over a week in advance and give it a first reading. Then, I usually do some comparisons between English texts, and then I do my own translation from the Greek or Hebrew, depending on the text for the week.

Then the fun begins. Friday is my designated sermon-writing day. In addition to the language work, I also check a commentary or two for other interpretive guidance. Then I look for helpful illustrative material, from the news of from my life experience of from the events of the week at the church. Then, and only then, do I sit down, say a prayer, and begin to write. The actual writing process only takes about three hours, the rest of the preparation time varies according to the week.

This week, much of the preparation time has been addressing the question: How do I preach a sermon about wars, rebellion, famine, disease and pestilence, destruction, false prophets, betrayal by family and friends, and persecution unto death on the same week that we’re celebrating our national day of Thanksgiving, and on a particular Sunday when we will, following the offering, respond to the Word read and proclaimed with a wedding?

After a very brief fantasy consisting of me running away from Portland in a panic, I then thought about changing the text at the last minute. And the Holy Spirit intervened, and I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s advice to Timothy:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17 NRSV)
One of the ways scripture works is to equip us for all manner of obligations in life, including giving thanks for God’s manifest blessings and the gift of Christian marriage. Therefore, this scripture, while it seems to dwell on devastation and destruction to come, is nonetheless profitable for us because it gives us the opportunity, once again, to witness to the gospel. We talk a lot about God’s attempts to reach out to humanity, and that God is always the one who moves first, as we are caught in the nets of our sin. In worship, we respond to God’s Word in a variety of ways – thanksgiving, offering, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Marriage is also a response to the gospel, because we understanding Christian marriage as a covenant that resembles the kind of commitment that God makes to humanity.


What does this text say to us today? Well, first off, it tells us something about ourselves. Did you notice how the reading began? It began with people, likely disciples and other interested parties, commenting on the beautiful stones of the temple, and the offerings that adorned it with fantastic beauty. These are worldly preoccupations of proud humans wondering at the achievements of other humans, especially the Roman puppet king at that time, Herod, who made it a point of transforming the temple into a spectacle of wonder. Jesus, the anointed one, Emmanuel, Christ-With-Us, is standing there with them, and the people are commenting on what a wonderful building the temple is! We do the same thing. We are all the time drawn to things we think point to God, but really point to ourselves or to the supposed magnificence of purely human creation. We’re drawn to our own preoccupations even in moments of personal prayer. I know that personal worries and distractions plague me in my own prayer life, and it take deliberate effort to quash these so that we can actually listen to what God may be saying to us.

Jesus seems to respond to this by saying, rather bluntly, enjoy these things while they last, because in a short time they’ll be torn to shreds. The seemingly solid things of life, the things that give us a sense of stability and safety, these can be swept away in a moment, can’t they? Anyone who has ever visited an older bank building will notice that the architecture of the building, with massive columns and huge granite stones, are meant to make the psychological impression on customers that their money was safe, and not subject to theft or destruction. But we know in our hearts, I think, that any building can be felled. All it takes is a big enough fire, a big enough earthquake, and the most solidly constructed building can be broken. And that is, in fact, what happened to the temple. Herod’s restored temple, it is thought, had stones that measured as large as 44 feet by 11 feet and weighing about 628 tons.1 Most of the structure was laid to waste within a few decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is all that remains.

Give Us a Sign!

After making his pronouncement about the future of the temple, the disciples and others present then ask Jesus for clues as to when the forthcoming destruction will take place. There will be, as Jesus says, lots of political and natural chaos: Warfare and earthquakes. False messiahs will come forth proclaiming that they know the answer. Don’t believe them, Jesus says.

Jesus gives them some pointers, but if you’re like me you will almost miss the reassurance in this part of our text. In the middle of all this chaos, Jesus tells those with ears to hear: “Do not be terrified” (Luke 21:9). In the midst of what is to come, do not be terrified. Jesus gives us words of peace and assurance, even in the worst of times, even in the midst of family struggles and personal uncertainty, even when times are tough financially, even when death is near. “Do not be terrified,” Jesus explains. For those God has called, the uncertainties and destructions of life are not the final answer.

But even before the natural disasters and political tumult to come, Jesus tells those listening, including us today, that we will be subject to persecution and betrayal, and brought before the authorities for the sake of the name of Jesus.

We live at a time when our cultural elites are intensely worried about those to profess deep religious belief. We live, for example, in a time when a Governor has been panned in the press for having the ridiculous audacity to ask citizens of his state to pray to God for rain in the drought-ridden state of Georgia. Ridicule is one thing, but persecution and betrayal by friends and family? That’s huge, but that’s part of living our fully our lives of discipleship. We live in a country were it’s common to be made fun of for our faith in Jesus, but at least we don’t face possible death, like many other Christians do even as I stand hear preaching to you in the safe town of Portland, Texas. Last week, seven men and two women were arrested as spies in North Korea for the crime of being disciples of Jesus Christ? Three members of a Christian group in Egypt were arrested last week for investigating the death of another Christian.2 The threat is real.

But even under these conditions, there is reason to have joy. Jesus tells us that persecution and imprisonment will give us the “opportunity to testify.” The Greek word for "testify" is μαρτύριον, from which we get the English word martyr. Many folks, when they year this word, think of being martyred, which means being put to death for what one believes. But there is more to the word than that. We are all, in fact, martyrs for the faith. We witness to our faith in Jesus Christ each week in worship, when we celebrate the sacraments, when we give back our offering, when we pledge to the church, when we sing, when we pray. In all of these activities, we witness to all present the grace and wonderful gifts we have received from our heavenly Father.

Today, we will witness to the goodness of God in another way, through the marriage of Ray Rodriguez and Amy Yaffe. In our culture, most people think of marriage as an act particular to a given couple. And it is that. But in Christian marriage, we witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Marriage for us symbolizes the love Jesus has for the church. And in Christian marriage, the couple making the covenant promises to each other remind us of the covenant promises make to us by God. So yes, even the act of Christian marriage in worship is an opportunity for us to be martyrs, witnesses, for the faith and hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Called to Witness

We are called by Jesus to be witnesses to the good news, and not just during the good times, but also during troubling, challenging, disturbing times. The good news for us today is that we always have the opportunity to witness to what God has done for us, in our family lives, in our work lives, in our political lives, and in our faith lives. We may, as Jesus says, be hated for this. But we have the blessed assurance that Jesus Himself will be present with us:

“For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:15 NRSV). Literally, this Greek phrase can be translated as “I will give you a mouth.” When the demand is made for an accounting of our faith, we’ll be able to witness to the power of God with words that aren’t just our own, but the words of Christ. The context may be the wonderful occasion of Christian marriage, but it also might be a tense thing, during a time of suffering or even pending death. But do not be afraid! “[N]ot a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:18-19 NRSV). I believe this with all of my heart. Even now, Jesus may be calling upon you to witness to the greatness of God. If you suspect that this is the case, I invite you to approach me or one of the Elders of this church to discuss more fully how this witness may take shape. Perhaps such a witness might be being baptism, or the reaffirmation of your baptism, or through becoming a member of the church, or through a public profession of your faith, or by changing your job, or by working for a Christian charitable organization, or by becoming a missionary, or by publicly witnessing to faith in Christian marriage. However you are called to witness to the faith, do not be afraid! “[N]ot a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls (Luke 21:18-19 NRSV)”

Let us pray.

Lord God of all the ages, the One who is, who was, and who is to come, stir up within us a longing for your kingdom, steady our hearts in time of trial, and grant us patient endurance until the sun of justice dawns. We make our prayer through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.3

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Portland, Texas.

1See's_Temple for additional details.

2Christian Post, November 13, 2007, here and here.

3Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, p. 393.