November 18, 2007
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 21:5–21:19
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
One week ago, I found myself at a hospital visit. No big deal - pastors go on hospital visits all the time, right? Last week, though, I found myself on the receiving end of the visit. My young adults' Bible study group was on a retreat up to Deep Creek, MD, when I suddenly developed an irregular, racing heartbeat, which sent me to the ER and, since it didn't seem to be letting up, led the doctor to admit me to the hospital overnight. In God's healing mercy, my heartbeat returned to normal by Sunday morning. The doctor there at the hospital let me come back home for follow-up here with my own doctor, and according to the test results so far, things look normal. It seems that a drop in my potassium level may have caused the whole episode, and it's something that I hope to not have happen again! (And in case you're wondering, yes, I am eating bananas. And kiwifruit, and broccoli, and strawberries...)
I didn't expect to go to the hospital last weekend. In fact, I don't think I ever expected to have to go to the hospital. Sure, I understood the need for the hospital in the abstract - that I could get injured or sick and the doctors would treat me at a hospital - after all, I have been on a number of hospital visits. But I never really thought about having to go the hospital. I'm in pretty good health, I think. Don't most of us fall into that category: thinking we're in pretty solid health? We eat right (mostly), get exercise (from time to time), and take care of our bodies (pretty much)? But sometimes, no matter what we do or how careful we may have previously been, our health can fail. Suddenly, something that we'd taken for granted, something that had seemed a solid and dependable foundation, disappears from beneath us.
But how many other things do we look to, besides our health, taking them as solid foundations in our lives? We depend on our jobs for income and to provide for our families, but then the layoffs come. We turn to our best friends for companionship, but they move away. The power goes out, leaving us without lights, computers, and televisions. We just assume that we can rely on these things, that they'll always be there for us. When you head into D.C. and look around, have you ever thought that the United States might not be around forever? Two years ago, the people of New Orleans and other Gulf communities saw many of the things they'd assumed to be solid - homes, jobs, even government - literally washed away. In those times, we might feel like Wile E. Coyote, having run right off a cartoon cliff but only noticing that fact when we actually look down 500 feet later.
Think of yourself on a pleasant spring day, sitting up on a hillside, looking across a valley to the capital city. That's where Jesus and his disciples were as some were discussing the temple. It was really a sight to behold, with massive bricks forming its solid foundation, some larger than a pair of your favorite American SUVs. The historian Josephus describes the temple, telling us that what wasn't purest white was covered in gold. Herod the Great contributed golden ornaments of grape vines, whose clusters were as tall as a man. But there was a reason for this splendor. The temple in Jerusalem was the center of the people's worship, the place where they came to offer sacrifices to God, to seek forgiveness and atonement. For the people, it was their visible anchor of God's presence, the foundation of their hope that God was with them. No wonder the people with Jesus, many of whom would have been considered country bumpkins, would have been awed by the magnificence of the temple. But Jesus tells them that there will be a time when the temple will no longer stand. Its end would come.
Jesus challenges his hearers' assumptions. The temple would not stand forever. IN 70 AD, it would fall when the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion. That event would be a sign that God was doing a new thing. Jesus, the Son of the Father, is that new thing. In Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, God moved out of the temple: on the cross, Jesus offered himself up as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that brought to an end the need for the people's sacrifices. The temple, once the foundation for the people's right relationship with God, the place they thought demonstrated God's presence with them, has been replaced by Jesus the Christ, Immanuel, God-With-Us.
The temple would not be the only thing to fall: many of the things that the disciples assumed to be solid would fail them. False prophets would come, claiming divine authority, some even claiming to be Jesus himself, but all of them giving false teaching. Nations would war against one another. The crops that the people depended upon would fail, and even the very earth, the foundations of the world, would shake. Even more frightening, however, would be the quake that rocks even the closest relationships: believers would be betrayed, handed over to the authorities by their own family members and friends. So many things that seemed solid, like the temple, would fall apart. Understandably, Jesus' words caught the disciples' attention. "When will this happen? How will we know?" But Jesus doesn't respond by saying, "A little less than 40 years from now... and it'll be a Tuesday." Rather, he speaks to them about how they are to live in time as the end comes.
Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. But in the world's view, they'd have good reason to fear, for all the things that Jesus described would come to pass within the 40 years preceding the destruction of the temple. The institutions and assumptions upon which people had built their lives would be shaken. Christians would be betrayed and persecuted. Most all of the apostles were martyred for their faith. But ultimately, even if they died, they will be delivered. God Himself promised to be with them, to give them the words that would bear witness to the Gospel, even before the highest earthly authorities.
Jesus' followers lived in the end times. We still do: these are, in fact, the end times, though not in the way that the world might assume. The end times started with Jesus' ascension. They will close with his return on the Last Day. We don't usually think about that, though, do we? Our world usually seems so safe, secure, and solid - why should we? But we have been called to live as if every day could be the Last, as if Christ might return today. Because he could! When we confess our faith in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, we say it: Jesus was born, lived, died, rose, ascended, and will come again. He is alive and at work. He has brought God's forgiveness out of the temple of stone and mortar and delivered it to us, making us temples of living stones in which His Holy Spirit lives. Christ is at work in you, building you up in hope to live a life that does not depend on things that fall apart.
Isaac Watts expressed the message of Psalm 98 when he wrote the Christmas carol "Joy to the World." Though we look ahead to singing it in about a months' time, this song's lyrics ring true even now: God is with us. Let us sing a song of celebration, despite the challenges of this world! Jesus is the Rock, the one truly solid thing in this world - and beyond. With Christ alone as our foundation, we are spared Wile E. Coyote's freefall. Because with Christ alone as our foundation may we live lives that do not fear when health or finances fail. And with Christ alone as our foundation may we look ahead to the future in true hope, assured of God's faithfulness.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! And he will come again!