November 17, 2013
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
A few weeks ago I received confirmation that my body is indeed falling apart.
A physician’s assistant in Fargo showed me an X-ray of my right hand, pointing specifically to the joint between the third and fourth bones in my thumb.
What’s notable about that joint, I learned, is that there’s no longer anything inside of it—the cartilage, the shock-absorbing cushion between those two bones is gone for good. Bone on bone arthritis pain will be my lot in life…
….and although painkillers and a splint provide some relief…and steroid shots or even surgery might help me down the line….the problem itself will not be fully healed in this life.
The only cure for what’s ailing me is the resurrection.
Other parts of my body are also deteriorating, but I have visual proof of this one, this tiny joint that makes my whole hand ache.
Not that I have any business complaining…
Some of you probably have bigger sources of pain. In truth, we’re all falling apart….and not just us, either. This whole world and everything in it is slowly being chipped away. Every person, every creature, and everything made by human hands has a limited shelf life. None of it will last forever.
That’s the bracing truth Jesus names here in Luke 21. Oohing and aahing at marvelous architecture and lavish decorations of Jerusalem’s temple….Jesus’ friends weren’t expecting to hear his sober assessment: “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.”
We and everyone else—this entire old creation—none of it is going to last forever in its present form.
Jesus’ hearers “got” that immediately. They realized that Jesus was talking about the Day of the Lord, the grand climax toward which all history is heading: “‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
They were intensely curious and so are we. Who doesn’t wonder about the final future of this old world? Yes, we may live most of our days skirting such big, momentous questions….but life has a way of hemming us in, grabbing our attention, making us wonder. Whether it’s a typhoon in the Philippines or the latest report on global climate change or the incessant gridlock of our national government or the personal prayer lists we keep—with an endless revolving door of loved ones in stress or sickness or grief….we wonder how our lives and the life of this old creation will conclude.
And Jesus helps us with these questions in his gospel lesson from Luke 21.
Jesus helps us by reminding us of things we easily forget…
· ….that it’s a fool’s errand to speculate about the end of the world or to follow the latest “prophet” who claims to have uncracked the secrets of God’s apocalyptic timetable…
· ….Jesus reminds us to be patient as history moves toward its conclusion in familiar ways that should not surprise or terrify us—that time will stretch out a while longer, with wars and natural disasters and cosmic events that will take our breath away and make us wonder….
· ….Jesus reminds us that increasingly this faithless world will not feel like home to people of faith like us…that we may even endure the sting of dis-respect or persecution, simply because we stubbornly cling to the God who alone holds the future in his hands.
Nothing is more surprising in this gospel lesson, though, than the way Jesus calls us to a deeper engagement with this dying world—an engagement that seems counter-intuitive.
Most folks, when they contemplate how no one and nothing in this world lasts forever….most folks are easily paralyzed by either abject fear or dark depression. We want to avert our eyes, turn our faces away, get lost in cocoons of distraction…
….but Jesus, rather, calls us to step out and speak up, in the face of the falling-apart-of-it-all: “This will give you an opportunity to testify,” he contends—in the face of the paralysis that is always seeking to overcome us, limited, bounded creatures of space and time.
This hope-engendering word from Jesus is consistent with the entire biblical witness regarding the End-Times. As God’s dearly beloved children, who know that whatever fate brings our way God will make sure that “not a hair of [our] head[s] will perish”….our awareness of the passing-away-ness of everything earthly does not reduce us to apathy or inaction.
Quite the contrary! For we believe that in Jesus Christ we have seen what God does with death, decay and destruction. We realize that God is in the “resurrection business”…..that the passing-away of this old creation is the precursor, the necessary pre-requisite for the New Creation that even now is being prepared and beginning to dawn upon us.
So we look at our faults and failings and falling-apart lives in the sheer confidence that these are the very raw materials of the New Day, the New Creation that God is laboring to bring forth, even today.
And all of that has begun, decisively, in the oddest of places: on the garbage heap outside of Jerusalem where everything old and sinful and mortal was nailed to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….where you and I and everyone else have been crucified with Christ and buried with him through our Baptisms into death….so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father we too might walk in newness of life! (Romans 6)
That, that, my dear friends is what allows us to be brutally honest about the End, the conclusion of our lives and the culmination of all things. For we wait with eager anticipation for a new heaven and a new earth!
And we believe so firmly that God is accomplishing this New Thing, that we find ourselves “leaning into” it even now. We travel through this mortal life in the confidence that God will not be finished with any of us until we are raised again with our Lord Jesus Christ, when God makes all things new.
Jesus does not advise his hearers in Luke 21 to hoard canned food, or stockpile a stash of weapons, or dig a fallout shelter or do anything else to hunker down in and cling to this old dying world and all its here-today-gone-tomorrow ways.
No, Jesus calls us to step up and speak out—in word and deed—because we know how the story ends and we know the One who alone holds the future in the palm of his loving hands!
Friends, the world is dying for this good news, this hopeful, alternative way of facing the future.
Because, when Jesus talks about the End of all things he draws our attention not to mysterious timetables or speculation about disasters or fascination with Armageddon-like battles…
When Jesus talks about the End of all things he consistently directs our attention back to what we are called to do now, today, before the End arrives.
The best way to get ready for the End of all things is to be about the work God has given us to do today: trusting God, loving our neighbors, caring for the earth….bearing witness in word and deed to the only One who knows what lies ahead, who holds the future.
Once in colonial New England there was a total eclipse of the sun. This inexplicable cosmic event took place while the colonial legislature was in session. When the eclipse brought sudden, unexpected darkness over the land (in the middle of the day!) a number of lawmakers panicked—and some moved that the session adjourn.
But then a legislator arose and said: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. And if it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought so that despite the darkness our work may continue.”
If the end is coming, where should you and I be found? Hunkered down in a fallout shelter, hiding? High on a mountaintop dressed in white ascension robes—waiting? Shut up in a church building—praying?
Here’s Jesus’ response: If the End is coming let us be engaged in the world—witnessing to God’s loving lordship, in word and in deed.
And as we are about those tasks, we travel in God’s promise that it’s not really our business as much as it’s God’s business in and through us. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus concludes here in Luke 21, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.