Old Testament Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm Psalm 98
Epistle 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Gospel Luke 21:5-19
“In righteousness shall he judge the world, and the peoples with equity.”
In the Name of God: Father, Sin, and Holy Spirit. Amen
Imagine with me ... a Sunday much like today. We are basking in the satisfaction of great work done to improve our worship space. In honor of our 150th year, fresh paint, polished wood, and refurbished stained glass windows (three of which are Tiffany, if one is name dropping, and we are). In fact, everything this particular Sunday is perfect. The organ has just been tuned and Nadine has pulled out all the stops. The choir challenges the organ with perfect voice and harmony. The altar flowers are abundant with God’s beauty. Young people are vested and serving around the altar. Even the sermon was passable, and short, on this imaginary Sunday. After church we gather in the back and flow outside, proclaiming how God is so palpably present in this place.
A scruffy person, disheveled clothing, visibly struggling wanders up the sidewalk. Some have seen him around before. He never begs. He never asks for anything. He walks around talking to himself, or anyone who will listen. His conversation with himself, or some invisible companion, always seems spiritual, but rarely makes any sense. Today, he steps into the middle of our post worship gathering, and says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come that not one stone will be left upon another.”
It is a similar scene where Jesus finds a group admiring the Temple. How impressive, adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. After all, the Temple is understood to be the seat of God, where the divine dwells among us. The people have gone to great physical and financial expense to create this monument that is the center of worship. The faithful come from all around, at least on an annual pilgrimage if not more often, to praise God and offer sacrifices. The Temple is the center of worship. It is hard to imagine worship without the Temple. An itinerant preacher, often causing controversy, perhaps crazy, proclaims to this group of dedicated Jews, “All will be thrown down.”
Jesus does not admonish the people for admiring the Temple. I don’t imagine Jesus would discourage our work to maintain and improve St. Paul’s. We are Incarnational people. We understand God’s work to occur among us, in the beauty and order of Creation, in the gifts and skills given to humanity to enhance the world around us, and in the divine joining and journeying with humanity through a holy child born of a woman. We surround ourselves with beautiful things in worship, tantalizing all the senses, incense wafting through a golden thurible, voices of pipe organs and a gifted choir making joyful noise with the heavenly hosts, stained glass windows teasing the light of the sun mimicking the promise of the rainbow, carefully articulated and well spoken prayers, and the touch and taste of bread and wine that contains the real presence of our Lord and Savior. We strive to give our best to God.
I can’t imagine Jesus is against any of these practices. Jesus simply offers a realistic perspective. Jesus urges us to distinguish between the things of our worship, all of which will come to an end, and God, the object of our worship, who is forever. We are to understand the perishability of physical places such as the Temple, or even this place of worship, and the indestructibility of the Temple of God that is Jesus Christ. We are to redirect our pride in places and things toward the glory of God. This physical church is God’s. We the people are God’s. But none of these are God.
We might expect Jesus’ audience to be angry with his proclamation. We ourselves might be angry to hear Jesus’ truth about our beloved temple. Yet the conversation turns. “Teacher” they ask, “when will this be, how will we know, what will be the signs?” Jesus is acutely aware of the chaos invading and surrounding humanity, then and today. Jesus is also aware of the desperate hope of humanity, and our deep desire to be reconciled with God. Jesus offers the compassion and mercy of a God that dwells among us. Do not be terrified. Do not be led astray. All the things that seem like signs of the end of days are but the birth pangs of the emerging kingdom. The chaos around us is our opportunity to testify, in word and action, to the Good News of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of all scripture, and God’s saving work among humanity. It is tough work. Some will be betrayed, some will be hated, some will even be put to death for proclaiming and living life in Christ. But we are not alone. The gift of the Holy Spirit is present and acting around and through us. Even death cannot defeat us. Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the age.
Paul offers words of encouragement and endurance. In the continued conversation of Jesus’ return, the day of judgement, ultimate resurrection, and everlasting life, Paul encourages us to keep busy about the business of the kingdom. Paul warns against “idleness,” but this might be better translated “disorderliness.” Living in this luminal time between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the boring and the sublime, the chaos of humanity and the saving order of God, we are to be patient and have endurance to run the race. Stephen Charles Hill states, "Patience is always an ingredient of holiness. Jesus demands a complete transformation of human nature, but He recognizes that time is needed for this transformation to take effect. Even the disciples are slow to understand and to follow."
We are also called to continue to discern and do the work to which we are called, as individuals and as the people of God. in preparing for this sermon, I looked back at the last time the lectionary offered these scriptures. It was 2016, the Sunday after the presidential election. The nation experienced all sorts of emotion. Some celebrated the businessman elected, promising to change the sleazy nature of politics as usual, and drain the swamp. Others were filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. Some might even say the events of that election and the three years since are signs of the end of days.
Whether we celebrate the successes or lament the failures of this nation since November of 2016, one thing is certain ... we are still here. God still breathes life into each of us with the explicit purpose of proclaiming the kingdom life ushered in by Jesus Christ. Perhaps all this political polarization is an opportunity to testify against the chaos of humanity and proclaim the saving love of God. Jesus states we will be given words and wisdom to defeat our opponents. But Jesus’ words are not meant to shut out, put down, or exclude. Jesus’ words offer mercy, compassion, and invitation, lifting others up and including. Jesus’ words create a world where all are welcomed into our Savior’s embrace. This is the politic of the gospel.
One thing is certain about these in between times. The security blankets we thought we could count on are breaking down. Whatever temples we build and rely on are shallow and fragile. We keep searching for a firm foundation, and after all our failed experiments, our trials and tribulations, the signs continue to point to Jesus.
Our firm foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. As disciples, we are called to follow Jesus under all circumstances, never allowing ourselves to be distracted, no matter what is going on around us. When we do stray, as a community we are to gently and lovingly correct and reorient. Together, we might train our eyes to see glimpses of the light of Christ breaking through the chaotic darkness. Shadows can only be made by the presence of light. By facing the darkness, allowing our eyes to adjust, we might recognize Jesus in the shadows, because he present even there.
“See the day is coming, burning like an oven ...” Our divine Chef is cooking up a heavenly banquet, to be prepared and served at the appropriate time. Nothing shall be overcooked, because our Baker is attentive. There will be abundant and nutritious offerings, to be inwardly digested, providing all we could ever need or want. Can’t you smell it, wafting through the cosmos, whetting our appetites? The invitation has been sent to all of humanity. Prepare for the feast. Go tell others. The hungry shall be fed. Amen.