Crisis

Sermon for the Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19

As we approach the beginning of the Advent season—which this year begins on December 1, just two weeks from tonight—the lectionary has us dealing with what you might call “crisis” themes. That’s certainly evident in the Gospel reading, in which Jesus speaks of “wars and insurrections,” of “dreadful portents and great signs,” and of coming persecutions. But it is also there in a very different way in Isaiah, who speaks of “new heavens and a new earth”, and of the end of weeping. In the Greek of the New Testament, there is an important distinction made between two kinds of time; chronos, which is linear clock time, and kairos, which is opportune time or significant time. These are both kairos readings, which speak to events, moments, times, of extraordinary significance.

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So, a big part of the question when we read words like this coming from the lips of Jesus is “what does he have in view?” What time is he talking about? In the view of N.T. Wright, this passage “is emphatically and specifically about the fall of Jerusalem, not about the end of the world.” Consider the context, in which Jesus and his followers have been in the temple precincts, and “some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” In his comments on the passage, Richard Swanson notes that with an outer court capable of holding 400,000 people, “The Temple was stunning.” “The Temple was overwhelming, as befits the building that honors the God who alone is God.” And yet looking at it, Jesus rather bluntly says, “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.”

All will be thrown down? Some would have wondered how—how could a building of this scale be destroyed?—but the more pressing question is “why?” Here Swanson makes the following comments:

And the Temple was beautiful because Herod, that Roman stooge who styled himself as King of the Jews, had spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful. Herod, that vicious and brutal despot known as much for his private slaughter of his family members as for his acts of public largesse, had built up the Temple so that it would rival pagan temples built up by rival rulers. Faithful Jews knew the Temple testified to God’s unique majesty. They also knew that the beautification project was meant to bring glory to Herod…

In other words, the glorious Temple to God came with a complicated back-story. If you crossed your fingers behind your back and pretended not to know its recent history, you could see only the impressive glory. But if you were honest, and remembered…

This Temple, says N.T. Wright, “had come to stand for the perversion of Israel’s call that Jesus had opposed throughout his public career. If he was right, the present Temple was wrong; if God was to vindicate him, that would have to include the Temple’s destruction… unthinkable for a devout Jew.” Unthinkable, yet by the time Luke is writing his gospel, it had happened. Tired of dealing with the more rebellious and restless factions within Judaism, for the Romans the final straw came when a full-scale rebellion was mounted. In 70AD, the powerful Roman military machine rolled into Jerusalem and because it had such enormous religious, cultural and national significance, they targeted the Temple. Take that symbolic heart from the city, and you break its spirit. And in typical Roman fashion, it wasn’t a straightforward building demolition project; it was accompanied by a carefully calculated and violent massacre, taking countless lives in what amounted to the ancient world’s version of “shock and awe.”

Part of what that does is to make people desperate; desperate to survive, and desperate to place blame on others for the whole disaster. Jewish Christians were already a suspect movement, but now they were targeted as being the ones responsible for this onslaught. To their own people, they were accused of being unfaithful to the nation; they’d followed the false messiah, and were traitors. Yet in the eyes of the Romans they were just another Jewish movement—perhaps even one of the revolutionary ones—so equally deserving of harsh treatment. In other words, those who followed Jesus were very much caught in the middle of two opposing forces… and suddenly all of those words of warning issued by Jesus seemed very, very real.

Yet it is fair to ask, was Jesus speaking only of the destruction of the temple and of the corresponding woes that accompanied it? Or did he also have in view another, even more final and universal crisis? Maybe a better way to ask this is “was Jesus speaking merely of the temple’s destruction back then, and not speaking into the life of the world since?” On this question, Wright suggests that these warnings can “be taken as a model for all living that peers into an uncertain future, needing to trust in God when everything else is crashing down around one’s ears.” I think here of the mixed race theologian Allan Boesak in apartheid era South Africa, reading the Book of Revelation in his prison cell and finding in it a framework of courage and comfort within which to make sense of the world in which he and the members of his church were living. Like this passage from Luke, the Book of Revelation is crisis literature, written in a very particular political and social climate, but which speaks into ages well beyond the immediate crises and persecutions experienced by the early church. And like these words of Jesus from the Gospel according to Luke, Revelation is also insistent that “By your endurance you will gain your souls;” (Luke 21:19) that though they may be killing people for being followers of Jesus, “not a hair of your head will perish.” (Luke 21:18) Not eternally; for this Jesus has already trumped the power of death in that ultimate way.

Had the lectionary had us read on through the rest of this chapter, that would have been made more clear. As Jesus continues his teaching, it is evident that he is widening his scope to include more than just the temple and those first century persecutions. Now Jesus is speaking of the culmination all of time and history, and how in spite of the evidence to the contrary, it is all utterly under the power of the resurrection and therefore very much within God’s reign. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory,” he declares. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (21:27-28) “This larger scene,” writes Richard Swanson, “does not just offer encouragement to heroic endurance. [This chapter in Luke] is a scene that pictures God’s people as always gathering to wait together for resurrection. Sometimes endurance is not enough, not even nearly. When it really matters, only resurrection will do, and in Luke’s story, we wait for resurrection together…”

We wait, in other words, for that of which Isaiah sang when he wrote,

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight. (65:17-18)

Did you catch the reference to Jerusalem? Though badly crippled in 70AD when the Temple was destroyed, and utterly flattened by the Romans in 135AD, in Isaiah Jesusalem is held out as an image of perfect peace. “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit,” is one of the ways Isaiah describes that perfect peaceableness; the people of God will have enough. Everyone will have enough.

And frankly, that kind of peace—“the peace of God which passes all understanding”—can only come as a gift of grace through the resurrection of Christ. In fact, the mere believing in such a possibility is a gift, particularly at those times when “everything else is crashing down around one’s ears,” as Wright phrases it. Be that for those 1st century people to whom Jesus first spoke his words, or those who watched their beloved Temple being torn down to the ground; be that Allan Boesak in his prison cell, or the tens of thousands of Christians who over the past 100 years have inhabited the prisons cells of any number of regimes; be that any of us who might be dealing with some debilitating loss or grief or depression or addiction. None of it need have the final word over us. “Stand up,” he said, “and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

It was, and is, and ever shall be.

 

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