Proper 28, Year C; Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thess. 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Today is an interesting one in the life of any preacher whose church uses the common lectionary. You see, we’ve come to the back of the book, the final pages, the end of the road in terms of the preaching cycle. The church year concludes next week and the new year begins with Advent the week after. On top of the conclusion of the yearly calendar, we are coming to the end of a 3-year cycle of readings. We’re at the bottom of the barrel.
In other words, I didn’t choose the Scripture you just heard and are holding in your hands. I never get to choose what to preach on. Together we wrestle with the breadth and depth of human experience and God’s message as we find it in the Bible. One can only hope and pray for God to speak to us both individually and collectively through the words of Scripture in our own time.
And boy do we need to hear God speak now! We’ve come to the end of an election cycle but we have yet to begin a new administration. It is a time of radical transition. We are living in the aftermath of one of the most stunning elections in history. It seems as if most of the people and institutions we have counted on are reeling from the unpredictability and divisiveness of this process. Many of you are overwhelmed. Some are fearful, some hopeful.
Enormous amounts of distrust and suspicion have been uncovered in our nation and are continuing to increase. Many people are in varying stages of grief and loss. Much is unclear.
We are a people living in a time of upheaval, not only in our own country, but around the globe. The world we thought we knew has ended, and it’s not clear what the new one will be like. This may produce anxiety or anticipation. Some things are being cast down and others are being raised up, and it’s not at all clear what it will be like when and if the dust finally settles.
The people of God have been here before. In fact, this experience is common enough that there is a title for various passages in the Bible that describe it. We call these passages of Scripture, apocalyptic literature. The word apocalypse literally means “revelation.” In apocalyptic times the events that happen disclose what is going on beyond and behind history. The inspired writer describes what is really real and truly true in the face of forces, powers and events that seem overwhelming and enormous. Every year these apocalyptic writings are assigned to the weeks just before and during the Advent season. They are the wake-up calls that alert us to the fact that everything may not be OK, that we need to keep our eyes open, to pay attention and to stand up for the right and the true.
It’s not that we know or think that the end of the world is imminent. Jesus warns people often not to worry about figuring that out. There have been many previous times that have been experienced as world ending. In fact, major historical crises trigger end-of-the-world thinking. We can’t predict what will occur. Much seems unclear. What is ending for sure, is the world we thought we knew. And that may be terrifying.
In addition there is an element of judgement in apocalyptic literature. God will pronounce a verdict on failed persons and institutions. “The arrogant and evildoers will be stubble” as Malachi predicts. Those systems that degrade and devalue all that God loves will pass away. Ways we had become comfortable with, or taken for granted, or failed to see are exposed when they fail to protect the ones for whom God is deeply concerned. Injustices that had become ingrained are dramatically overturned.
Jesus pointed all this out. He warned people that some of the institutions that seemed most solid and powerful, like the massive Jerusalem temple, would be torn down and utterly destroyed. He predicted the strife, wars, natural disasters and terrifying events that befall humanity all too frequently. He knew his followers might become scared, confused, discouraged, overwhelmed, defensive, violent or faithless. He even knew they might face persecution and suffering.
And so he called on them to do what needed to be done, and he promised that they would not be alone, and he reminded them that what is really real and truly true can never be taken away. He told them that they would be witnesses: witnesses to hope in the face of despair; witnesses to God’s love in the face of hatred; witnesses to the value of every human being, particularly the most vulnerable, the poor, women, those not in the majority, those scorned by cultural prejudice, children, refugees and immigrants who are strangers in the land; the despised, the different, the disabled. He let them know that they could stand up in the face of overwhelming challenges, that they would speak up with words that come from the deepest place of the spirit and that he would be with them forever.
We are those who have the Spirit of Jesus alive in our very bodies. We are called by him to pray and witness and serve in his name, whatever the circumstances, no matter how overwhelming the situation is. We may be called to great acts of sacrifice but usually we’re asked to perform small and frequent acts of faith and compassion. When Martin Luther was asked about the possible end of the world during the time of the Protestant Reformation and the threats and violence that movement unleashed, he responded, “If tomorrow is the Day of Judgement, then today I want to plant an apple tree.”
This week Sara opened the Chapel early on Wednesday morning for those who wanted a quiet place for prayer. A couple of our guests, Keith and Pete, asked if they might join me. For over 30 minutes they were on their knees. Mine couldn’t hold out that long. We prayed silently. We prayed out loud. And after some time, I felt the Spirit in my spirit. The Spirit has a pretty good track record in our historical chapel! They felt it too and both mentioned it to me later. An African American Pentecostal man, a white ex-con, and an exhausted middle-aged preacher drew close to God and therefore closer to one another in the presence of the living Christ. When it felt like we were done, we all wanted to do more. Pete helped with the garbage, Keith went to help some people outside, and I started scrubbing pots. Prayer, service, testimony. They may not seem like much in the face of enormous change and challenge but through prayer, service, testimony — and endurance, –Jesus promises, you will gain your souls.
We will not be overtaken by the forces which dehumanize and denigrate the children of God. We will be given by the Spirit of Jesus the strength and the courage to stand “against the rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12) We will not cease to pray in the Spirit at all times. We will not cease to do good and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Regardless of the changes and chances of this life, we will rest in the eternal changelessness of God.
We will persevere in the power of the resurrection. We will put our trust in the One who made the Pleiades and Orion, who brings light out of darkness and has conquered death.
Let me close with a favorite prayer, “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.” Amen.