Signs of the Times

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you seen, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

The disciples are just like us, and we are just like the disciples.

They’ve spent years with Jesus, listening to him tell story after story. They’ve witnessed countless miracles and have had their bellies filled time and time again. They’ve even seen parade into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. 

But sometimes, even being around the Messiah can’t explain everything. And the disciples are confused. 

Their Lord has talked openly, and frighteningly, about the great overthrowing of all things. The whole “the first will be last and the last will be first” stuff. And now here they are in the shadow of the temple, the very thing Jesus has said that he has come to destroy and the disciples cover their confusion with small talk. “O Lord, what big stones this temple has!”

It’s like those times when you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table and your filterless uncle starts in on his political ramblings. The whole family will shift around nervously until someone tries to cover up the feeling of discomfort by changing the subject, or simply talking loud enough to drown him out.

The disciples know that their mysterious Lord is acting even more mysterious than normal and instead of facing the mystery, instead of engaging with it, they try their best to bring up something else.

And how does Jesus respond to the tourist like behavior of his disciples?

“Hey guys, come close. You see all this stuff? The big ramparts and the towering walls? You see the guards pacing back and forth? You see the lines of people coming in to present their gifts to God? All of this is going to disappear. Every one of those stones will come crashing down and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

This is a shocking claim and an overwhelming revelation. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries the temple was the most sure thing around. So much so, that some worshipped the temple itself instead of the God for whom the temple was built. And to say that it would come crashing down sounds more like the proclamation of a terrorist than the Lamb of God.

Then the disciples ask the question that anyone would have asked, “Lord, when will this happen, and how will we know it’s about to go down.”

What follows is what some call the mini-apocalypse in the middle of the Gospel. Jesus foretells, in a sense, what is to come and he warns his disciples about what this will mean for them. 

“When things start to fall apart, be careful that you are not led astray. There’s going to be a whole lot of people who claim to be me or, at the least, be on my side. Don’t listen to them. They wouldn’t know the Good News if it hit them in the face.”

“When you hear about wars cropping up, or even the rumors of war, don’t be afraid. These things have always taken place, and they will always happen. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”

“And don’t even get me started on the natural disasters – the earthquakes and famines and floods.”

“But before that great disrupting of things occurs, you’re going to get arrested and persecuted. The powers and principalities are going to hand you over to the authorities and the prisons, you’ll be brought before those in charge because of me. And when it happens, don’t worry. This will be an opportunity for you to share the truth.”

“So do me a favor, don’t waste your time coming up with the perfect speech or the perfect story – I will give you the words and wisdom that none who are in power will be able to handle.”

“I know it’s going to be rough. Some of you will even be betrayed by your parents or your siblings or your friends or perhaps your children. Some of you will die because of this. You will be hated because of me. Don’t take it personally.”

“Because in the end, all will be well – I promise. It will be well because I have destroyed death, and you will live with me in the Resurrection. The end has no end.”

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Jesus goes full end of the world stuff here, rambling on like one of those men dressed in a sign on the street corners of life. And, to be honest, this reflection from the Lord has been used to inflict some serious damage across the history of the church. Leaders have held these verses over the heads of Christians in order to frighten them into faith.

Which, to be clear, doesn’t work.

Telling teenagers that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior they will suffer the consequences for eternity only leads to teenagers staying as far away from the church as possible. 

Telling new parents that unless they baptize their child the flames of hell will be their reward only leads to parents writing frightening Facebook posts about what they heard in church on Sunday. 

Telling people at the end of their lives to give more money to church or suffer the wrath of God leads only to emptier and emptier pews on Sunday morning. 

It doesn’t work and it shouldn’t.

Jesus declaration is not meant as a description of the nightmare that can be, and is, discipleship. It’s about what he is about to do, and what he has done, for us.

The world’s passion is taken up in Jesus’ passion. And by passion I mean the suffering that leads to a new creation. What we miss, what the church has often overlooked, is that what Jesus gets into here is not a catalogue of all the bad that’s awaiting us, but instead it is Jesus painting a picture of a dying and rising Lord who reigns in the midst of the world falling apart.

Jesus saves the world in its, and in his, death. But we are so afraid of death that we choose to believe something else about Jesus’ work. 

We like Easter without having to think about Good Friday. So much so that when we hear about all these horrible things happening in the world we only think about them in terms of how they might affect us as individuals instead of seeing how God already did the most horrible thing of all to save us.

Fanatical and apocalyptic Christians might warn us about how “The End Is Near” but what we’ve missed is that the real end has already arrived through the disaster that was the cross until the resurrection.

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In many ways, what Jesus said to his disciples and what he says to us today is this: “You may see signs that you think are the end. But they are not the end.”

Redemption, pointed to through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, involves neither the rejection of the world in its weakness nor the fixing of all the weakness by stepping in. All that matters is recognizing that resurrection comes out of death. 

And yet many of us have fallen prey to the myriad of ways a text like this has been used to manipulate, frighten, and even coerce those who hear it. 

We’ve left church on Sunday mornings afraid of God for all the wrong reasons. 

Instead of announcing the grace of God and the resurrection of the dead being made available to all, we lift up words like these as a potential punishment for those who don’t believe it.

Instead of resting in the strange grace of God’s unending love, we fixate on fixing all the world’s problems with programs that often lead to more doomed living. 

We try and we try and we try, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 

We embark on a new campaign and the lost keep wandering and the found keep yelling. 

We announce a volunteer program and the least wither away while the greatest smile proudly.

I don’t know how it all happened, we could probably blame sin and our own self-righteousness I guess, but in the church we behave as if we will only allow sinners to gather among us so long as they try to not look like sinners. We perpetuate systems of salvation that both deny the truth of who we are and lay it out as if its all up to us. 

For far too long, Christians have left their places of worship with the understanding that the world can only be saved by getting its act together. Or, worse, I can only be saved if I get my act together.

Now, sure, all of us would do well to get some things sorted out, but in the end that’s not what saves us. The world has never gotten its act together and neither have we nor will we. We chose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should.

That’s the disaster of history – we cannot save ourselves and neither can the world. 

So when Jesus speaks to his friends and disciples, when he tells them about things they cannot yet imagine, he is offering us, today, a corrective for the ways we’ve lost sight of the whole thing. Late or soon, the world is going down the drain. Just pick up a newspaper (do any of us still read the newspaper?) or pull out your phone and you will see how prophetic Jesus’ words really are. But as the world spins down the drain Jesus reminds us that only a Savior who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can do anything about it. 

The world has a future and the church is the one entrusted with proclaiming that future. Much to the chagrin of Hallmark and certain pastors, it is not a future of pie in the sky or even pie on the earth – it is resurrection from the dead. And without death there can be no resurrection.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ proclamation to the disciples outside the temple walls compels us to ask ourselves questions. 

Questions like:

Who are we and what in the world are we doing?

Are we like the disciples wandering around merely marveling at the scenery around us?

Are we “signs of the times” police, attacking anyone outside of what we think is the Gospel?

What is the church and what it is supposed to be?

We can begin to scratch at the surface of those first questions by addressing what the church is not. The church is not an exclusive club of the saved. It is not a gathering of people who will be granted the lifeboats of salvation while the world falls apart because of our superior faith or morality. It is not a museum for saints.

If the church is anything it is a sign for the whole world about the salvation of the cosmos made possible in and through Jesus Christ. 

Sometimes it feels like the church is in the midst of a crisis. It should come as no surprise that less and less people come to church week after week, the world feels like is twirling down the drain faster than ever before, and that’s not even getting into the specifics of cultural and societal changes. But if the church really is in a crisis it is because we have foolishly convinced ourselves that we are a bunch of good people getting better. The truth of the church is quite the opposite: we are a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

And Jesus has a word for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see: You don’t have to put your faith in political action, or moral achievement, or spiritual proficiency because those things can’t and won’t save the world. 

We need only trust that’s its not up to us in the end. And what better news is there than that? Amen. 

Devotional – John 2.16

Devotional:

John 2.16

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

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“Now let us exchange signs of Christ’s peace,” the pastor bellowed from the pulpit. In quick and succinct fashion people rotated 360 degrees and shook hands with those closest and muttered, “peace of Christ.” Though it was something we did one a month, the passing of the peace was finished within 20 seconds, and people were ready to get on with the rest of the communion liturgy. For months I attended worship in that church, sitting in the same pew, but I never learned anyone’s name nor did I know anything about what was going on in their lives. I felt invisible even while I was surrounded by people.

That summer I was appointed to help a small church in the shadow of the Great Smokey mountains in western North Carolina. Passing the peace was something they did every week and it took forever. The pastor would casually invite us to greet one another with the love of Christ and before I knew it I was getting hugs from people I had never seen before and others wanted to know my life story. I overheard men making plans to go golfing in the afternoon, women sharing the latest bits of gossip from the community, and kids making fart jokes.

To go from one extreme to the other while passing the peace was difficult. Each week, when we hit the 10 minute mark during the peace, all I could think about was Jesus turning over the tables and rebuking the money-lenders and dove-sellers. Had we turned God’s house into a space no better than a marketplace? Where was the solemn respect for the divine, where was the recognition of God’s holiness?

The weeks passed throughout the summer and I continued to walk throughout the entire sanctuary during the passing of the peace and I began to learn about the people who called that church “home.” I got invited to dinner parties, people prayed for me and my calling while others moved around us, I even had a woman begin to confess her most recent sinful behaviors. I felt confused about what we were doing and how it fit into the worship of God in a church until an older gentlemen spied my discomfort and whispered in my ear: “this is how we build community; we don’t get many chances to check in on one another and this time, for us, is sacred.”

Jesus threw out the money-lenders because they were making a mockery of the temple. In that tiny rural church we shared our lives with each other during the passing of the peace, and it felt like what the church was really all about. Instead of just sitting down and facing the front without interacting with our brothers and sisters, that church made a point to pass the peace by building their community.

What is church like for you? Do you gather each week with the expectation of hearing a few prayers, listening to a sermon, singing a couple hymns, and going back to your regular life? Or do you see church as an opportunity to build your community by getting to love on, and communicate with, your brothers and sisters in Christ?

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