Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
On Saturday, April 1, 1865 a quiet General sent a telegram to a beleaguered President. “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight,” said General Robert E. Lee. The President was Jefferson Davis. It isn’t news that chaos and burning buildings followed – set by the retreating troops to deny the ‘enemy’ whatever foodstuffs and war materiel remained in that embattled city. Here is the news: the on-coming Federal troops put out the fires and surrounded the capital buildings of the soon-to-be defeated Confederacy. They were ordered to conduct themselves with restraint and to ‘let ‘em up easy, let ‘em up easy,’ echoing the words of advice President Abraham Lincoln gave to his commanding general.
Throughout history whenever an invading army has reached the central city of its enemy, a predictable pattern of horror has typically followed. Rape, pillage, starvation and assorted cruelties are visited on the now-conquered people. Iraq despoiled Kuwait City, leaving burning oil wells in the wake of their retreat. The carnage in the capitol of Rwanda competes with the historical memory of the Rape of Nanking. Thus, Jesus speaks the conventional wisdom in his warning the people of Jerusalem of the desolation and woe awaiting them when that city is ‘surrounded by armies.’
A contemporary description of Serbian military action in Kosovo 1999 reads much like the words of Jesus: “Forced from their homes by Serbian troops and paramilitary police, thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees (Muslim) fled across the border into neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Many walked or traveled by tractor, while the weak and elderly were transported in wheelbarrows or on the backs and shoulders of others” (CNN ‘Focus on Kosovo’). Our contemporary ‘all-news-all-the-time’ Internet access now brings more information and images than we probably care to know about the conduct of troops in battle, including the all-too-typical tactic of using civilians as shields for snipers and hospitals or mosques as staging areas for war materiel.
But this is not the American military tradition. From its conduct in Richmond, Virginia to Berlin to Tokyo to Port au Prince to Baghdad, wherever the American soldier has come to a city inhabited by a conquered people, he has come with liberation and restraint. To its credit, American forces continue to resist the calls from the barroom buffoons of a ‘nuke’em till they glow’ response to whatever insurgency yet remains in Iraqi cities.
First, it is imperative that preachers acknowledge the harsh realities facing troops trying to bring a modicum of stability and humanitarian relief to Iraq. They seek to accomplish this goal in an environment where other forces have a vested interest in their efforts failing. While this military burden most frequently falls upon our youngest enlisted soldiers, members of your denomination’s mission agencies and civilian contractors are most likely enduring the humanitarian burden. These fellow-citizens and missionaries cannot achieve their humanitarian ends without the military accomplishing its mission of sorting out the thugs and thieves from the shoppers and saints.
The good guys and gals, in all their various incarnations, are not ‘fleeing for the hills’ per the advice of Jesus. They have chosen to bravely and selflessly enter a cauldron of conflict to bring a balm of peace. In order for our troops and mission personnel to get up each morning and accomplish their mission requires a level of spiritual maturity and strength members of the congregation may have difficulty understanding let alone will ever have to muster. They are walking in the footsteps of the Master and they deserve our unqualified support and our everlasting prayers.
Second, as painful as it may be for the average churchgoer to hear, there are places where being a Christian can get you killed, your place of worship burned, and your family sent to a ‘re-education camp.’ Today. At the very hour that you read these words. A quick check of these websites will give you more information that you may wish. But it may give you information that will assist your congregation in making today’s text walk and talk (www.persecution.org or www.odusa.org). This is not happy news, but it is useful news. Insofar as this news is true and useful it is good news.
There is more useful news that also comes from the Internet about the worldwide church. While this isn’t exactly news about the Second Coming, it is news about the worldwide struggle to renew the church. In commenting on efforts to bring renewal to the church in Czechoslovakia, one writer offers this very practical guidance. Testify to the reality that being a Christian does not free anyone from suffering – God suffers with humanity. Focus on being a unique community in the face of human suffering – God empowers the church to respond with love in the face of hatred. Focus on announcing the moral regeneration that comes from entry into God’s kingdom through Christ (Jason Locke, Journal of Applied Missiology, “Contextualizing the Christian Message for the Czech Republic”). While I hope your particular congregation is growing in membership and mission as well as grace and peace, the harsh reality of many mainline congregations is that of dwindling budgets and empty pews. Sharing this full story of a church in another culture that is undergoing the difficult task of being renewed can give a discouraged congregation hope.
Which brings me to the fourth and final point: so much of the gospel message is precisely like this. The gospel it isn’t comfortable or happy or beatific. The gospel is often uncomfortable, serious and grim. Frequently we make the mistake of equating the gospel being good and truthful with it being safe and comfy. This makes reading today’s gospel reading difficult and disturbing. Jesus speaks to warn his disciples and the others living in Jerusalem who have the ‘ears to hear’ that there is a dark road ahead, a road that may ultimately lead to liberation but a road that will first test a disciple’s resolve. A road that eventually leads to heaven but first passes through the valley of heartache where we may be unfortunate enough to get a whiff of the fires of hell. It is only in this sense, that our ultimate transformation awaits us, that makes such a morning a truly ‘good morning’ – indeed a great gettin’ up morning.
News readers announces that an asteroid passed close to the earth. When they say ‘close’, they mean about half a million miles; but in terms of the solar system, that’s quite near at hand. It shows, as one commentator said, that the planet Earth is in a bit of a shooting gallery. If I had lived in ancient Greece, or Rome or Egypt, instead of being in the modern world, with efficient telescopes watching, and well-trained scientists ready to explain everything they see, the sight of a strange, moving light in part of the sky where there hadn’t been anything before would at once have been seized upon as a sign. Something dramatic was going to happen.
These near misses happen about once a century. Of course, if the asteroid had hit the earth, something dramatic would have happened all right; not only would it make a hole nearly a mile across, but the energy released as it did so would be the equivalent of several atom bombs. No question of the significance of that.
But in Jesus’ day dramatic and unexpected happenings in the night sky were often thought to signify more than just physical disaster as large objects crashed to earth. People looked at them carefully because they believed they would tell them about the imminent rise and fall of kings and empires. And when Jesus’ disciples asked him how they would know when the frightening events he was talking about would take place, that’s probably the sort of thing they had in mind. Surely Jesus would want them to know, and so would give them signs to watch out for?
Jesus will give them signs of a sort (we’ll come to that in the next section), but actually the main thing he wants them to learn is that there will be a period of waiting, when they will have to be patient through dangerous and testing times.
But what great event will they be waiting for? Luke, more than all the other gospels, has prepared us for the answer. His alert readers will not be surprised at Jesus’ prediction; it has been anticipated in many sayings over the last ten chapters or so, and Jesus’ dramatic action in the Temple was a prophetic sign, warning of what was to come. The Temple, the most beautiful building one could imagine, adorned and decorated by the skill and love of hundreds of years, and occupying the central place in the national life, religion and imagination—the Temple itself would be torn down. It 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. This was as unthinkable for a devout Jew as it would be for an American to imagine the destruction of the White House, the Washington Memorial and the Statue of Liberty; only much more so, because the Temple signified a thousand years of God’s dealings with Israel.
Jesus’ warnings about what the disciples will face in the days to come clearly indicate that he will no longer be with them, but that they will still be marked out as his followers. Others will come pretending to be him, or to be his spokesperson (I had a letter this morning, as it happens, from someone claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus). The world will be convulsed with wars and revolutions, all the more alarming because, without radio, television, telephones or newspapers, people would hear of such things by rumor from travelers, and would pass on the news with additional speculation until a border skirmish had been inflated, in the telling, to become an all-out war, and the Emperor’s occasional sneeze had been exaggerated into a fatal illness.
Jesus clearly expects that amid these turbulent times his followers will be marked out as undesirables. People would retain a memory of Jesus as someone leading Israel astray, deflecting people from keeping the law, and from defending the national interest, with his dangerous talk of God’s kingdom, of peace and grace for all. When the going got tough, in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, those who were known as Jesus’ people would be in the firing line; and, quite soon, non-Jewish communities would follow their example. Families would be split; sometimes it would seem that the Christians were the ones blamed for everything, the ones everybody loved to hate. If ever they needed patience, they would need it then.
Jesus promises, though, that he will give them what they need during this time of waiting: ‘a mouth and wisdom’. This promise should not, of course, be taken as license to ignore the hard work required for regular Christian teaching. It refers to the times when people are on trial for their lives because of their allegiance to Jesus. The story of the first generation of Christianity—the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the fall of the Temple in AD 70—bears out these prophecies. And many early Christians would testify that Jesus had indeed been with them and given them words to say.
But this passage, though vital in its specific reference to that first generation, has a good deal to say to the subsequent church as well. Wherever Christians are persecuted for their faith—and, sadly but not surprisingly, this is still common in many parts of the world—they need not only the prayers and support of their fellow-believers in more fortunate places, but also the comfort and encouragement of these words: ‘Don’t let anyone deceive you’; ‘a chance to tell your story’; ‘I’ll give you wisdom’; ‘you’ll keep your lives through patience’. These are still precious promises, to be learnt ahead of time and clung to in the moment of need. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] pp. 250–253)
In spite of its dire warnings of cosmic, political, and personal distress, this lection does not invite end-time speculation. Indeed, the preacher who preaches this small piece of Jesus’ much longer speech (Luke 21:3–36) should attend carefully to the brunt of what is said.
Our section is at the beginning of Jesus’ long speech to his disciples. It is a speech to insiders, to those who trust Jesus and seek to endure, to the church. By the time this Gospel was written, Luke’s church knew, as do we, that many of these predictions had come true. Jerusalem had fallen, the temple had been destroyed, there had been earthquakes and famines. According to the Acts of the Apostles, also from Luke’s hand, those who believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah had indeed been handed over to kings and governors and had opportunity to testify. Some had been martyred. Verses 6, and 8 through 17, show us Jesus speaking the truth about what was to come. That Jesus is clearly correct about the things that have happened makes him all the more credible in regard to those things that have not yet come about (see esp. vv. 25–32).
It also makes him credible in regard to the instructions he gives the disciples. These instructions are central to the passage for Luke and certainly for contemporary preachers. The disciples ask for a sign. Why not? The temple was huge, beautiful, impressive, and backed by the might of Herod, who was backed by the might of Rome. For it to be so thoroughly destroyed that not one stone would be left on another meant the undoing of life as the disciples knew it. It would be good to be forewarned of such a change.
Jesus does not answer their question. Instead he almost teases them with the impossibility of answering. He lists a series of cataclysmic events, from wars and rebellions to plagues and portents. Then, just as he seems to get to the climax of his list, just as the end draws near, he backtracks and says, “But before all this happens.…” The list is no timetable. At best, it must be renumbered to accommodate another long list of difficulties that precedes it. Who can ascertain when all these things will happen? The refusal to set a timetable or even establish a clear sequence of events is repeated in Acts 1:6–7, where Jesus does answer the disciples’ “time” question with a simple “It’s not for you to know.…”
Not only does Jesus make it impossible to develop a timetable from his list of woes, but he also provides a much more important series of negative and positive instructions throughout chapter 21. In our section we get this list of negatives: Do not be misled (v. 8). Do not follow them (false claimants to messiahship, v. 8) Do not panic (v. 9). Do not prepare your defense beforehand (v. 14).
It is clear from this list that preoccupation with end-time scenarios is not appropriate for believers. The injunctions Jesus gives suggest that patience and discernment are the characteristics that Christian assemblies should cultivate. As he moves along further in this speech, Jesus says it will be impossible to miss the real events as they unfold. Some events will be opportunities for personal and corporate witness; others will simply call for long-suffering and hope. Just as believers cannot prepare a timetable and check off events and know when to anticipate the end, so they ought not spend time in anxiety about that future.
Jesus puts a positive spin on the difficulties that may be encountered by believers by suggesting that these will be an opportunity to witness. These opportunities are abundantly illustrated in Acts in, for example, the stories of Stephen (Acts 7), Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10), Paul in Malta (Acts 28:1–10), to name only a few. Paul had already spoken in a similar way to the Philippians and had put a positive spin on his imprisonment as a chance to witness effectively to those around him (Phil. 1:12–14). The opportunity to witness fearlessly was a theme that significantly shaped the early church. Because this opportunity was likely to be given, Jesus’ promise that he himself would provide the words of witness removed the focus from individual preparation.
Most important is the final verse in this passage. Again, we see the emphasis; endurance or long-suffering (hypomonē) is placed in an emphatic position. By “hanging in there” you will gain your lives. (All the “you” words are plural in this passage.) Heroics are not called for, although patience itself can be heroic. It is significant that hypomonē appears in only one other location in Luke’s Gospel, in 8:15. This verse is the climax of Luke’s own version of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:18–23; Mark 4:13–20). All three Evangelists close their interpretations with the need to bring forth good fruit, but only Luke speaks of “holding it [the word] fast” and bringing forth fruit “with patience.” Likewise, only Luke changes Mark to suggest that a problem with the fruit, even for those who hear, is that it does not mature (8:14, telesphoreō, a word used only here in the New Testament).
This passage, along with verses 34–36, shows us the heart of the church. We live by the promise that we will win life by trusting in the words of Jesus. This is the major theme of verses 5–19. All disciples have heard from Jesus that our “standing firm” includes the bearing of mature fruit. It is the vocation of the church to remind us of the promises, both of the winning of life and that God’s kingdom will draw near (v. 31). It is also the church’s vocation to hold before us those behaviors that we might call “mature fruit.” It is the calling of the church and individual members thereof to keep alert for these fruits and glimpses of promise keeping in a world that has long preferred varieties of sedation except in moments of high drama. “Be on the alert, don’t let yourself be dulled,” for opportunities will come your way and you will win life, says Jesus. Alert for signs of the presence and the coming of the kingdom, yes. But alert also for opportunities to testify that the same Jesus who is Lord of life has commanded his disciples to “give food to the other servants at the right time. Blessed is that slave whom his Lord, when he comes, will find doing just that” (12:42–43). A sermon about the bearing of mature fruit and discerning opportunities for witness that come to us will be true to the intent of this chapter. (Henrich, S. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] V3 pp. 447–450)
In our day, too, there is a plague of pseudo-religious prophets claiming that the end is at hand. Pastors and teachers will need to distinguish biblical teachings and sound biblical interpretation from the sensational claims carried by the media and popular religious best-sellers. Jesus did not call his disciples to be prophets but to disregard the false prophets; do not be led astray, and do not go after them (see v. 8).
The gospel offers not a way of predicting the end of the world but the spiritual resources to cope with adversity and hardship. In times of distress, “do not be terrified” (v. 9). On the other hand, following Jesus always exposes the faithful to opposition from the authorities. If in every generation there are those whose religion is simply a form of escapism into the fantasy of futurism, every generation has also had its courageous and prophetic visionaries who devoted themselves completely to Jesus’ call to create community, oppose injustice, work for peace, and make a place for the excluded. Every generation, therefore, is called back to the teachings of Jesus by the examples of those who have suffered persecution and hardship because they dared to strive to live out Jesus’ call for a community that transcends social barriers, that cares for its least privileged, and that confronts abuses of power and wealth. These verses allow us to examine two visions of what it means to follow Jesus. One is focused on prophecies of the future and makes no difference in how one lives in the here and now. The other calls for such a commitment of life that those who dare to embrace it will find themselves persecuted by authorities.
As a parenthesis within the discourse on the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of Jerusalem, vv. 12–19 both warn the disciples of the ordeals that lie ahead and offer assurances. They will be arrested, persecuted, and brought to trial, but Jesus himself will give them the words they are to speak and a wisdom that their opponents cannot withstand. Therefore, they are not to prepare their defense in advance (v. 14) but endure the coming trials (v. 19).
The severity of the persecution is balanced by the certainty of God’s protection in a paradoxical fashion: “They will put some of you to death” (v. 16), “but not a hair of your head will perish” (v. 18). In Acts, the deaths of the martyrs confirm the wickedness of those who oppose the apostles, but God’s faithfulness remains beyond question. It is demonstrated repeatedly through the empowerment of the disciples’ witness, wondrous deliverances, and repeated triumphs over those who oppose their message. Nevertheless, the dangers and hardships for the faithful are real indeed. Truth is tested and faith is confirmed not in idle speculation but in the crucible of adversity. Those who wish to find a more vibrant religious experience, therefore, should look not for signs of the future but for signals that it is time to live by Jesus’ call for obedience here and now. (Culpepper, R. A. The Gospel of Luke. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 9, pp. 398–403)
There is a strange and sometimes jarring aspect of Jesus’ teachings. The very first thing is that he did not tell us comfortable Good News. Jesus’ Good News was all about a direct relationship with a very demanding but loving God. Jesus does not tell us all about how easy things are going to be for his followers. In fact, just the opposite.
The other underlying idea is about how we truly understand our relationship with Christ. If we see Christ only with rose colored glasses, we will miss a true connection one that is needed during times of stress and suffering. We need to see beyond our comfy world view to really see Christ.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
We need a deeper conviction and understanding of: The Gospel (Good News)
And Our Identity in Christ
Not what you expected? These two areas that make up our theology and faith in today’s church are considerably weak. I’m going to make a case for us and you can decide what to do with it. Either you’ll agree and begin adapting towards it, or you’ll dismiss it and go about your way. Both have strong implications.
First the Gospel (Good News)
In many cases I have heard and seen a watered-down version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s one that invites us into a comfortable, safe, and prosperous life. It’s a Gospel that fits into my comfy lifestyle and doesn’t require me to change the way I see the world around me…especially if I don’t “feel” as if it’s relevant in today’s society. This so-called “Gospel” isn’t really the Good News at all. It’s actually a version that has culturally formed to fit safely into our American lives. It’s no wonder why we’ve suggested that our schedules are too full to share our faith, or that we don’t engage in spiritual conversations because they make us uncomfortable! Why in the world would we adjust our schedules or step into uncomfortable places when our faith doesn’t demand this of us?!
So, what about the true Gospel? What happens when we truly understand its power? Simply put it has the power to transform people’s lives. When we truly understand what God has done for us through His Son Jesus, we can begin living for the first time; this Gospel has the ability to bring dead things back alive! It leads us into a place of worship. Worship is no longer only what we do on Sunday mornings, but it now affects all aspects of our lives including the way we give of ourselves, our money, the way we see our neighbors, and our desire to see more people know the King. This Gospel demands all of our lives and invites us to die to ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus every day. It’s a Gospel of becoming comfortably uncomfortable because our Lord commands to make disciples and join Him in His redemptive work of creation. The first disciples and early church gave up their lives because of their convictions; they understood the power of this Good News for the world. So my question for you and for those that you lead is: What do you truly believe about the Gospel, and what does it mean for your life?
Second, Our Identity in Christ
Who do you believe you are when things are difficult and you’re truly tested? When things fall apart in relationships, at work, or at home, who are you then? Do you believe what the world and others say about you or what God says about you? Do you know exactly what God says about you?
My pastor always says, “The truest thing about you is what God says is true.”
Here are a few things that God says about you: You are loved (John 3:16). You are adopted (Eph 1:5). You are united with Christ (1 Cor 6:17). You are a new creation (2 Cor: 5:17). You are God’s masterpiece (Eph 2:10)!
And that’s just to name a couple…I could keep going as the list goes on and on! God is outside of space and time. He doesn’t just know your future, he’s already there! Not only that, but He is for you, not against you. The God of the universe knows the details of your life, He cares deeply about them and He even created you in His image!
Not only that, but you are a missionary. Jesus came to us on a rescue mission as a missionary to seek and save the lost. When we put our faith in Him as our Lord and Savior, we become more and more like Him (It’s called our Sanctification process). Colossians 3:3 says we’ve died to this current life, but our real life is hidden in Christ with God. This means we are becoming more and more like Christ…and Christ, well, He was a missionary!
The truest thing about you is what God says is true. It’s not necessarily what others say about you or even how you feel about yourself sometimes. We all must take another level of understanding when it comes to our identities…we are more than conquerors! My question for you is: Who do you really say you are? And, is it what God says about you?
As you can see, almost every concern can simply be addressed by a deeper understanding of the Gospel and our Identity in Christ. Once we are there and have addressed these, we can then move into a place of Equipping. Which, by the way, is what church leaders are called to do (Eph 4).
That being said, until we address this watered-down version of the Gospel and the current Identity Crisis, we see in the American Church today, I believe we are going to continue to see culture have more influence on the Church than the Church on culture. God has tasked us as salt and light in a world that is desperate for truth and hope. His solution for making His glory known throughout the world is the Church. For better or for worse, we are the bride of Christ.
Now, we just have to decide what we’re going to do… (http://www.fiduciacommunity.com/blog/where-did-evangelism-go-part-2/)
Does your church make you feel uncomfortable? Of course, who wants that? There’s definitely a part of me that wants church to be comfortable, not uncomfortable. I want church to feel like home away from home. I want to feel safe in church. I want it to quench my thirst and validate my feelings and make me ready to face the week. But too often I treat church like a gas station. I pull up, park, and wait to get filled up.
Sam Allberry writes in his book Why Bother With Church?
There’s a sense in which church is meant to be hard work. It is not driven by self-interest…In fact, the very things that make church hard work are often the things that make it great. (Why Bother With Church? And Other Questions About Why You Need It and Why It Needs You [The Good Book Company, 2016], p. 72)
He goes on to say that church is hard work because we are called to look not to our own interests when we walk through those church doors but to look to the interests of others. Church isn’t there primarily to provide a service for us but to build up and serve others (Phil. 2:4).
Why Church Is Hard Work
Putting the interests of others first is hard work. It goes against the grain of our corrupted natures to be first and foremost self-serving. This means we are servants, not consumers. This makes church inherently an uncomfortable place.
Sam Allberry writes,
It takes effort to not be selfish, to value others’ needs above our own and to put the rest of the congregation before ourselves. It goes against every one of our default settings to be like this to others, and it also goes against everyone else’s to be like this to you. None of this comes naturally to any of us. (Why Bother With Church? p. 72-73)
As sinners, what tends to feel the most comfortable is our sin. It’s what we’re born with and what we’ve lived with for years and what whispers in our ear that selfishness is a kind of survival technique. It takes outside forces to show us the corrupted parts of ourselves. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that being in Christ means the shedding of the old man, the renewing of spirit and mind, and the putting on of the new-creation (Eph. 4:22-24). These aspects of being in Christ are not commandments but facts, statements of truth, of what happens to believers as a result of their union with Christ.
Like it or not, we’ve all got multiple personality disorder. The old sinner in all of us is grumpy and selfish. He or she wants to sit in the easy chair with a favorite snack watching his or her favorite show without being bothered by anyone. Deceitful desires make war with the emerging new saint, the one that is formed from the renewal of spirit and mind worked in us by the Holy Spirit. Church is where we hear of the transformative gospel that changes us. This is why a church that faithfully preaches the gospel will make us feel uncomfortable sometimes.
An Uncomfortable Church Is a Church Becoming Beautiful
But the beauty is that church, in all the ways it is uncomfortable and difficult, is forming us into better image bearers of God. In our pursuit of others, we find (often to our surprise) great satisfaction and joy. As usual, God rights what has been turned upside down by sin. It is in loving God and loving others that we actually find joy and are served in return. This is exampled for us by Christ himself, who tells us that his joy is made complete in us (Jn. 15:11).
The stripping of the old self, like shedding an old skin, is a painful and difficult process. It also can’t be done alone. We need the Holy Spirit, who works through the preaching of the Word, and we need others. This isn’t what I would call comfortable. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t validate our deceitful desires nor give us the satisfaction of being allowed to do whatever we want. But it does and should change us to be image bearers of our great savior and better witnesses to the wonderful gospel that frees us to be truly who God made us to be. Although difficult, God’s commands are good for us. God’s love is so great that he has given us a church where this can happen. (https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/articles/why-church-isnt-comfortable-and-shouldnt-be)
Praying the prayer of the NYC Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge sounds heartwarming when a congregation is safe and its position secure. But praying this prayer when the congregation is at risk and its mission uncertain can bring new life – and even a Second Coming of sorts – to a dispirited congregation: “Show me where you want me to go, Lord and help me not to get in Your way.”
Did you hear the story of the group cloning Jesus from DNA extracted from holy relics? According to the story, The Second Coming Project is a not-for-profit organization devoted to bringing about the Second Coming of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, as prophesied in the Bible, in time for the 2,000th anniversary of his birth. Our intention is to clone Jesus, utilizing techniques pioneered at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, by taking an incorrupt cell from one of the many Holy Relics of Jesus’ blood and body that are preserved in churches throughout the world, extracting its DNA, and inserting into an unfertilized human egg (zoocyte), through the now-proven biological process called nuclear transfer. The fertilized egg, now the zygote of Jesus Christ, will be implanted into the womb of a young virginal woman (who has volunteered of her own accord), who will then bring the baby Jesus to term in a second Virgin Birth.” If you have heard about this – you should also know this is a well-known Internet hoax!
If you surf the Internet, perhaps you came across this story: In an interview for 60 Minutes in 1994, Janet Reno (or Bill Clinton or Ken Starr) defined a cultist as “someone who has a strong belief in the Bible and the Second Coming of Christ; who frequently attends Bible’s studies; who has a high level of financial giving to a Christian cause.” These cultists also supposedly have accumulated survival foods and have a strong belief in the Second Amendment, as well as distrust big government. Don’t believe it. Janet Reno was never interviewed by 60 Minutes in 1994. She never made this statement. This is another Internet hoax.
The truth about the Second Coming of Christ lies somewhere between the rabid arguments among the various tribulation theorists, the rants of bughouse square raconteurs and the quiet deliberations of thoughtful people reflecting on the vile conduct that now passes for our popular culture. As I reflect on these things, two truths emerge: no thief ever fully telegraphed his intentions (so some of us will be truly surprised) and the church has never been spared persecution (so some of us will truly go through intense suffering).
I may be the only preacher who hasn’t read at least one book in the Left Behind series. Depending upon your personal theology and the climate in your congregation, you may want to mention this series in some way in your sermon. One thing is certain about the theme of the second coming: conversation about this topic rises in direct proportion to the level of uncertainty about world events.
People in the South believe more strongly than those in other parts of the country in a supernatural end to the world, according to a 2001 Barna Research poll. The survey showed: 40 percent of Americans—and 49 percent of Southerners—believe “the physical world will eventually end someday as a result of some type of supernatural intervention.” Among people who believe the world will end, almost two-thirds said they believe it is “very likely” that Jesus Christ will reappear on Earth; 15 percent rated it “somewhat likely” Among Southerners, 73 percent said it is “very likely” Jesus will appear. (Barna Research Group)
“Preacher, what do you think of the signs of the times?” said one of the retired farmers who sat in the grain elevator watching their sons and grandsons work the harvest. We’d just heard Alexander Haig (who was Secretary of State at the time) say, “There are worse things to go through than a nuclear war.” I paused a bit, and it got real quiet in the elevator’s office. “I think your question is a song of the time, Harold. People are scared because the folks who are supposed to be in charge are speaking like fools and acting worse,” I said. “Nobody’s arguing with that, Preacher,” said another old timer. “Reminds me of the time when we used to take turkeys from our farms and send them up to Washington. Looks like some folks may be fixin’ to do it all over again,” he added. .
When my daughter entered second grade, she got a young teacher who had some very specific ideas on how to structure a classroom. He believed that if he terrified the students enough in the first few weeks, they would behave and then he could do what he needed to do with them without discipline problems. My daughter, however, did not respond well to this approach, and this child who loved school began to beg not to go and be sick to her stomach. As we entered into conversations with the teacher and the principal, we tried to explain to the teacher that different students learn in different ways. The principal helpfully tried to teach him that some students need the strict discipline while others become model students by forming relationships with their teachers and therefore want to do well to please them. I feel the same way about much of the discussion about the end times. Some of it seems to be aimed to terrify people into behaving so they will be saved, and there is scriptural justification for that. But for other people, the formation of a relationship with Jesus is what leads them onto a new way of living to give God delight. The church needs to tell both stories.
Instead of causing us to speculate about the timing, belief in the Second Coming should lead us to prepare ourselves for that day of judgment. In the nineteenth century, many Americans turned to phrenologists to help them keep their wayward tendencies in check. In Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, R. Laurence Moore tells about how countless Americans believed that the bumps on their heads were indications of their strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, thousands consulted with phrenologists, who were presumably trained and skilled in the art of interpreting the bumps. The thinking was that bumps on a particular place on a person’s head meant that the person possessed certain positive characteristics, such as generosity. In contrast, bumps on other locations of the head were taken to be indicators of personality weaknesses, such as sloth. As a result, thousands of Americans paid phrenologists to study their heads in order to become better aware of their personality tendencies in order to encourage and develop their positive traits while at the same time restraining their negative tendencies.
According to the Russian newspaper Pravda (3/30/04), Jesus Christ already has come again. In fact, he was born in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir and was baptized in March of this year. The Orthodox priest in that village decided to name his own son Jesus Christ, primarily to see how people would react. Another priest was initially invited to perform the baptism for the child, but he declined. Eventually the boy’s father baptized the baby himself. The child’s first words reportedly were “na” (“take it”) and “dai” (give). Some believe those first words are meant to show that in order to survive in this world one needs not only to give but must also be willing to take. Shortly after the birth of that Jesus Christ, two other Jesuses were also born in that village.
When it comes to the return of Jesus, many people want precise predictions. According to ananova.com (4/25/04), Russian weathermen are now being threatened with fines if they make inaccurate forecasts. In fact, if a meteorologist repeatedly makes wrong predictions, he can even be thrown into jail, if Russia’s Emergency Situations Minister gets his way. The minister blames the weathermen for costing the government millions of dollar each year when the government rushes out relief squads and supplies to areas that are supposed to be affected by severe storms, only later to discover that the allocation of resources was entirely unnecessary because the storms never came to pass. Earlier this year meteorologists in Irkutsk insisted that flooding in their region was a distinct possibility. The government minister, though, threatened them with harsh penalties if it turned out they were wrong.
Although some people strive fervently to calculate the time of Jesus’ return, ultimately we are called upon to realize that God has chosen to keep us ignorant about the time until it happens. In that respect, the subject of the Second Coming would be an appropriate part of an actual book that is called The Encyclopedia of Ignorance. The author explains that while other encyclopedias seek to accumulate and present all the information that is known, The Encyclopedia of Ignorance highlights all the subjects where our knowledge is incomplete, such as the creation of the universe, the puzzling ways that gravitation works, and what the inside of the sun is like.
If you know people who have a maid or housekeeper come to clean their house, then you’re probably aware of what those homeowners do before the cleaners arrive. Many people thoroughly clean their house themselves before the maid arrives, not wanting the cleaner to see the amount of dirt and clutter that they had allowed to accumulate. In a similar way, when Jesus comes, we don’t want him to see the dirt and clutter that we’ve allowed to fill our lives. The trouble, of course, is that unlike with a maid, we don’t know exactly when Jesus will arrive. The logical solution, therefore, is to start our interior housecleaning right away.
It is so difficult to sort out what Jesus means by “war and rumors of wars.” We are left to wonder if there was an age when such violence didn’t occur. In Credo, William Sloane Coffin points out that the historian Will Durant estimated that in all of recorded human history only twenty-nine years can be described as free of war.
Newsweek (5/24/04) reported the results of a poll it conducted concerning people’s beliefs regarding the Second Coming. They found that 36% believe that Revelation contains “true prophecy,” while 47% say it is “metaphorical.” The survey revealed that 55% think the faithful will be taken into heaven at the Rapture. Of all Americans, 74% believe that Satan exists; among evangelicals the percentage is 93%. And 17% indicate that they believe the end of the world will occur during their lifetime.
There is a Jewish tradition about when the Messiah will come. In an essay titled “Tikun Olam: Mending the World,” Charles A. Kroloff tells about how at each Passover a legend is told that Elijah the prophet was homeless. According to the tradition, Elijah announced that he would return to earth once during every generation disguised as a poor, oppressed person. He would then appear at the doors of Jewish homes, and depending on how he was treated, he would determine if humanity had improved enough to expect the coming of the messianic age.
One of the most difficult aspects of the Second Coming is the patience that we are exhorted to have. In Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Peter Gomes observes how difficult patience can be for us: “Patience implies passivity, and we wish not to be passive, we wish not merely to be spectators at somebody else’s spectacle of achievement. We want to do what it takes to get things done.” The message of the Second Coming, though, is that it is Jesus, not us, who accomplishes the ultimate victory.
After approximately two thousand years, a fervent interest in the Second Coming persists. One indication of that is the huge success of the Left Behind series. Authors of that series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, made the cover of Newsweek (5/24/04) as the headline announced how they had sold more than sixty-two million books in their on-going apocalyptic series. Who are buying all those books? Apparently it’s not the people who live in the big cities on the coasts. Rather the publisher, Tyndale, says that 71% of the readers are from the South and the Midwest, with just 6% from the Northeast. Tyndale reports that the typical reader of the series is a 44-year-old born-again Christian woman, married with kids, living in the South. In all, about one in eight Americans has read at least some of these end-time novels.
In our Luke passage for this week, we begin by hearing that some were talking about how the temple had beautiful stones and gifts that had been dedicated to God. Were they in awe that people loved God so much that they were willing to give their very best? Were they discussing whether or not those stones really were the right stones to have in that particular section of the building? Were they holding the temple up as a beautiful building that no one else had, that was sacred in and of itself, that should be worshipped in and of itself? Were they about to get into an argument about who had given the most beautiful stones?
Often this is how we treat our own church buildings today. We turn them into idols that we worship instead of looking to Jesus. We get angry with each other for daring to recommend that we move a picture that has been in that same place for decades, because so and so’s Aunt Mildred donated that before she died sixty years ago. We march into the sanctuary and tell visitors to find another place to sit if they should happen to have wandered into “our seat.” We don’t need to fear hatred or persecuting from society as a whole for our faith. We’re busy doing that to each other within our church buildings.
Jesus tells us that during these times of persecutions and arrests, we will be given the chance to testify but shouldn’t prepare a defense in advance. God will give us the words, through the Holy Spirit, that we are supposed to say. How often are we willing in our own lives to wait for God to speak and tell us His will? How often are we willing to pray diligently for someone or a situation, day after day, week after week?
A member of my congregation stood up during joys and concerns one week and said that she had been praying for 20 years that a relative of hers would turn to Christ. And the week before, he had, and that very day was at a church in his own town, worshipping God and attending Sunday school classes about what it means to be baptized. She explained later that there were times that she felt like God wasn’t listening, but that there were other times in which she knew that she was probably the only person in the world who was praying for this person’s salvation. So many other members of the family had long since written him off, and he had alienated so many people in his life (and actually, was not very nice to her) that she felt called to pray for him. When she announced it, she was excited, but downplayed her action in praying diligently for so many years. “This is what we should do for one another,” she simply said.
Jesus’ religious view of the End Times has been replaced by scientific End Times scenarios, such as the sun’s burning out; a collision with an asteroid, comet or planet; or other cosmic disaster. In the film The Day After Tomorrow civilization is threatened by the results of global warning. In place of the temple, so admired by the disciples, the towering skyscrapers of Los Angeles and New York are subject to destruction, and the Statue of Liberty threatened by a huge tidal wave. Following the gigantic storms comes a deep freeze that kills everyone caught outdoors north of what is approximately the Mason Dixon Line. All this could have avoided our scientist hero says, but because of commercial interests, our leaders, in the film represented by the Vice President, would not listen. This, and other film apocalypses, is different from what Jesus talked about, in that according to science, humans can control events if they act early enough—or, as in this particular movie, they can learn from their mistakes and, using science, survive and rebuild and replace what was lost. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke of events as totally under the control of the Creator God who would wrap up all events when the Son came to judge all nations.
“Most men prefer and strive for the present, we for the future.” (Ambrose)
“We know not what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future.” (Willis J. Ray)
“If faith puts us on the road, hope keeps us there.” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p. 18)
“In the first advent God veiled his divinity to prove the faithful; in the second advent he will manifest his glory to reward their faith.”(John Chrysostom)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth, says the Lord.
People: The former things shall not be remembered.
Leader: The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.
People: The lion shall eat straw like the ox.
God of Grace and Mercy, we confess that in the midst of our busy lives, we often overlook you and how you want us to live. We spend a lot of time on our reputations and making a name for ourselves, but we forget to call upon your name. Forgive us for straying from you, O God, and restore us to your way. Grant us your Holy Spirit that we may learn your will. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We bring our offerings before you today, O God. We humbly pray that you will use our gifts for the work of your Kingdom. Show us how to reach out to others in need, bringing them into your fold. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
God our Redeemer and Sustainer, because Jesus Christ interceded on our behalf, we come before you today confident that you hear us when we pray. Help us pray today, that our prayers may be in line with your will.
We pray for our broken and sinful world. We know that we do not live in the glorious Eden you created. But we also know that you seek to change and transform us, and that you always love us. Bless all of humanity and pour out your Holy Spirit on those around the world worshipping you today, and upon those who do not yet know you. We pray for those areas of the world that are war-torn or shell-shocked from ongoing violence. We pray for peace for our world.
We pray for our nation. We pray for our leaders at all levels of government, those who have been serving and those newly elected. Be with our leaders who make our laws and represent our nation to the world. Give them the wisdom to make decisions according to your will and your ways.
We pray for our community and our church. We thank you for the many congregations gathered together this morning in our city, affirming that through we have different names and different denominations, we all are your children and part of the body of Christ. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.