In his incarnation, death and resurrection our Lord Christ walks the same path he invites us and strengthens us to walk, and so we face fearful events and signs of tribulation without fear, witnessing by our walking as Christ walked and now walks beside us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 33, year C; texts: Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“There will be wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation.” There will be genocide and civil war in Africa and Syria. Slaughter in Afghanistan and Iraq. “There will be great earthquakes and portents and signs from heaven.” There will be typhoons in the Philippines, tsunamis in Southeast Asia, hurricanes in New Jersey and vicious tornadoes in Oklahoma. “There will be plagues and famines.” There will be AIDS and antibiotic-resistant germs, powerful influenza viruses, cancer seemingly everywhere the eye looks. Tens of thousands starving to death daily. Drought in once fertile places and melting ice caps.
Do not be terrified, our Lord Jesus says, these things will have to take place. And along with this, you may also face personal struggles directly related to your discipleship: even arrest, persecution.
And though that part of Jesus’ words doesn’t seem to apply to us as strongly in this country (though it certainly does to Christians elsewhere), this yearly excursion into the apocalyptic warnings of Jesus that we have each end of the Church Year is distressing and confusing. Far too many of our sisters and brothers in Christ focus most of their energy on proclaiming the end times and little on the grace of God Christ embodied for the world, and that troubles us. Yet, like virtually every generation before us since our Lord said these words, it’s hard not to hear them and then look at our newspapers or the Internet and tremble a bit.
“This is not the end, yet,” Jesus says. It won’t follow immediately. But in response to our forebear disciples’ small-town admiration of the beautiful Temple and rich appointments of the buildings of Jerusalem, Jesus says that while the end isn’t necessarily here, we might be wise not to depend on the institutions and works of our hands in this world to last forever. Stones do get thrown down upon stones, and human enterprise envisioned to endure for centuries can quickly become overgrown with grass and weeds.
What we must not forget, then, is the only thing that matters about all these words, these sayings, and that is just who it is who is saying them. Taking little bits of the Scriptures each week to read in worship is the only way we can do it – we can’t read the whole Bible each Sunday – but it sometimes causes us to focus on the external details of readings and forget the deeper core, the center of God’s written Word. And in these verses there is only one thing we need to look at, one idea to understand, one place we need to see: we need to turn our eyes to our Lord Jesus Christ, who speaks these words, and thereby changes their impact on us forever.
The lectionary preparers gave us the first hints that the most important thing in the face of apocalypse is the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen Christ who is with us.
You might have heard two such hints as we moved through our readings.
At the end of Malachi’s dire warnings of the flaming destruction of the wicked was a burst of the light of grace, a beam which Charles Wesley placed at the celebration of the birth of Jesus. “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” So says the LORD through Malachi. “Hail the heav’nborn Prince of Peace!,” says Charles Wesley. “Hail the Sun of righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.” Hark, you herald angels indeed.
And then we have this curiosity: when the lectionary preparers were considering a psalm for Christmas Day, they said, “We know – let’s assign Psalm 98. It’s perfect.” And Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98, known to us as “Joy to the World,” is also closely associated with the festival of the Nativity of Our Lord.
But then, when these same preparers of the lectionary considered this Sunday, these dire warnings from Malachi and Jesus, they also seem to have said, “We know – let’s assign Psalm 98. It’s perfect.” And so it is, and so they were correct.
Because God’s answer to the portents and disaster and tragedy and war and rampant disease and starvation and pain of the world is the coming of the Incarnate Son of God into that very chaos, that devastation. The answer of the Triune God to this world’s pain and brokenness is not to overpower it, or avoid it, or even to pull the children of God out of it, but to enter that pain and brokenness and through losing, through dying to it, bring healing and restoration and life.
So when we sing “Joy to the World” on a day like today, do not the words “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found,” do not these words sound different, feel different today than they do on Christmas morning? Is this not exactly what our Lord is saying in these words from Luke today? Is this not actually an Easter stanza, these words, as well as a Christmas one, and an apocalyptic one?
Our Eucharist each week is actually a living into and through the entire story of Christ embedded in the Church Year. The whole work of Christ, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and life in the Spirit, all are present in this moment each time we gather. We inhabit it all in this one moment, this open rift in time, and in that context we hear the various teachings and readings and Scripture passages assigned each week, and they never can be heard apart from this greater truth and reality.
So when this Incarnate One, the Son of God, turns to us today and says, “It’s going to be pretty bad out there at times for you, and for all,” he’s only saying what he already knows to be true himself, in his own body. And we cannot hear his words without remembering everything else we know about him, the one speaking.
And do you see how that changes this whole reading, to remember it is our beloved Lord Jesus Christ who speaks this word? That he calls us to endure what this world is as one who has already endured what this world is? That he promises to strengthen us and give us wisdom as One who has already made his way through the chaos, and in rising from the dead has begun to heal it?
When we know who it is who is speaking to us, then we can hear the grace in his words and promise, even on days like today, words like today.
So his first word today is: there is only One whom you should follow, One to whom you should listen, and that is me, your Lord and Savior.
This warning he gives today about people speaking falsely in his name isn’t about wondering who the Antichrist is, as if it’s one person. It’s about realizing there are many who will claim to speak on behalf of our Lord Christ who are not.
So here is our test: if anyone tells us an answer from God to the suffering and pain of this world that does not involve entering it fully and transforming it, even losing, in order that life might come through it, they are not of Christ. The world always looks for an easy path, but it does not exist. Our Lord walked the path he now reveals lies before us, and no one truly of Christ can tell us there is another.
And if anyone tells us that in the apocalyptic destruction that may be at the end of the world, and in the devastating pain and suffering that certainly are in these days there are some who are blessed by God and who will avoid such things because of that, they are not of Christ. The world always looks to those who suffer and seeks to blame, to explain, and to claim that those who do not suffer are the blessed ones. Our Lord, the blessed, Incarnate One, the Son of God, entered the chaos of the world on our behalf, suffered its worst, and permanently blessed all who likewise suffer, and if we’re going to follow this True One, we’re going to have to go there, too, as vulnerable as the Christ Child, as willing to lose as Jesus on the cross.
So be careful, he says, whom you listen to, whom you follow, especially if they say they’re from me. They might lead you astray.
But his second word to us today is: don’t be terrified.
Yes, this way of facing the pain and brokenness of the world with our lives and our work and our heart and our love and our bodies is a frightening way to consider, to live. But don’t be terrified, he says. Don’t be terrified, because none of this can ultimately harm you, for I am with you always. Don’t be terrified, because as he said in John’s Gospel: “take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)
The Son not only was born among us, entering this broken world, not only died facing it, he is risen and gives life: he has overcome the world in this. So we need not fear, though the earth shake and the mountains fall into the sea, though the nations rage. Christ has conquered the world.
His third word to us today is: this all will be our opportunity to testify, literally, to martyr, to witness. Our trust in the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen One who leads us through this wilderness, this world of destruction, not only gives us strength in this journey. It is a witness. We can become people who testify by our very selves that Christ has come and conquered the world, even if it is hard to see now.
Our grace under stress, our trust in the Lord, our willingness to be with others in their pain and suffering as the very grace of God, our courageous placing ourselves into the face of evil and holding the light of love high, this is our witness. Our testimony to the risen Christ who offers life to all.
Our Lord says to us, instead of fretting about how hard it is to live in this painful world, instead consider what a witness you can be when you do, the opportunity to be the word of grace from God in the midst of a broken world, the one who helps others see the Son of God in our midst, healing all.
And his last word to us today is: don’t worry about what you will say (or do), I will give you what you need. We don’t need to think about what we say, worry about not being brilliant speakers or gifted evangelists, fear that we aren’t brave enough or strong enough.
We have an opportunity every day to witness to the truth about what God is doing in this broken, suffering world, and God will give us what we need to do this witness. The words we need. The wisdom we lack. The strength we cannot find in ourselves. The courage that comes from the Spirit of God in our hearts.
This is our hope, always: we belong to Christ Jesus, and in that love nothing can separate us.
We need to hear these honest words each year which name the destructive reality that a world torn apart by sin is: wars, disasters, tragedies, disease, devastation. We would be liars if we denied this truth, and our part in making it.
But today we remember that we cannot talk about any of these things as if they exist apart from the reality that the Triune God has entered this world to redeem it from within, and we hear none of this except in the voice of our Lord who loves us enough to die for us, and in rising gives us new life, life that will one day fill the whole world.
It is a hard world, a frightening world. But we keep our eyes on Christ Jesus, who’s right in the middle of it already, holding out his hand that we might walk with him, and in our witness to others, lead the rest of the world to this life he is bringing.
In the name of Jesus. Amen