This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday, 11/13 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The gospel text was Luke 21:5-19.
A while back, Ray and I watched the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy." It is the story of Michelangelo and the conflicts and joys he experienced as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To begin with, Michelangelo felt ill equipped for the task for which Pope Julius had commissioned him. He was a sculptor, not a painter.
Additionally, during his work on the chapel, Michelangelo experienced significant barriers to his artistic inspiration from society, his family, the Pope, and the Church leadership of the day. To produce the marvelous frescoes on the chapel's ceiling, he worked day and night for four years on top of scaffolding lying on his back! What a feat! In order to produce the wonderfully, amazing work of art, Michelangelo had to endure agony before experiencing the ecstasy of the finished work. How people marveled at the glory of the frescoes. Even today, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel are considered some of the finest examples of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo kept insisting that he was a sculptor not a painter. Imagine what he could have done if he had considered himself a painter.
Today's gospel story from Luke, could also be called, "The Agony and the Ecstasy." In it, Jesus describes the agony that Jesus’ followers will endure due to opposition and obstacles they will experience in their lives of faith. But the ecstasy of it all is the presence of Jesus with them.
For the Jews, the temple was an amazing edifice. It was the center of Jewish social, religious and political life. On top of that, it was the place where God lived. Jesus predicted the temple's destruction, which was unthinkable! Jesus' hearers asked the obvious questions. When is this going to happen and what do we look for to know it's time?
Have you noticed that Jesus never seems to give direct answers to the questions posed to him? Rather than focusing on a special sign and when that would occur, Jesus emphasizes the importance of bearing witness to God's work.
Jesus outlines three signs symbolizing the time, which is one of agony. The first is the appearance of false messiahs and false calculators of time and place (v. 8). False messiahs preceded and followed the time of Jesus. In our day, we have seen plenty as well. Are you familiar with the expression about "drinking the Kool-Aid," referring to the mass killing of the followers of Jim Jones in Guyana?
The second sign is wars, tumults and international conflicts (vv. 9-10). Haven't these always been a part of the world as well? Just look at the number of conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries and it makes your head spin. Some of the violence in scripture has shocked those of us who read the Old Testament devotionally or in a Bible study. Certainly, every generation has experienced such conflicts and indeed wondered if they were the final generation before the end.
Jesus' third sign is natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and plagues with cosmic terror (v. 11). These too have always been with us. In 79 AD, not long after Jerusalem's destruction, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the Roman city of Pompeii. Certainly, people then must have thought that the end was coming soon. Just think back to what we’ve seen in the past few years—Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, the Fukishima earthquake and tidal wave, the tornadoes in Oklahoma and throughout the Midwest and most recently the hurricane devastating Haiti. Then on top of it all was the rancor displayed in the campaigns for President. Do you get the feeling that we’re riding on a cosmic roller coaster? If you think things are going to calm down, get ready to clench that grab bar. Jesus tells us there is more to come!
Jesus outlines the fearsome persecution his followers will experience. Jesus' disciples will be arrested, persecuted, handed over and brought before kings and governors. We see much of this played out in the book of Acts. Jesus' followers suffered at the hands of Jews and Gentiles. In today’s world, Christians are being persecuted in China, the Sudan, Egypt and other places throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
However, when things seem the bleakest, Jesus provides three counter-measures to all that is happening. The first is that persecution would provide an opportunity for witness (vv. 13-15). Really Lord, can't we just share the gospel in a time of quietness and peace?
That may not sound like such good news, except Jesus would give his people the right words of testimony and a wisdom that is unlike any other. This does not mean that I can just stand up on a Sun. morning and say whatever comes into my head for a sermon. Sometimes I wish it was that simple, but I still need to spend time in prayer and preparation. What Jesus is talking about is not simple preaching or sharing one’s faith. It is for those who are on trial for their faith. Jesus promises his continual presence with his followers during these times of trial.
The second promise is that not a hair of Jesus' followers' heads would perish (v. 18). What does Jesus mean here? How can that be when Jesus described such terrible persecution? We've heard the stories of how many Christians have been martyred throughout time. Does this mean they weren't doing God's will, that they had somehow missed the boat?
Since Jesus said that some would be executed, this promise can't mean complete physical safety. What Jesus was guaranteeing is that nothing would happen to his people outside of God's range of operation. God knows all about what we're going through and is with us in it.
It's a little puzzling as well when Jesus promises that nothing will spell the end of life for the faithful (v. 19). The emphasis here is on the resurrection life that no one can take away from us--the life in Christ that started at our baptism, continues throughout this life and into the next life.
The third promise is the instruction to endure. That does not mean hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Rather than passive waiting or placid exercise of patience, Jesus is speaking of actively dealing with life and the circumstances that we face. He is talking about endurance intertwined with a hope that has God as its object and its expected outcome being divine intervention. To use a sports analogy, the best defense is a strong offense. Needless to say, if you want a challenging life, follow Jesus. It is not for the faint of heart.
Where are we today in relationship to what's written in the gospel and what are we supposed to do about it? Do we bemoan the aging membership of our congregation? Do we wonder or fear what life will look like with our President-elect? Do we wonder what our future in Bemus Point/Mayville? Who will take over when our older members are gone? Are we testifying to friends, co-workers, people we meet and neighbors in our community about God's love? If we hope in God, and allow him to use us, it will be impossible to keep quiet and to keep people away from God's church.
We may experience pain and suffering along the way and in our witness of Christ, but God promises us the ecstasy of his presence with us individually and as his people in this place. Amen!