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The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
14 November 2010

A Sermon Preached by Ms Rebecca Barnes, Seminarian

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Malachi 3:13-4:2a, 5-6
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

In the Name of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity - Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I was in my apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. I had just eaten breakfast and was getting ready to head to work. The television was on, as it was every morning, so that I could catch the latest news on CNN. “Something is going on at the Trade Center,” I shouted into the other room. “They’re saying that plane flew into one of the towers...that can’t be...what was a plane was doing there?”  Before I could say another word, right before my eyes, I watched as United flight 175 hit the South Tower. It was surreal. I felt more like I was watching a Tom Clancy movie, than the morning news, and yet there it was right before my eyes, instinctively, I knew – “Oh God,” I shrieked, “we’re being attacked!”

And so began the morning of September 11, 2001. A day that most Americans will long remember  –  much in the way many remember the shooting of President Kennedy, and can tell you exactly where they were – that day for many, perhaps especially those who were here in New York, will be remembered as a day we thought the world was ending.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, this is just one of many tragedies that one can recall, tragedies that include: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; bombings in Madrid, London and Mumbai; the tsunami in the Indian Ocean; Hurricane Katrina; a global economic crisis; the earthquake in Haiti; and a massive oil spill in the Gulf, to name a few.

What do we make of these seemingly apocalyptic happenings - these events of “biblical proportion?” Are they signs that we living in end times? There are those would argue that we are.  Throughout the scriptures however, we hear numerous times, that no one knows the hour, for indeed it is not for us to know; only God knows. What Jesus tells us is:  “Beware that you are not led astray...Many will come in my name and say that ‘I am He’ and ‘the time is near.’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified...there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

Our texts today are not easy ones. Indeed, the Gospel lesson itself gives one pause and one might easily ask, “Where is the ‘good news’ in this?” for upon first hearing, it seems dark, troubling and despite Jesus’ words not to be terrified, that may be exactly our initial reaction.

In the collect appointed for today we prayed:

“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ... 

So how do we read these texts? To whom was the Gospeller directing this narrative? What did it mean for them? What does it mean for us? In what seems to be a text full of “bad news,” it’s easy to miss the light – the message of the blessed hope of everlasting life that we are called to embrace and hold fast to.

The word Apocalyptic, derived from the Greek term “apokalupsis” – meaning to reveal or uncover – describes the genre of writing that we see in today’s Gospel. This literary form was common in the ancient Near East and there are numerous examples of it both within and outside of the canon of scripture. Jesus’ Apocalyptic Discourse, as this passage is often called, is seen in most of the Gospels – providing a conclusion to Jesus’ ministry and teaching, and a transition into the passion narrative.

It is estimated that the Gospel of Luke was written in approximately 95CE, about 15 years, give or take, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE, as opposed to Mark’s account which is considered the earliest, having been written just prior to it. Renowned Professor of Preaching and New Testament, Fred Craddock explains that, “major historical crisis triggered apocalyptic thinking” and that this was the historical event that “prompted the apocalyptic speech of Jesus [that we have in our text today]. In other words, in an apocalypse of this type, what is going on – is mixed with what is really going on, – history being set in the larger context of God’s purpose...”(1) He goes on to say that while this style may seem strange to us, it really is a “dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God.”(2) That indeed in the face of prolonged pain and suffering, when no foreseeable relief is in sight, the faithful turn their eyes towards heaven not only for revelation of God’s will but a vision of a future time – an age to come – when suffering will be no more.(3)

Unlike parallel texts in the other Gospels, Luke depicts Jesus foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple while standing in it. The opening lines state: “some were speaking about the temple, about how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” and Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.”

Those who hear him immediately ask, what will be a sign that this is going to happen and when will it happen. He goes on to give signs leading up to the destruction of the temple which will be that “there will be those who will want to led [you] astray...[for] many will come in my name and say that ‘I am He’ and ‘the time is near’[but] do not go after them.” Secondly, “when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified.” And here in lies an interesting facet. Jesus says that these things must happen first, but the end will not follow immediately. Thirdly, “there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues;” and fourthly, “there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” which Jesus says later (in a portion that is not part of our lectionary) will culminate with “the appearance of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” – this image mirroring the depiction of Jesus’ ascension.

What Jesus assures in this passage, is that the end of times is in the future—that the end time “will not follow immediately,” but rather he tells the disciples, this “will give you an opportunity to testify.”  He warns them that this will not be easy, that they “will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and that they will be persecuted for his Name’s sake. But, that they should not worry about preparing what they will say, for Jesus says, “I will give you words,” or more accurately, a mouth, “and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Nor will “a hair of your head perish... and by your endurance, you will gain your souls.” There is the assurance that he will be with them. Herein is perhaps a paradox, for he also warns that some will be put to death, which is exactly what was occurring at the time that Luke wrote his account and which we see further evidence of in his Acts of the Apostles. The message in Luke’s narrative may be that despite the persecution that the early church is starting to undergo they should remain faithful – steadfast - and persevere, that this is an opportunity to testify...or “it may mean that the persecutors can kill in a physical sense but in a far more important way, the disciples will be kept safe.” (4)

Many in the early church expected the immediate return of Christ. We see evidence of this in today’s epistle where members of the community in Thessaloniki are not working, but rather are being “busy bodies” and living in idleness. After all, many thought, why should we do anything, if Christ is returning imminently? But they are corrected and encouraged to follow the example that has been set by the apostles and not be weary in doing what is right.

What we see in these accounts though is the good news that with the incarnation of Jesus, the Kingdom has been ushered in. In this sense, from that time till our own, we all have been living in the last days, or the last eon, as the early church understood it. They, and we, live in a time that many theologians refer to as “Already/Not” yet that is that “Jesus brought the dawning of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ followers live between the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and its consummation. The church is ....a community that lives in the light and from the power of the kingdom of God.” (5)

In times of crisis and suffering people frequently ask why, where God in this, and look for signs. In the face of a preponderance of wars, disasters, and violence in our own time many make apocalyptic cries and claims of the end times. But we can rest in the assurance that through our baptism we have a new life in Jesus Christ - we live in the power of his resurrection, look for him to come again in glory, and being sealed by the Holy Spirit are marked as Christ’s own forever. Or as Paul put it, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20a).” We too are called to continue to persevere, “to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in others, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. We are to continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”(6)

And so we gather, coming together in the Eucharist to be strengthened and nourished with spiritual food and drink, to be renewed to go forth to love and serve and to do the work that God has given us to do in the world...the world that God so loves. So too we can heed the words of Jesus, not to be terrified, and can ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life; for it is in him that we live and move and have our being,(7) and we can indeed rest in his assurance... “that in your endurance, you will gain your souls, and not a hair of your head will perish.”  Amen.

1) Craddock, Fred B., “The Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus” from Luke (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991) 242-243
2) Craddock, 242-243
3) Craddock, 242-243
4) Craddock, 242-243
5) Allen, Diogenes, “The Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Sacraments” from Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 172-173
6) Baptismal Covenant, Book of Common Prayer (New York, Church Hymnal Corporation), 304-305
7) Reference: Acts17:28

 

© 2010 Rebecca Barnes