Luke 21:5 – 17 A kick in the teeth and comfort in old hymns


A sermon preached on November 14th, 2010 based upon Luke 21:5 – 17

This is not a comforting passage, at least, not in the usual sense of the word.  The temptation for me was to go and search for another passage.  This one comes more like a kick in the teeth.

To put it in context, Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jerusalem two days earlier.   The earth is shaking beneath their feet.  Jesus has told them it will turn out badly.  It isn’t hard to see; the the opposition is rising in feverous rage, and in three days, they will have Jesus nailed to a cross.

So its not hard to understand the need of those present with Jesus to find something that they can hold onto, some comfort comforting sign that things aren’t as bleak as they appear – that things will turn out just fine after all.

Sooner or later, we call can identify.

They are in the Temple Courtyard.  Their gaze is captured by the impressively beautiful stone work, which expresses the best of their country, the best of what human beings are capable, not to mention, the highest expression of their faith.  The temple holds the very presence of the holy of holies.

It’s so beautiful, so solid. Surely there is reassurance to be found here.  The God this Temple is pointing us to won’t let us down, will he, Jesus?   Surely, Jesus, we can put our trust in God to make everything turn out right.

They are looking for re-assurance, and instead, Jesus gives them a kick in the teeth.

Not one stone will remain on top of another.  It will all come crashing down. It will all fall apart.  

His listeners are horrified. Not the Temple?!

Well, if this must happen, at least tell us when.  Give us a handle on what to expect, some inside knowledge to get us through.  

Jesus refuses to offer this sort of assurance either. The time is unknown. Anybody who claims to know when this will happen doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And then he starts to pile on.  There will be earthquakes, and plagues, and wars and famines.  You will think you’ve reached the end, but you won’t be there yet.  Not only that, if you thought that somehow you would be spared from the suffering to come, think again:   If you follow me, you will be persecuted, tortured. Some of you will be murdered. You can count on it.  Even your family will turn against you — hate you.

You can see why I might want to avoid this passage.

And then in the end, finally some reassurance:  “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”   But Jesus has already told them that some of them will be killed.    So the reassurance isn’t quite the sort they’ve been looking for.

There is a way in which Christianity is a rather brutal religion.

We try to make it nice.   But at the center of faith is NOT a beautiful, inspiring Temple; no, at the center of our faith is a cross — a savior who gets stripped naked, whipped and mocked and nailed to that cross, dying a horrific death.

A Savior, who as it says in Philippians 2, “did not cling to equality with God but emptied himself, taking the form of a lowly slave, obedient to death on the cross.”

In our need to cling, we gloss this over.   Three hundred years later, when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and the empire became “Christian”, it became all the easier to miss the harsh truth.    The persecutions largely stopped; we build cathedrals to reassure us.  We can’t help it; we grasp and grasp for something to hold on to.

We try to convince ourselves that we will be safe and secure from all alarm if we can just practice a healthy lifestyle.   And for a time it seems to work.  But eventually the body starts to give out, no matter how well we eat and how regularly we exercise.

We try to put our faith in our own faith, our own conviction, our won virtue.   But life has a way revealing to us that we aren’t nearly as strong, nor as good, nor as full of faith as we tried to convince ourselves.

I found myself recalling the words to old hymns as I wrote this sermon.

“Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Our faith isn’t located in ourselves.  We ourselves will come tumbling down, just like the stones of the Temple.

Those of us who are parents try to put our faith in the children we raise.   I may die, but at least my children will live on; I may be a failure, but at least my children will accomplish something enduring in this world.

But a faith such as this fails to hold us up.

I think of Rev. Renee McCleary, our district superintendent,  learning this week that her 42 year old son had died.

Thomas Dorsey, the jazz musician, received word one night while out on the road performing that is wife and the child she was carrying had both suddenly died.   In great darkness, he penned these words:

“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

We cling to our accomplishments in this world, the trophies we win.  Surely, these prove my life is worthwhile    But over time, the trophies don’t mean much; it’s no use clinging to them.

Another old hymn reminds us of the only place we can cling:

“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame; and I love the old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.  So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchanged it some day for a crown.”

We cling to one another, as well we should.   But even the most reliable supports eventually leave us.  I think of the Haeussler family, living on the edge of poverty, facing countless health concerns, time and again coming back from the edge.  This past week, however, George, the one seemingly strongest, died in his sleep from a heart attack.  “I’ve lost my rock,” cried his wife Carol.

And so she finds herself raised up on a cross.   Because Jesus refused to cling, emptying himself, obedient unto death, even death on a cross, her raised cross brings her into communion with this same Jesus:

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!  E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,  Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to thee,  nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!”

Following the kick in the teeth, these words:  “But not a hair of your head will perish.   By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  The old hymn comes to mind:  “The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”

Life is about letting go. There is no escaping.  In the end we lose everything.   But there is a Savior who stands with us in the abyss, having let go of everything before us.

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;  the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.  When other helpers fail and comforts flee,  Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

Immediately before this passage, Jesus does see something that impresses him.  It’s not the Temple’s masonry, but an old widow who quietly gives away all that she has — two copper coins.      In the end, we stand before the abyss, and all we can do is offer ourselves like this poor widow.   And the Lord will lead us home.    

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