A sermon preached on November 17th, 2013 based upon Luke 21:1 – 19.
From our point of view, the passage we just heard is pretty hard to penetrate. It sounds so very dark, indeed despairing: describing a world violently coming unhinged, full of catastrophe and war – a world where those who call Jesus “Lord” are persecuted, betrayed by family and friends.
We recoil from this passage, and rightfully so. Where is the Good News in this?
In order to gain some insight as to where this passage comes from, it is necessary to try and imagine the world of the earliest Christians — the first generation that lived immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
As portrayed by Luke in his sequel to his Gospel, the Book of Acts, the first years of the church was an incredibly dynamic time. They lived with a vivid sense of the Holy Spirit empowering them to live together in an extraordinary community – one in which all the divisions and inequalities were overcome that separated and oppressed people: Men as more important than women; those considered slaves as being inferior to those who were free, the distinctions also of religion and culture, as in those separating Jews from Gentiles. All of these dividing walls, and forms of oppression were left behind, as the earliest Christians lived together as one, sharing everything they had in common.
The community he Holy Spirit created was one where love overflowed. As Luke describes it in Acts 2, the concept we take for granted of personal possessions simply disappeared. Sharing everything they had came easily, and so everyone was provided for, including the widows and orphans who in the larger society were often left destitute.
The abundance of love was powerful. The belief that would develop later on that it was Jesus alone who could do miracles, and that followers of Jesus shouldn’t expect to be able to do the same, didn’t exist. “Signs and wonders” were common place, as the sick were healed by prayer and the laying on of hands, and the lame walked.
The church grew in leaps and bounds, because there was no missing the fact that being a part of it changed lives profoundly, making people whole in unmistakable ways.
All of this was made possible in large part by the belief shared by all in the church that they were living at the very end of human history – that any day now Jesus would be returning in power and glory to establish His kingdom. In this context, it made perfect sense for them to give away all they had. To be attached to the things of this world when it was rapidly passing away was simply foolishness. And so in this context, the poor widow that Jesus praises for giving away all she has – her two copper coins – is simply doing what is in alignment with reality. It is the rich giving away only a small portion of what they have and clutching tightly to the rest who are being foolish, putting their attention and trust in something that isn’t real.
There was no need to do “long range planning” – in fact, long range planning of any kind was seen as simply a distraction to living out the Gospel in the present moment. The focus was to live in simple trust of the Lord, giving love away with no thought for what they might receive in return, and every opportunity given to them to share the good news of the savior Jesus Christ.
In our passage, people marvel at the huge stones with their ornate masonry that made up the Temple, but Jesus predicts they will all one day come crashing down. From the point of view of the early church the idea of devoting time and energy into building a house of worship made no sense. This world was coming to an end, and so they simply met in one another’s homes, or out in public, which worked fine and kept them from being weighed down with the anxiety that keeping up a building brings.
And so if we can imagine ourselves back in those times, perhaps we can see how the words Jesus spoke about the coming tribulations can be heard differently, not as doom and gloom, but simply stating the reality that it is foolish to become attached to the things of this world, and the necessity of staying focused on what matters – the things that truly give life.
“Do not be anxious about tomorrow… Seek ye first the kingdom of God…”
In short order this world of violence will be replaced by God’s blessed Kingdom.
Now although Luke is writing with those first years of the church in mind, describing wonderful dynamic quality of that earliest church, he actually wrote his two New Testament books 60 or 70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so he is several years removed from the time of which he is describing. The initial glow of the church with its extraordinary spiritual power transforming community has begun to fade. The church of the time of which he is writing finds it tough to hold onto the idea that Jesus is returning any day now. By necessity the church finds itself compelled to plan and to worry about tomorrow. There are procedures and rules and contingency plans to put in place and then to tweak that will sustain communal life for the long haul. Like Martha hosting Jesus in the story found only in Luke’s Gospel, it is hard to avoid becoming “anxious and troubled about many things” rather than, like Martha’s sister Mary, choosing the “one thing needful.” The Church is becoming an “institution” rather than a living, breathing Christ-Body.
So, how do you regain that original dynamic, in-the-moment experience of the earliest Church? Perhaps you try to rev up the belief that Jesus is indeed still about to return any day, which is perhaps partly what Luke is trying to do in this passage, and what Christians have attempted to do throughout two thousand years of Church History. Think, most recently of Brother Camping. Convinced of what he told them, they gave away all they had, and in certain ways lived for a time in a manner that resembled the first century Church. But then the date that was supposed to bring the end of the world came and went and they were left with the likelihood of many years left to live on this earth, the fact they had given away their savings meant in all likelihood that those remaining years would be spent with a great deal of anxiety over simple financial survival.
Although it is foolish, as Jesus himself said, to try and calculate when the world will come to an end, what is for certain is that the personal worlds of each one of us are coming to an end soon. It might be today, or it might be in fifty years, but either way, time is limited for sure. How do we live mindful of that fact so that we don’t fritter away the time given to us with anxiety and resentment and all the other things that block love, which is the one and only thing that matters?
I remember watching a program about World War II veterans who had served in combat. They talked about a certain freedom from anxiety they had known in the years since the war. They were able to take risks in business, for instance, without being terrorized at the thought that the business might fail and go bankrupt. From their point of view, hey, nobody’s shooting at me, so failing at a business was no big deal.
Rachel Naomi Remen similarly talks about how oftentimes people living with a life-threatening diagnosis describe that instead of feeling as though their stress level has gone up with the addition to their lives of all the work that had to be done to try to get well, they actually felt their stress level go down. A clarity came to them as to what truly matters and what doesn’t matter. They left behind the stuff that didn’t matter and life became simpler — more focused on what was real. Similar to what Jesus conjures up in our passage of a future time of persecution for one of his followers, a certain peace can be found when the world’s foundations are shaken, because one discovers a clarity that comes and the ability so clutching and all the stuff that is passing away.
Regarding our own lives, one thing is certain: so much of what the world puts forward as the key to happiness doesn’t really make for happiness. It just provides more opportunity for stress. Buy a big house or a fancy car and you will end up spending a great deal of time worrying over your new possession. After the initial thrill fades, which takes, say, maybe a week, the house or the car is becomes something that is slowly fading away.
Spend money, however, helping someone less fortunate in an act of love, and there are riches stored up in heaven where there is no deterioration.