Text: Luke 21:5-19
There are moments in history where events seem to be so pivotal, it looks like the end of everything we know might be near. Some of us may have actually lived through those moments or at least were alive when they happened. I am sure there are some here who remember when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor back in 1941. 50 years ago this coming Friday President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. And even more recently, 11 years ago, the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City went down in a blaze of fire, concrete and steel. Years later, I remember taking the 1 train when the line re-opened and the subway would slow down and crawl along the tracks as it passed by what had become a hole in the earth. Through the cracks in the underground, you could look out and see all the death and destruction that was rained down upon the city. Last week we heard about a Typhoon which bore down upon the Philippines. Some accounts leave the death toll as high as10,000. Even more than that are left without adequate food and water, much less shelter. Looking into the future, if we study several climate change models, we can find it is quite possible that the State of Florida, including the Florida Keys, may all be underwater. It’s all quite scary or at the very least, unnerving, isn’t it?
Jesus talks about quite a bit of scary stuff in today’s Gospel reading. He says the temple is going to be destroyed, war is going to break out and there will be natural disasters like which has not been seen and people will try and deceive each other just like it seems that all sorts and conditions of hucksters come out of the woodwork when disaster strikes. However it is important to note the context within which Jesus is talking here. He and his followers have arrived in Jerusalem and the disciples are marveling at how grand and splendid it is. It cannot be stressed how important the temple was in 1st century Palestine. The very identity of who they are as Jews were bound up in the building. THIS was the place where God hung his hat and dwelt among them. Not just any god, like those worshipped by the Romans or any number of other people in the ancient world, but the one they called “The Living God,” the One who called the Jewish nation as his own people. Now imagine that along comes Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Anointed, and he more or less posts a sign next to it that says, “This Building is Condemned.” It is absolutely inconceivable that he would say such a thing! The temple is so much of a focus of this people’s faith that if it were gone or destroyed, you may as well say that their world has ended. But the temple WAS destroyed wasn’t it? A couple of generations later, in the year 70AD, the temple was razed to the ground, leaving only one wall standing which is still there today.
After the temple was destroyed, the art and treasure that was in it was taken to Rome and paraded through the streets, a reminder to all that nothing is stronger than the Empire and a lesson to those would seek to undermine it. The time leading up to the destruction of the temple is chronicled by the Jewish Historian, Josephus and by Luke in the book of Acts. In those accounts, we find in those days there were no less than 15 people who were claiming to be the Messiah and wanting to lead a rebellion against Herod or the Romans. There was famine; there were earthquakes. There was a succession of short-lived reigns of various Roman emperors like Claudius and Nero. The Gospel of Luke itself was written more or less after all this had happened, so we can surmise that Luke was trying to put current events into the perspective of Jesus sayings instead of trying to project some kind of prophecy 2,000 years into the future. But that doesn’t mean there is not a message that we can take from that and apply it to what we experience today.
Just as Jesus was talking about a scary and fearful time to his followers, there are times in modern history when it appears the world is falling apart. We hear about conflicts across the globe, injustices go unanswered and no end of natural calamities in sight. And indeed there are a great many people, even here in this town or maybe here with us today who may not know what tomorrow is going to bring. And it is in that fear when it seems like our entire world is crashing down around us, it is in that uncertainty when we are at our most vulnerable that the greatest of all these dangers that Jesus talks about strikes. And that is when someone comes and says, “I’ve got the answers. Listen to me, and I will show you the way and save you from destruction and despair.” It is no mistake that you can find no end of characters on the internet or on television, and usually you come across these folks in the middle of a sleepless night and you have no idea when the morning is going to come or if it is going to come at all. But like all deceivers, these characters are offering nothing but snake oil to prey on us with false promises of prosperity and blessing when we are at our weakest, when we are looking for someone … anyone … to save us from ruin and destruction. As we reflect upon these times, it would do us good to imagine what our response will be when OUR world is at an end.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across the story of a man named Thomas Dorsey. Mr. Dorsey was a talented musician, and devoted his time and talents between playing in both the church and in the secular world, jazz club, blues bars and the like. At one point, he felt so torn between these two realms that he decided he had to give one of them up, and so he devoted all his energies and talents to the church and to Gospel music. His vocation called him to travel extensively, forcing him at times to leave his pregnant wife at home. One night while he was away, he received a telegram that his wife died in childbirth. He rushed back home quickly as he could. Shortly after he returned, he lost his newborn son. Mr. Dorsey wound up burying his wife and son in the same casket. For Thomas Dorsey, HIS world had ended.
There are a great many promises in the Bible. Some of those promises say that we are going to go through rough patches, that there is going to be troubles to experience and that we might even suffer. Life happens to us all and it is only a matter of time before it comes knocking at our door. But, Jesus says that even in our darkest moments that THIS will be the time when we are to testify about the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
But how can this be? How can it be that when you have lost everything that this becomes an opportunity to tell of how wonderful and awesome God is? This is when Jesus steps in and says, “Fear not! I will be with you!” Coupled with the promises of rough patches and suffering is the promise that God will see us through to the end and that we will be given the words to speak and inspired to action at just the right time.
It may be that sometimes that it seems like we are living out our own version of the Book of Job, the story of a man who did lose everything … his property, his family, his health, and even his friends had no real support or comfort for him. But even when Job got angry and wondered what on earth was happening and how could God let this go on, his testimony was, “I know that my Redeemer lives and he shall stand at the Last Day.” Jesus said to his disciples right before he was arrested and carried off to his trial and execution, “In this world you will have great tribulation … but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
We now return to our friend, Thomas Dorsey. After the death of his wife and son, he didn’t play music for quite a long time. The depths of his sorrow and despair were so great the well of creative juices and talent had apparently run dry. Until one day, in spite of himself he sat down and then a great sense of peace washed over him. He began to play a melody and before too long lyrics of a song were given to him. This song has become one of the great Gospel favourites and has helped to give the gift of hope to many. Those lyrics are, “Precious Lord, take my hand … Lead me on, let me stand.”
Suffering changes people. It brings about either an attitude of defeat or great hope. It reminds us that it is not so much about the time we have left to us, but what we do with what we are given. The African American theologian Howard Thurmin says of those who come through suffering to the other side, “Into their faces come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.”
Death, War, Destruction and despair might be the end of the chapter, but it is never the end of the story. When it feels like all is lost, Jesus is the One who finds you. In the middle of destruction, it is Jesus who restores. When it feels like death and despair is all around, remember when Jesus meets anyone who is dead, that dead person gets up and walks. When it feels as if you are all alone and have no where else to go or no one to turn to, that’s when Jesus shows up and you discover that he’s been right there with you all along. The Good News I have for you today is that this Lord is there to take your hand and lead you home.
David P Casey
Key West, FL 33040
+1 646 416 0218