Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost, November 13, 2016
Sermon: “Opportunity in Every Crisis”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 21:5-19
The temple will be toppled to the ground. People will be led astray. There’ll be wars, insurrections, and rumours of wars. Nation will rise against nation, there’ll be earthquakes, famines. There’ll be warnings and great signs in the heavens! There will be arrests and persecutions! Some of you will be betrayed by closest relatives and friends. And some of you will die!
As tempting as it might be to say so, these words are not a description of last Tuesday’s election results. As much as it might have felt like it. No, these are words are Jesus’ words, from our reading the good news according to Luke. Jesus and co have made it inside the streets of Jerusalem, and these represent some of his last teachings before his betrayal, arrest, and execution. Our reading is what scholars call the “synoptic apocalypse.” Synoptic, meaning it shows up in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. And apocalypse meaning “unveiling.” Some would have us believe that passages like this are a blueprint for the end of the world. But elsewhere Jesus tells his followers that the end of the world is beyond their scope, something they will never know. Instead, these words themselves are apocalyptic. With them Jesus pulls the veil back on the world as we know it. His words allow us to peer beneath the surface of things. So we might see things as they are. Or as they could be.
And when Jesus pulls the veil back with his words, we hear one message to his followers: “things are not going to be easy for you in the days ahead.” The Temple in Jerusalem, this beautiful, solid-as-a-rock forever building. The very dwelling place of God that you thought could never come down, will. People will come to you, playing the role of Messiah, and they’ll tell you the world is going to end. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes, famines, plagues. Signs from the heavens. And to make matters worse, Jesus says that his followers are going to get locked up. Arrested and persecuted, and brought before kings and governors. All on account of their association with him. Best friends and family members will snitch and hand them over. Some will even face death. The world might not be ending--yet. But it looks like the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. And Jesus’ followers are coming along for the ride, whether they like it or not.
Yet, even in the midst of spiritual and physical destruction. Large scale deceit, violent conflicts on a global scale. Natural disasters, arrests, and executions. The world is going to fall apart around them. And even in the midst of all of these things, these are Jesus’ words:
“Do not be led astray.”
“Do not be terrified.”
“Do not prepare your defense in advance.”
All three things imply something, of course. That Jesus expects his followers will be tempted to be led astray. He expects his followers to be paralyzed with fear. And he expects them to stay up late at night with preoccupied minds, walking nervous circles around their rooms, planning their next move. He thinks there’s a good likelihood that when push comes to shove, they’re gonna forget everything he’s ever taught them. When Jesus says “don’t be led astray,” and “don’t be terrified,” he says so because it’s a real possibility for his disciples. It’s easy to follow Jesus when things are easy. But when the going gets tough, there’s a good chance that everyone’s gonna drop the ball. And fall apart.
And it makes a lot of sense. It’s no accident that at the beginning of most emergency protocols are the words “stay calm,” or “don’t panic. When crises hit in our own lives, our instinct is to panic. To duck and cover, run away, hide, find the high ground. Our human instinct is to preserve our own security at any cost.
But it goes even further than that. It’s hard to imagine a crisis like this, or the crisis Jesus describes in a place like the one we live in. Where we live is relatively peaceful. We know not wars nearby, but only rumors of wars overseas. And the worst persecution that Christians may know is being mocked and made fun of by mainstream culture. But no matter how stable things seem to be, they can change in an instant.
I remember in university hearing a speaker who’d experienced the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. Led by the government made up of the majority Hutu population, between 500 000 and 1 million members of the Tutsi minority were murdered in a matter of 100 days. The most remarkable thing I remember is just how quickly the shift came. This speaker said one day he was laughing and working together with people in his village as neighbors. The next week these same neighbors were wielding machetes against him and people like him. Mass numbers of ordinary people terrified of their neighbors, led astray by their leaders, preparing their defenses by striking first. Many of these people faithful Christians. Even some clergy.
Things can change in an instant. No matter how stable they may seem. Jesus knows that times of crisis, like the ones he describes, are the times when our principles and convictions come tumbling down. Like a row of rickety shacks in an earthquake . I mean, you think it’s hard to follow Jesus’ teachings right now. You think it’s hard to be generous with your money now. You think it’s hard to serve and do justice for the poor and the marginalized now. You think it’s hard to love your enemies, and forgive the people who have deeply wounded you, now. Just imagine how hard it might be to hold our deepest convictions when the world as we know it falls apart around us. When we’re personally affected. When push comes to shove, we’re all just as likely to scatter, to be terrified and led astray. To drop the ball as Jesus’ disciples.
But according to Jesus, the church is built for times like this. Jesus warns his disciples against following after false Messiahs. He warns them against being paralyzed by fear. He warns them to not spend their time preparing their defenses and looking out for themselves. But he also reassures them. He says that when the crisis comes, it’s not the time to panic. No, he says. “They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.” A crisis is an opportunity to testify. “So make up your minds,” he says, “not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” You’ll be betrayed, he says, by friends and family. “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The crisis will come, Jesus says. But I will give you the words you need to witness. And the strength you need to endure. Words, witness, strength.
Truth be told, I don’t know when or if a time like this will come for us. There’s plenty of stuff for us to be worried about on the horizon. It’s hard to say. Maybe there won’t be one. I pray there won’t be one. But Jesus says that when that time comes, we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to drop the ball, or toss out our deepest convictions. Because Jesus says that it’s when the whole world’s falling apart. It’s our time to shine. Or more precisely, time for him to shine through us, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we are tempted to fear our neighbors. When we are tempted to shut ourselves off to immigrants and refugees. When someone utters words like “ragheads go home.” Jesus, our brown-skinned Prince of Peace from the Arab peninsula puts on our lips the words “the Lord looks over the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”
When we are tempted to abandon the weak ones, those who Jesus calls “the least of these.” When we are tempted to give up on the poor and the most vulnerable while making sure we secure our own. Our homeless, jobless, suffering Messiah Jesus puts the words on our lips “I was homeless, I was naked, I was hungry. And ye fed me not.”
When we are tempted to follow after false Messiahs, whether religious leaders or secular governments who promise us false safety and security… Jesus our enemy loving, cheek-turning, self-giving Lord and Savior puts on our lips the words: “No, because the Lord is my shepherd… and I shall not want.”
I don’t know when and if the crisis will be. But the promise of the gospel is that when it comes time to do so, we’ll be given the power to calm all fears. And the words to witness. And the strength to endure.
Friends, what we are up to in this community of faith, and what God is up to in this place is just as important now as ever. We need to be reminded who we are. We need to be so rooted in God’s love and God’s story that when the changing winds of time blow, we’ll be like trees planted by water and will not waver. Because the world needs God, the world needs the Good News of Jesus Christ now as much as ever. The world needs the church to be the church. The world needs us, more than ever. To show it a different, more excellent way. In the words of the Apostle Paul,
Go out into the world in peace;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honour all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Do so without fear, but with faith and confidence, no matter the crisis.
You’ll be given the worlds you need. Not a hair of your head will perish. And by your endurance you will gain your souls.