“Words, Wisdom, and Worry”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“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.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, 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.13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (NRSV)
The date of Luke’s gospel is generally set between 71CE and 80CE. Scholars assign that date to Luke in part because of the reference in Luke 21 to Rome’s demolition of the magnificent Jerusalem temple in 70CE. Temple construction began in 19BCE, and by 70CE, the building had been completed for only a decade.1 The destruction of this essentially brand-new temple was meant to bring the Jewish community to its knees. To those who stood in grateful awe of the temple, its demolition would have felt like a persecution, an apocalyptic event. It was Jerusalem’s blitzkrieg, Hiroshima, and 9/11. It would have brought prophets of doom out of the woodwork declaring God’s judgment and the end of the world.
Next Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. Lectionary readings at the end of the cycle—readings such as Luke 21:5-19—tend to focus on prophecies of days to come, usually days that include some measure of chaos and suffering. Religious demagogues frequently use these texts to make already anxious and insecure people feel all the more guilty and fearful. And when given reason to believe that God is fundamentally vindictive and that salvation must be earned, people will do almost anything. People with power will accept and propagate dogmas that terrify and divide instead of inspire and unite. Lonely people will give money to flashy evangelists who consider it personal gain and God’s blessing. Fearful people will exclude or even persecute their neighbors, especially if told that a neighbor is “lost” and destined for some bloodthirsty deity’s eternal wrath, anyway.
Now, Jesus’ ominous teachings seem like pretty safe prophecies to me. To “predict” such things is like the old priest Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that their beautiful baby boy, in addition to doing great things, is going to break his mama’s heart. Any parent will tell you that that prophecy takes no foresight or imagination. The reality in which we live always includes the horrors of war, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, cancer, poverty, school shootings, the idolatry of the very means of violence, and the false prophets who use all these painful things to draw attention and influence to themselves by sowing division and manipulating fear.
Here’s the thing about worrisome times and the worrisome biblical texts that get lots of attention in the midst of them: For people who are seeking to know and follow Jesus, difficult texts must be read in the broader context of the two essential affirmations of Jesus’ life and of our faith—Incarnation and Resurrection.
Jesus is born into the physical world, and when we proclaim his presence as the unique incarnation of God, we affirm that God loves all that exists because all that has life and being is not only created by God, it reveals God in some way. And while we affirm the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, we also know that as the Incarnate Christ, Jesus is no magic wand. He’s God’s Incarnate Sign, the Living Word, the one through whom God sets loose the holy and steadfast energy of resurrection in the Creation for the sake of the Creation. Incarnation and resurrection proclaim God’s eternal presence with and redeeming love for all that lives and moves and has being—and that suffers, and longs for wholeness.
And yet, says Jesus, in this magnificent and beloved Creation, like the temple, some people will just tear you down. “They will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by [people you love]…they will put some of you to death…[and] you will be hated…because of my name.”
In the next breath Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” How can he say that immediately after telling his followers that they’ll be arrested, persecuted, betrayed, and killed? My hair hurts just thinking about it.
The easy way to process Jesus’ teaching is to run straight for the default proclamation: We’re going to heaven when we die! I understand the comfort of that promise. I also think that focusing on a future we can’t comprehend disconnects us from the holiness and the suffering within us and around us right now. As hopeful as it may feel to plan to be present In the Sweet By and By When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, that is not the Christian hope into which Jesus calls us. In one of his many memorable quotations, St. Augustine describes the Christian hope this way: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
I like to imagine Augustine writing this after reading Luke 21. When Jesus promises “words and a wisdom” that will defy opposition, just think about the ways that Jesus incarnated God’s own word and wisdom. Jesus got angry at more than moneychangers. His entire ministry expressed the heartbroken anger of one who saw the injustices and sufferings of a world out of kilter, and the loving wisdom of one encouraging people to choose to live differently. Only when we choose to live gratefully, generously, compassionately, and peaceably do we participate in God’s healing work. And we do that by choosing to follow Jesus in lives of gratitude, generosity, compassion, and peacemaking—even when those who choose greed, violence, and power over others oppose and persecute us. For us, the Christian hope comes not from simply choosing to claim to believe creeds, but choosing to live according to the transforming words and humble wisdom of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the Church’s current irrelevance in the world stems from its general unwillingness to do much more than believe religious stuff.
We do live in a worrisome world. And that’s been true forever. All we can do is engage our own context with words of hopeful anger and the hopeful courage of wisdom. Along that path, we have the example of God’s incarnation in Jesus to follow, and the eternal promise of resurrection to energize us.
When we entrust our lives to the invigorating Mysteries of incarnation and resurrection, God makes us aware of God’s words and wisdom at work around us. In our trust, God empowers us to speak and embody the same words and wisdom spoken and embodied in Jesus.
God, help us to follow your incarnate Christ “deep and in,”2 where he reveals to us the true holiness of our created being. Then help us to follow Jesus’ words and wisdom “far and wide,”3 into the realm of Resurrection where, by grace, you make us newly real and relevant to a Creation in need of faith, hope, and love. Amen.
1Vernon K. Robbins in his article Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009. Pp. 309-313.