“Worry and Wisdom”
Psalm 46 and Luke 21:5-19
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar; the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice; the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations;
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
(Psalm 46 – NRSV)
5-6 One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, “All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when is this going to happen? What clue will we get that it’s about to take place?”
8-9 He said, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’ Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”
10-11 He went on, “Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling.
12-15 “But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name. You’ll end up on the witness stand, called to testify. Make up your mind right now not to worry about it. I’ll give you the words and wisdom that will reduce all your accusers to stammers and stutters.
16-19 “You’ll even be turned in by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. Some of you will be killed. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved. (Luke 21:5-19 — The Message)
The date of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels is generally set between 70CE and 80CE, with Matthew most likely being published first. Scholars assign those dates in part because of the apocalyptic references to Rome’s destruction of the temple in 70CE. That’s probably why Matthew and Luke contain more passages like the one we read today than other gospels do. Both evangelists carry fresh remembrances of an event that would have been, effectively, 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.
Having said that, Jesus’ ominous words seem like pretty safe prophecies. To “predict” such things is like the old priest Simeon telling Mary and Joseph that their beautiful baby boy, in addition to doing wonderful things, is going to break his mama’s heart. What child doesn’t do that at one point or another? Likewise, the broader reality in which we live always includes every scourge Jesus mentions—and more.
Here’s the thing about worrisome times and the worrisome biblical texts that get lots of attention in the midst of them: When we read scripture faithfully, we read all of it in the context of our two essential affirmations—Incarnation and Resurrection.
Jesus is born into this world, the mortal world with all of its wonders and beauties, and all of its woes and boils. And when we proclaim Jesus as the unique incarnation of God, we affirm God’s hands-on love for the entire Creation, because in creating all things, God reveals something of God’s own Self in and through everything that lives, moves, and has being. We can call that the general Incarnation—God’s self-revelation in and through the cosmos. And while, as Christians, we affirm Jesus as the unique and personal Incarnation of God, we also know that Jesus is no Santa Claus. He’s not a magic wand that can make all painful and destructive things go away. If he did, people and groups who cause pain and destruction wouldn’t so often use him to justify their actions.
As God’s Incarnate presence, as the Living Word, Jesus becomes the one through whom God reveals most personally the holy and steadfast energy of Resurrection. And Resurrection always arises out of suffering, out of injury to things that God creates and loves. That’s not to say that God wills suffering. It is to say that God does not leave any part of the Creation alone in our suffering. Incarnation and Resurrection proclaim God’s eternal presence in and redeeming love for all things—especially all that suffers and longs for wholeness.
We all experience suffering. And a living faith in Christ only makes it more inevitable because Jesus, in loving hope, leads us into the places where people and the earth suffer the most. Even in God’s beloved Creation, says Jesus, some people will tear you down, like Rome did to the temple. “They’ll arrest you…and drag you to court and to jail…It will go from bad to worse…everyone at your throat because you carry my name.”
One way to deal with this is to hide behind the go to heaven when we diementality. And while I understand that, I also think that focusing on a post-mortem future disconnects us from the incarnate holiness and the resurrection-yielding suffering within and around us right now. That is the Christian hope into which Jesus calls us. St. Augustine described our here-and-now 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 those words after reading Luke 21.
When Jesus promises “words and a wisdom” that will bamboozle opposition, just think about the ways that Jesus embodies that same word and wisdom. He gets angry at more than moneychangers. His entire ministry expresses the heartbroken anger of one who confronts injustice and suffering, and the loving wisdom of one who encourages people to live differently—indeed, who frees us to live according to the loving ways of justice and the redeeming means of non-violence. And when we choose to follow Jesus in lives of compassion and peacemaking, even in the face of opposition, that’s when we not only experience God’s realm of grace, we become signs of that realm for others.
Through his life, Jesus demonstrates that the best way to embody a healthy and healing anger is not by blaming and shaming, but by courageously rising above, by trusting in the hopeful witnesses of Incarnation and Resurrection.
Thomas Merton gifted the world with a fierce voice for non-violence and peace. And he was fearless in offering himself as a sign of grace. When Merton considered establishing a peacemaking foundation in a developing country, a friend cautioned him, saying that he’d find himself opposed by both sides of that nation’s intense struggle between rival ideologies. Merton recognized the danger, and called it “necessarily a part of anything loving and useful I may do—because,” he said, “I cannot produce anything good if I identify myself too closely with either [side]. The vocation of a very good writer and spiritual [person] today lies with neither one or the other…but beyond both.” Then, quoting the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, Merton said, “What matters is not to line up with the winning side but to be a true and revolutionary poet.”1
For our purposes, we can substitute the word disciple for poet. And Shane Claiborne can guide our understanding of “revolutionary.” In his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Claiborne shares the lament of a friend who felt “surrounded by unbelieving activists and inactive believers.”2Wondering how to follow Jesus in a world full of infection—that is, of greed, violence, racism, militarism, apathy, climate degradation, and so on—Claiborne remembered something a college professor said to him. “Don’t let the world steal your soul,” said the professor. “Being a Christian is about choosing Jesus and deciding to do something incredibly daring with your life.”3
I hear in that professor’s words the wise anger and the wise courage of Jesus who said, Follow me; and trust me. I will not leave you alone. When your back is against the wall, I will speak through you.
That is the heart of today’s passage. When the world seems to be falling apart, the Christ gives us words and wisdom. We can trust that we are speaking the “words and wisdom” of Jesus when we speak and act in ways that build up rather tear down, when we have compassionate impatience with voices of violence and destruction.
Today is Consecration Sunday, and yes, the session asks you to support the ministries of this church as generously as your means allow. And we’re called to commit more than finances. God calls us to commit our lives to trusting the presence, goodness, and grace of the Incarnate and Resurrected Christ who gives us wisdom, words, and courage to dare to live as signs of his redeeming love in and for the world.
May we all give and live from the Christ-heart within us.
1All references to and quotations from Thomas Merton come from: A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals. Selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo. Harper One, 2004. P. 329.
2The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shaine Claiborne. Zondervan, 2006 & 2016. p. 18.