Sunday, November 14, 2004

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Pentecost
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with equity.

Isn’t it interesting that today’s Gospel lesson ends with Jesus saying, “And not a hair of your head shall perish.” I rip a dozen or more strands out of my head every time I brush my hair. And ask the bald guy down the street what happened to his hair. Do you think he will think it is a sign of God’s wrath that his hair is gone? Or what about the cancer survivor that lost her hair due to the medical treatment meant to overcome her cancer?

If Jesus’ words were a promise for earthly protection, then how did the early saints find such hope in martyrdom? We know by this passage that it is not about physical safety. Jesus says in verse 16, “But ye shall be delivered up even by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death.” The earthly promise of faith is persecution and death.

Despite the fact that Jesus is not promising us immortal life, these are words of grace from Jesus instructing us that God is concerned about even the most insignificant parts of our flesh. He has counted the number of strands on our head, knows our every thought, prayer, concern and doubt. He also knows that every bit of His creation is perishable and that all that we have built during our lifetime will pass away.

The conversation began with Jesus’ disciples remarking about the beauty of the Temple. We do not have actual pictures of the Temple, but with computer graphics it is now possible to walk through a virtual reconstruction of how it probably would have appeared to those who visited. The building would have been spectacular, since the best of Israel was put into the construction. Gold covered decorations, the finest linens for curtains and the best stone used for the walls. The Temple furnishings and decoration were provided by offerings given by the faithful – gifts to God for the house of God.

The first few verses of chapter 21 tell us the story of the widow’s mite. Jesus saw the rich putting great offerings into the temple treasury, but the one who caught His eye was a widow who gave all that she had. He commended her faith above the others because the rich people gave out of their wealth keeping plenty for themselves but she trusted that God would provide for her tomorrow.

Jesus prophesied that the Temple would fall and it happened just as Jesus promised. In 70 A.D., the Romans fought down a rebellion of Jews, took over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. It was a time of fear, of war, of violence against the worship against the God of Abraham. In Jesus’ day, many of the Jews were concerned that the teachings of Jesus would cause revolt. Yet, Jesus was not the warrior king they expected. He was fighting for another kingdom. As the Church grew, some of the Jews tried to blame rebellion on Christians. When it came time for the Romans to establish their dominance, they did not discern the difference between the Jews and the Christians – to them Christianity was just a sect of Judaism.

Though this is a historical moment we can see that fulfills the prophecy in this passage, we also know that we remain in the age of which Jesus talks. “And when ye shall hear of wars and tumults, be not terrified: for these things must needs come to pass first; but the end is not immediately.” The end is not immediate. As we look back upon the last two thousand years, we can see that there have been frightful times in which to live.

Jesus warns the disciples to be aware of those claiming to be Him. “And he said, Take heed that ye be not led astray: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am he; and, the time is at hand: go ye not after them.” These words continue to warn us to beware of the false messiahs that will try to lead us astray. This is not necessarily a once and done event – it is something that will happen in every time and place until the true coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, where is the hope in this passage? It is not pleasant to think that we might suffer for our faith. The hope is not that our temples or our flesh will survive the events that surround our lives of faith. Rather, our hope rests in our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “In your patience ye shall win your souls.” We are called into faith not because we are promised immortality. We still have to go through death to receive our inheritance as sons of God. Eternal life is beyond that which we know. It is imperishable and it is beyond our grasp in this flesh. We must go through the fire first.

We see this in the Old Testament passage from the prophet Malachi. “For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith Jehovah of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings.”

We should beware not to read these words with a self-righteous attitude as if we are the ones who will survive the fire. We all have aspects of our life that needs to be burned. We have pride and wickedness which must be overcome for us to be as God intends us to be. This perfection for which we strive will never be fully realized in our flesh, because we continue to be sinners even while we are saints. We must go through that fire of cleansing that will burn away the stubble in our lives. But those who persevere through the fire, resting on the promise of Jesus Christ, will see the other side.

Malachi tells us that the destruction will be so great that there will be left no root or branch. The root is the part of the tree that supplies nourishment and water. The roots also provide stability. The branches are the part of the tree that bears the fruit. Without the roots there is no faith and without the branches there are no good works.

We have so much for which to be thankful. The psalmist recognizes that our God is worthy of our worship and praise because He has done great things. “Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song; For he hath done marvellous things: His right hand, and his holy arm, hath wrought salvation for him.” His right hand is manifested in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. His holy arm is the Holy Spirit that reaches out into our lives to give us faith and hope so that we might live in peace doing that which He calls us to do in this life.

What purpose does it hold for us to continue living in this world? We are called to be witnesses to the grace of God. In the psalm, the entire earth sings for joy that God has made His salvation known. “Let the hills sing for joy together before Jehovah; for he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that the persecution and patience will lead to opportunities to be witnesses. “It shall turn out unto you for a testimony.”

He then instructs us in how we are to present ourselves as His witnesses. “Settle it therefore in your hearts, not to meditate beforehand how to answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to withstand or to gainsay.” It would certainly be easy to do nothing as we wait for the Spirit of God to move in us for the sake of the Kingdom. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson sometimes lead people to believe that we should not prepare in any manner to speak the words of God. They consider it a lack of faith if a pastor prepares a sermon or a teacher studies to gain more knowledge of the scriptures.

I recently heard this joke. “A young pastor had worked hard every week to prepare sermons, including attending a weekly lectionary discussion group. One week he announced there that he had been praying, and now decided to go to the pulpit unprepared, and let the Spirit tell him what to do. He had been preaching about ten minutes, and the next Sunday the Spirit led him for forty-five minutes. At the end of the service he was glad to see one of his lectionary-study mates, on vacation for the Sunday and taking a busman's holiday, in the back of the church. After the sanctuary emptied, he went to his friend and said ‘Don't you think the Spirit led in a wonderful way? I was completely overwhelmed!’ His friend replied: ‘The Spirit certainly spoke to me today too.’ Interested, the preacher asked ‘Really – what did you hear?’ With a wry look, his friend told him ‘The Spirit told me that you should take more time to prepare next week.’”

We should not equate the instruction from Jesus to include all moments when we will be witnessing to the grace of God in this world. Our rambling minds and unfettered tongues can do great damage if we have not considered the effect of our words. Paul even writes in today’s passage from Thessalonians about idleness. “For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that work not at all, but are busybodies.” We become gossips and meddlers when we do not keep our hearts and our hands busy with the work of God.

No, Jesus is not telling us that we should be idle as we wait for His coming. He is warning us that we can not prepare a defense until we have been charged. And then, when we are in the synagogues, we need not be concerned because God is in control and He will be our Advocate.

Paul’s instruction goes beyond the work of ministry. He encourages all Christians to be active participants in the world around them, earning a living so that they might buy their own bread and not rely on the good graces of their brothers and sisters in Christ. There were many Christians in the day of Paul that had rejected all things of the flesh, no longer doing the work of God or the work of this world. They thought that since only the spirit lived, then the flesh could be ignored. Yet, they still ate food, satisfying their hunger on the labor of others.

Two thousand years later, we are still seeing the signs of the end – wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and false messiahs claiming to be messengers from God. Jesus’ words hold a measure of warning for us today as much as it did for His first disciples. Though the Temple is still fallen, we have other temples today that will fall eventually. Our temples are not necessarily buildings, though very often our churches are held with such great esteem that we are more concerned about the building than in the people. Other ‘temples’ might include our jobs, our homes and our relationships. Sometimes God shakes the foundation of all that we hold dear so that we will look to Him and toward the vision of that which is imperishable.

He will indeed come one day to judge the earth – He has come and will come again. Until that day, we will suffer persecution and even death. We are called to walk in faith, to wait patiently through the fire. Through this journey of life, we will be called as witnesses to His grace, to give the world through words and deeds the love of God. We can do this because the right hand of God and His holy arm have given us the grace to live in faith. Thanks be to God.

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