The Opposite of Faith Isn’t Doubt: It’s Fear Mal 4: 1-2a; 2 Thes 3: 6-13; Lk 21: 5-19
A day of reckoning is coming, say both Luke and the prophet Malachi. The Day of the Lord is at hand, when the complacent will be surprised and all that is hidden will be revealed. As REM once sang to us, “It’s the end of the world as we know it…” Do you feel fine?
When Jesus brings up the idea of the end of the world to his disciples in Luke’s Gospel, they do not feel fine. They are admiring the fantastic temple built out of stones, some of which were as much as 60 ft. long and 7 ft. high, when Jesus tells them that this sacred place—the Temple that served God’s people for centuries as a site of healing, teaching, community, and devotion—will be torn down, not one stone left on another. The disciples cannot imagine its annihilation, anymore than any of us could have imagined the toppling of the Twin Towers in New York or the Pentagon in Washington DC before 2011. The disciples big questions are “When will this happen?” and “How will we know?”
Jesus does not scold his disciples for being anxious. I love that. He accepts their doubts and concerns. What he doesn’t do is answer their specific questions. I don’t particularly love that. But it helps to remember that this conversation takes place toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, just before the horrific events of Jesus’ capture, torture, and death. Knowing the difficulties that lie ahead, Jesus seizes this moment to bolster up his disciples for the future. He knows what’s coming will be scary and confusing and hard. Instead of providing a timetable of events, Jesus acknowledges that they will encounter tragedy and hardship and suggests how they might manage their fear when disaster strikes.
Jesus warns them that false teachers will arise who will suggest their trust in a crucified Christ is misplaced. As is the case in our time, there will be no shortage of voices claiming that might is right, that enduring suffering without striking back violently is weakness. Jesus encourages his followers to stand firm in the unlikely truth that love is the biggest power of all. He tells them to be ready to testify to the God they have known and loved—a God who cares for widows and orphans, who feeds the poor, heals the sick and sits with the lonely—even when evidence of God’s mercy or even God’s existence is hard to locate. They don’t need to spend a lot of time preparing these testimonies in advance, Jesus assures them: God will provide the words and wisdom they need when they need them. Let’s take that message to heart for our troubled times as well. We will be given what we need when we need it.
Perhaps the scariest warning Jesus gives his followers is that, among the other conflicts God’s people will face, there will be family disruptions, betrayals, and breakups. No one likes that idea. But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t shy away from the truth that relationships are messy, and that sometimes our faith is part of that messiness. If you thought Jesus was much more of a family values kind of guy, this might be disconcerting. On the other hand, people who have come from dysfunctional families are probably grateful to know that Jesus understands you, and will help you endure.
While the disciples are shocked by Jesus’ words about the difficulties ahead, Luke’s listeners–for whom this Gospel was originally written about 80 years after Christ’s death and resurrection–would have had a completely different reaction. For Luke’s hearers, the demolition of the Temple and attendant calamities were not predictions of the future; they were history. Like us, they knew about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. They had seen the Roman army sack the city, killing around a million people and taking thousands back to Rome as prisoners of war. Not only was the beautiful temple in ruins by the time they head this Gospel reading, so were many of their loved ones and all of their cultural context. Everything that anchored them as a people had been decimated.
Like Luke’s audience, we know that the unthinkable can actually take place. We’ve seen the destruction of mighty buildings. Nations have risen up against nations. There have been earthquakes and famines and disease that have wreaked havoc in our world. Venice is flooding, ebola is back, and California is on fire. The church has gone through tribunals and desecrations, has been persecuted and prosecuted, has been attacked and besieged from within and without in every way on almost every continent. This text is not predicting the future so much as recounting our history.
On a smaller scale, most of us have encountered personal disasters also. On both a collective and a personal level, we know that what appears to be solid and unshakable is, in fact, temporary. Dreams crumble, people leave, jobs change, lives collapse. How can we hang onto the promises of God when it looks like God has abandoned us to either the evil or completely uncaring forces of the universe?
There are those who teach that if our faith in God is strong enough, we will be preserved from hardship or peril on the day of the Lord, that our steadfastness will result in our being “raptured up” out of this mess before things get too bad. There is no basis for this kind of theology in Scripture. In fact, the very center of our faith is Jesus Christ, who lived blamelessly, and yet was tortured and murdered by the state, not whisked away when the going got tough. If we follow Jesus, siding with the poor over the wealthy, the marginalized over the celebrated, the fragile over the forceful, we risk the likelihood of danger and suffering too. There may be times when we are doing our best to follow Jesus that make us doubt God is on our side, or even exists at all, so it’s important to note that Jesus’ final words on the subject are words of hope. Don’t be afraid: not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
This promising message is not new. Malachi, the Hebrew prophet who wrote his book about 500 years before Jesus was born, was also concerned with how God’s faithful followers should face difficulties. He, too, alerted his hearers to prepare for the Day of the Lord and the accompanying struggles. He, too, admonishes his flock to continue to revere God no matter what. As Malachi puts it, such steadfastness will be blessed, just as the rays of the sun bless those who are cold. Those who persevere will know what it’s like to feel God’s healing wings wrap around them, no matter how broken they feel.
All of this is very good news for us in our violent and unpredictable world. But just so we don’t get too involved in thinking about the end times, our second lesson gives us a reality check. Here, we read that some of the Christians in Thessalonica are spending so much time preparing for The Day of the Lord and the end of the world that they neglect attending to those around them in the present. This letter reminds the church that it must always be engaged in the world, always be working to care for those in need, and never to become isolationist. The church’s charge is to be of service to others always. To quote an old bumper sticker, the Thessalonians are cautioned: “Do not get so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.”
In summary, anticipate hard times ahead. We will not be spared suffering. Things, places, and people we cherish will disappear. The church will not always be what it always was. How God is calling us to be the church in the coming years or what external factors will shape it are mysterious. Unlike Luke, we are not looking back on 100 years and recounting a story form recorded in history. We are standing with all the other disciples of the holy Christian Church, on the brink of change, trying to understand how to prepare for a world we can’t picture, can’t even fathom. We may not even see a future for the church—here or anywhere.
The good news is this: we may not know what the future of University Lutheran looks like, but we do know that even when this building on the corner of NE 50th St. and 16th Ave. is gone, not a stone left on stone, the Church will go on because the church is not a physical structure. We may not know what the future of the ELCA looks like, but we do know that the church will go on, because the church is not an organizational structure either. The church is not the way we have always done things. The church is not a particular person or family or group or liturgy or doctrine. All those things will pass away, but we need not fear.
We may not know where we are going, as individuals, families, congregations, or denominations, but we know who we are following. No matter what lies ahead, the church—including all of us—is indestructible, because the Church is the body of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is alive, now and forever. Best of all, He’s risen with healing in his wings. Don’t be afraid.
Thanks be to God!
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