Monday, November 15, 2010

It's the End of the World As We Know It

The sermon from Nov. 14, 2010, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28C), Messiah Lutheran, Knoxville, TN. based on Luke 21:5-19.                         

Some of you may recognize this song. [Play excerpt from R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine.)”]

Others of you may be thinking, “That was a song?”

Yes, that was an excerpt from R.E.M.’s 1987 song “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” And whether or not you like this song, you must admit that it’s a song that has this energy and sort of anger and frustration about it.  And yet, it is a song, which then ironically turns with just those last few words, “And I Feel Fine.”

Whether R.E.M. meant the “I Feel Fine” in a straightforward way or as some kind of critique of our culture’s denial of the plethora of issues facing us, I don’t know because R.E.M. rarely explains its songs. But the part about “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” that needs no explanation, does it?

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus makes a prediction that his listeners interpret as an end of the world prediction. The fear in their minds clicks to “on.” It’s the end of the world, as we know it. “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” they ask him.

Down through the ages, we’ve joined in their cry haven’t we? At each millennial end, each looming natural disaster, each war, pandemic, or economic crisis, have not the masses cried out, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”? For the people of Hiroshima or Haiti they must have joined in the cry. In the days following 9/11, during the early days of this most recent economic collapse, or in the early days of AIDS or even the Swine Flu, somebody pointed to that event and cried the end of the world is near.

Of course, as R.E.M. reminds us being at world’s end, doesn’t have to mean the end of the whole world, it could just be the end of the world as you or I know it.
A loss of employment, a diagnosis, the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, any of these can lead us to cry out, it’s the end of my world.

This has been the way it has been for millennia, both for individuals, for societies, for the whole creation. Think about it…when haven’t there been wars and insurrections? When haven’t nations fought against other nations? When haven’t there been great earthquakes, famines and plagues on earth, and unexplainable events in the heavens? When hasn’t there been sickness, loss, or death? When has the end of the world not been coming?

Like each generation since, the people of Jesus’ day are fixated on pinpointing the day, the hour, the place, and the means by which the end of the world will come. “Tell us when the end will come, Lord. What are the signs?” But, Jesus quickly squelches any such thinking, almost as if it is no concern, saying, “Beware that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name and say ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Don’t go after them. 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.” He goes on to say that there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, persecutions, betrayals, and death all before the end of time. So contrary to what his disciples are thinking, Jesus’ comments about the Temple are not meant as just one more among many end of the world predictions. Jesus has something altogether different in mind.

You see, for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, the temple in Jerusalem was God’s House. It was there, in the innermost part of that temple, known as the Holy of Holies, that the Almighty was believed to dwell. Surely this temple will exist forever, the first century Jew must have thought. And who could blame them, the temple was, after all this mammoth, seemingly indestructible, holy place. A courtyard that covered 172,000 square yards surrounded it. That equates to almost 17 football fields. Its retaining walls towered more than 80 feet above the road, and went 50 feet below street level to the foundation. The largest stone in the western most wall is some 40 feet long. Another, even larger stone in the south wall weighs over 100 tons. Certainly, they believed their temple; God’s house would never be destroyed. They trusted that it would last forever.

Yet, for the first hearers of Luke’s gospel, which was written near the end of the first century, that great temple, that mammoth, indestructible house of God had already been reduced to only a memory. You see, in the year 70, almost 40 years after Christ, 20 years before Luke wrote his gospel account, Rome crushed a revolt attempt and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the great, indestructible temple. One historian who recorded the destruction of the temple wrote “Many who were emaciated from starvation, when they beheld the temple on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing.”[1] They had joined their voices to the cry, “It’s the end of the world has we know it.”

And so, looking back on those times, the evangelist Luke writes the words of Jesus as saying, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” And of course, Jesus was right.

But, what Jesus was trying to say was not – look - here is a sign of the end times, but rather, look even as impressive as this Temple is, don’t trust in it.  It is only a building, a human device. For Luke’s audience looking back to the year 70, and for Jesus’ audience looking ahead, the message was clear: don’t trust in human contrivance. Don’t trust that any human device will last forever, because if you do, you will be disappointed. All things will eventually fall away, even those things most precious to you-- be it a temple or a church, an institution or a culture, a nation or an idea. Even, Jesus warns…family and friends. On the road of faith, even family: parents and brothers and sisters, relatives and friends may fall away. Ultimately, Jesus seems to warn you can’t put all of your trust in the things of this world. Ultimately Jesus prepares us; you will experience the end of the world, as you know it.

So what then, is to be done? Well, for Jesus’ audience looking around at that mammoth and beautiful Temple and hearing from Jesus that it would be destroyed, and for Luke’s audience looking at the pile of rubble that used to be the Temple, and for us this day looking back on history and around at a world today that seems to change faster than an R.E.M. song, Jesus has a good news word. Jesus has a word in response to our cry. Yes, all human things will finally be thrown down, he seems to be saying, but in the midst of change and chaos and persecution, do not be terrified, because the good news is God will remain forever and YOU will remain forever God’s!!

God will remain forever and YOU will remain forever God’s!!

The good news is even in our chaotic, rapidly changing world God is still God, and this God promises that he will hold you forever. In the midst of rapid change and inevitability of the next end-of-the-world prediction this is where we are to place our trust. Our salvation lies always in good hands, God’s hands. And where there is such confidence, we are given the endurance by which we gain our souls, Jesus says. Such endurance requires active patience in the face of calamity, not a naïve “And I Feel Fine,” not a self-centered “eat drink and be merry,” rather a patient, active, faithful endurance. Given God’s word and wisdom we endure. And given God’s word and wisdom we testify, we tell God’s story and point to the cross even, or most especially in the midst of suffering. This, I believe is the only way we can face the uncertain future, not terrified, not paralyzed or depressed by fear, not with a self-centered disregard of our call to discipleship. Rather we face an uncertain future faithfully enduring, living, loving, forgiving and serving. We face an uncertain future trusting that we are in good hands, trusting that God will remain forever and WE will remain forever God’s!! And to that, just maybe we can say, and I feel fine. 

In Jesus’ name. Amen

[1] Josephus (War 6.271-275)

1 comment: