Sunday, November 17, 2013

System Failure / Not the End

System Failure / Not the End
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 17, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 21: 5-19

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.


5 When 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.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And 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.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there 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. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls. [1]

I want to take note of the Prayer of Preparation before I start because I wrote it while I was studying this passage, and it says succintly much of what I want to say today, so I'll start there before we get into the weeds of this passage, lest as I warned of last week, we get lost on the way:

When we think the ends justify the means,
We mean the ends we think are imminent,
And in our control, but when do ends occur?
Rarely, if not never, especially when forever
Is the ever of beginning and the end. 

So having said that, let's begin. . . Luke 21 seems to be completely about what we call Armageddon, the end times, at least it seems to be. It sounds scary. It has a ton of difficult imagery. It's harsh. It's intense.

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. [2]  

When we hear texts like this we think, Revelation and Armageddon, and it scares us, and here it's out of the mouth of Jesus, so it's real, and whether we like to think it or not, whether we like to admit it or not, these things seem to surround us daily. Maybe it's not as bad as all this, or maybe it is, maybe things are spiraling out of control, and that it's harder now to be a follower of Jesus, but it isn't easy to be a follower of Jesus any time, and truthfully it never has been easy. Throughout the 2000 years of Christianity every generation felt that they were on the brink of "The End," With people pointing to passages like this as proof, looking at our world, and many times they use that trumped up fear to extend their control through fear. It happens again and again, and there is great danger in this type of thinking.
We've been working our way through the Gospel of Luke since the beginning of Summer, and the reality of the Gospel, the picture it paints of what following Jesus is like certainly has not been an easy walk through the park. Instead it has been an inside and out complete conversion of action and intention, a complete give away all your stuff, and your heart, total submission of will, following towards a complete sacrifice of self for others, and not just friends but even enemies. So with that story as preface to this passage, and the betrayal and crucifixion following fast after, the images of this passage are put into perspective, and though the images are similar to an Armageddon type scene, or an Old Testament prophetic destruction type scene,  at the beginning I said seems, seems to be like Armageddon, seems, so before we jump to conclusions, and let me quote Lee Corso, from College Game Day, and say, "Not So Fast My Friend." The world of this passage does seem to be on the brink, but of what? Is it the end? Before we jump to scary conclusions, that tend to enslave us to and through fear, instead let us take a look at the details to get to the bottom of what is going on here, and what it really means, and what it is saying to us in our context, we may find that it is not pointing towards the end of the world at all. . . we may just find that it's much more intense than that.
First off, lest we get blinded by the imagery, let's look at the question that Jesus is responding to. They are speaking about the temple, how beautiful it is, how large the stones are that it's built of, and how it has beautiful gifts on it "dedicated to God," so the people say, and Jesus says, "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.” This temple and these gifts, "dedicated to God," though they claim to be will fall apart. Then the people ask him, ok well when will all this happen? So Jesus is responding to a question about the temple and within the context of it being taken down and destroyed. Now is the temple in destruction the same thing as Armageddon? If so, then it all happened already, the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and was only rebuilt, and not as a temple but as a mosque over 600 years later in 691. So yeah, if we are to take this literally, the temple did come down, but it was not the end, you know at least not in a final sense, of the end, you know THE END, thanks for coming. Again there is danger in strictly literal interpretations.
Ok, so let's dig deeper into context. . . a figurative understanding of the temple could be more applicable. If you look at what directly precedes this passage, you see Jesus in conflict with officials of the temple, Sadducees and the Scribes. We talked about the Sadducees last week, seeking to catch Jesus in a trick question, and then also in chapter 20, Jesus speaks directly and harshly about the scribes saying:

46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” [3]  

So Sadducees and Scribes, both temple officials, both proud, both using their positions for themselves, both giving Jesus a hard time, both included then in the coming destruction of the temple. Does Jesus simply mean that these guys will soon get what is coming to them, that the tradition that they represent is coming to an end, and being replaced by what Jesus brings. Wouldn't that type of understanding fit, where Jesus claims that he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, which is typically understood as the Resurrection on the Third Day. The temple would be rebuilt, but in the hearts of Jesus' followers, the hearts of all people, broken down outside the walls of the temple, broken down walls that divide people, bringing people together, isn't this the heart of Jesus' message. It is similar to what Jesus tells the Sadducees in what we read last week, God is bigger than what you have built, and bigger than  your traditions, and bigger than those stone walls, and so God will bring them down because he can't be contained in them, no, God will be running loose in the world, not shut up in a temple and not a part of your control any more. Yes this interpretation makes sense.
And certainly attacking tradition like that would cause the divisions talked about, nations and kingdoms, and persecutions to follow. No one likes to be challenged, especially those in power, those of privilege, those who have been all but happy to rest on the traditions and exploit people based on those traditions. Once the rug starts to be pulled from under them they do typically fight back, and who to their opponents. But it appears that the system is broken and is in need of repair. The temple, supposed to be a house of prayer, but has been turned into a den of thieves. The religious leaders, who you would think would be excited about the coming of the Messiah, are not. The poor are being exploited by a system that is supposed to be building them up. Yes the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Yes the system is broken, but Jesus when will it be fixed? Isn't this the question here?
Then come the bewares. Beware of imposters saying, I am he, the time is near. Here is the real danger of this passage, and those like it, and how often is it forgotten? How many times does a person come along, saying the system is broken, and I am the key, I offer solutions to fix it, to save people from the broken system, only to renew the broken system in some other way, the unintended consequences always leave a system still broken, and many time broken worse. Jesus says beware. . . of these quick fixes, these imposters with false solutions, saying the end is near. We call this demagoguery, and the demagogues are always in fashion. Stirring up fear, stirring up worry, promising that they have the only fix to the broken system. In this type of panic about the end, stirred up fears about the end, the demagogues, these false saviors, promise an end that is in their control, and are then authorized to bring about that end by any means necessary, all means are justified. People turn over their lives to them, their hopes their dreams, their freedom, and the broken system is simply sustained, or renewed even more harshly, not destroyed and rebuilt as Jesus promises.
He says that wars and insurrections may also take place, but to not worry. Because the end will not follow immediately, nation against nation,  what war was ever waged that was not supposed to end all wars, but they don't, they never do. But then Jesus says there will be earthquakes, and then famines and plagues, also great fertile ground for a demagogue to rise, all of these are often thought to be dreadful portents and signs from heaven, but remember from Elijah, that God was not in the earthquake, but rather a still small voice, not always the loudest voice, interesting. The right way is not always illuminated by the loudest voice. So all this will happen. . . and then the end will come. . . right, that is what you'd expect, but it doesn't say it. I kept looking forward for the end, but it isn't anywhere.
Instead he says, before this happens, you yourself will be persecuted, and arrested, turned over to the Synagogues, (that's an interesting one) and prisons, brought before kings and governors for my name. You'll get to testify, you'll get to stand up, I'll let you know what to say, but you'll be betrayed by your parents, relatives, even friends, and they may even put some of  you to death. . . You'll be hated, but not one hair upon your head will perish. . . whoa really, "by endurance you will gain  your souls. Did you hear the end? Me neither, rather endurance, strength, on-going trials. The end doesn't come. How interesting. . . Don't you see it. . . It's way too easy to write this passage off as an Armageddon, end times passage, way off in the future type deal, and it still may be that, but it doesn't talk about an easy and quick end, but rather a long arduous journey, where the ends are the false parts, the imposters, where the easy escapes are just aspects of the brokenness of the system trying to remain, like those threatened Sadducees and Scribes who lash out at Jesus and have him Crucified. But look at where Jesus goes in the passage following this one, I want to read it because it isn't the lectionary text for next week:

20 “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22 for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[4] 

Not the end, after all that, but your redemption. The word can also be translated, deliverance, payment of ransom given. Some things end, but the things that end are the broken systems, Jerusalem is what is destroyed. Those inside the city, that system, must leave it. It's over. We talk about the end as if it is something to be feared, something to be avoided, but the end doesn't come the way we think, it's simply a new beginning. When Jesus says that he is the beginning and the end, he means it. That's what it means to be infinite, what it means to be God. Infinite, literally means, no end. We sing it every week.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son :
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be :
world without end. Amen 

I was thinking about this idea lately, especially as I was preparing for this sermon, reading this difficult text, but also, all over the place these days is the idea that the "Ends justify the means." Last Saturday we had a morning program at Blue Ridge where we discussed Lance Armstrong as a case in honor, or really lack thereof, and we talked about how cheating produced for him, money and glory, and fame, and riches, and also money for cancer research, and all kinds of other things we would consider good, and that the boys certainly considered good, and we posed the question was it worth it to cheat. Most said no it wasn't worth it because it all fell apart, or maybe it was because that is what we wanted them to say, but yeah it all fell apart. That's an ends justify the means. . . and if time stood still after he won his tour de frances, we would see it different, but time didn't stop, rather it went on, the end was merely an illusion, time went on and his actions came back to haunt him. There are other stories similarly problematic all over the news. . . questionable means  they may be positive things, they may be sellable as ends justifying the means, but as we see again and again, the ends don't come because they aren't in our control for one, and that there is just no such thing as an end, other than Jesus and he instead offers redemption and deliverance, just like God has done since the beginning.
This isn't the first time that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Check out Jeremiah and Lamentations, Jerusalem's destruction is well documented, but then read Ezekiel, and you'll see who is still in control if there was any doubt. History didn't end then, nor did it in A.D. 70 when the Second Temple was destroyed, nor will it when we stand to trial and are persecuted, or we suffer loss, or get we discouraged, or even when we die, instead through enduring all those things do we come not to the end, but to a beginning beyond our broken systems that we build trying again and again to stave off the end, but the only things that end are those broken systems, and they all do eventually, for they are only the illusion of reality, just as Jerusalem is the illusion of God. When it has all come to pass, and systems fail, God remains, and offers redemption.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:5-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:10-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 20:46-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:20-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.