Monday, November 18, 2013

November 17 revised, Proper 28; Contradiction 11: The Worst of Times and the Best of Times

Malachi 4:1-2a,
Psalm 98,
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13,
Luke 21:5-19

Live recording of the sermon

The Lord Jesus says this during the last week of his life, a few days after Palm Sunday. He’s teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple is busy with pilgrims arriving to celebrate the Passover.

The Temple is a grand complex of buildings and courtyards; it’s a combination cathedral, White House, and Capitol Building. The Temple has been under construction for fifty years, since 19 BC, in a long-term project of expansion and lavish aggrandizement, with the general backing of the Roman government, and it’s being paid for by taxes and donations. It won’t be finished for another thirty years, in AD 64, and then only six years after that, in AD 70, the whole thing will be burned and demolished by the Roman army of Titus Caesar.

The Lord Jesus was predicting it. He was not speaking here about the end of the world, despite how many Christians keep on reading it this way. He was speaking to his own context. He was predicting the impending catastrophe of Israel. The demolition of the temple. The destruction of Jerusalem. The expulsion of the Jewish population from their own capital city. The exile once again. All of this at the hands of the Romans.

The Lord Jesus could see it coming. He wasn’t the only one. The Jewish leaders feared this too — they who had to manage the Roman occupiers from the underside and keep the lid on their own turbulent people and their aspirations for independence. Over six decades, Jesus was just one of some fifteen patriotic agitators claiming to be “messiah”. Most of them were open to using violence (just as we did in 1776). In the name of God their followers ambushed Roman soldiers and terrorized Samaritans and murdered each other, and finally the Romans had enough, destroying the Temple just forty years after Our Lord’s prediction.

I leave it to your own judgment whether Jesus predicted this out of clear-headed political insight or from some miraculous vision, or both. Biblical prophecy is always both literal and metaphorical, always both political and spiritual, local and global, historical and eternal. In that sense it was the end of the world. Jesus was speaking of a catastrophic adjustment in the religion of the Bible.

He was non-violent, but he was a revolutionary, and he caused a global change: from a religion that was centered geographically and focused politically and defined by ethnicity to a world-embracing and supra-political movement claiming universality, addressing every nation and the life on earth of every human being. It was a whole new way of serving the God of the Bible, and a whole new way of living in this world.

What I do not leave to your own judgment is whether this trouble for Jerusalem was the result of God’s manipulation of historical events or the predictable result of human politics — that is, the cause and effect of what happens when subject peoples act in certain ways against their brutal overlords. It was the latter.

The only manipulation of historical events was God’s incarnation in the Son of Mary and Joseph, and his teaching, and his crucifixion and his bodily resurrection. That was enough for God to do.

That one great singularity has been quite enough for God to insert into the ordinary course of human events in order to catalyze the long-term judgment of the world. So that the nations judge themselves. The principalities and powers expose themselves. The living Word of the Lord Jesus is the once-for-all and perfectly sufficient catalyst by which the truth keeps coming out about the world, and about the pretensions of our empires and our self-destructions and our devices and desires, and about our simple daily hopes and fears.

In this judgment of the world we are given a critical part to play, and that is by means of a very strange strategy: little communities of Jesus scattered through the empire. Little congregations, fragile, powerless, like in Thessalonika. What a contradictory strategy for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, by which to exercise his Lordship and dominion over all the earth. I mean the Thessalonian Board of Deacons needs instruction on whom they can give free food to and whom not, and the Thessalonian Board of Elders needs advice on what do with those freeloaders and busybodies that every church attracts, and is this the strategy of God for overcoming the world?

Yes, our little communities of Jesus are the squadrons and battalions in the army of the Lord of Hosts. But our only weapon is our witness, our only strategy is our testimony to the Word of God. We’re like United Nations peacekeepers, we’re like the Canadian army, we have to have the same instinct for world domination as Canadians do. Hah!

This strategy of witness is not based on the testimony of individuals, despite the emphasis of evangelicalism, but on the testimony of congregations, even little congregations; and that not by their public statements or pronouncements, but by their life together — how their mutual behavior with each other gives form and shape and character to the Words of God which they rehearse. We are the witnesses. That’s all. We are not the judges, nor the juries, nor prosecutors nor public defenders, we are just the witnesses. That’s enough. And because it’s from our life together more than from what we say, that’s a lot. 

I know for myself that often I just want to go to church and worship God and then go home. No coffee hour, thank you, no gossip, no nervous conversations, no membership, no committee work, all the stuff that comes with congregations, pledging, tithing, obligations, weeknight meetings, it’s like one more co-op to go with the food co-op and the building I live in.

That’s why I always go to church when I’m on vacation, because that’s when I can just walk in and worship God and walk right out again. I don’t have to do all this other stuff. Do you wish for that when you come here? You’re allowed to. We give you room for that, as long as you need it. We will not judge you, because we are not your judges.

But you know you can’t love God if you don’t love your neighbor, and being forgiven of your trespasses means you forgive those who trespass against you, especially church members, and the worship of God requires ethics, so you practice your ethics on your fellow worshipers. And thus a group of worshipers who practice their ethics on their fellow worshipers is what you would call a community of Jesus.

That’s why we do this, Old First, this community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn: contradictory but not antagonistic, contradictory but not fearful, contradictory but not angry, not defensive, not different, not even distinctive, but fully engaged in the same life of the world with everybody else, in the same schools and the same soccer leagues and the same restaurants — but then also by our life together as a fragile congregation bearing witness to the foolishness of the Cross and the impossibility of the Sovereignty of God.

It is the best of times and the worst of the times. We live with the great contradiction of the absolute sovereignty of God on the one hand, and on the other, the freedom and success of pride and prejudice and vengeance and violence and hatred and destruction in the world. The obvious temptation is for us to live defensively in anger and in fear, as if our Christian duty in our culture is to defend a better past, or preserve a Christian nation or Christian civilization, or protect our Christian values. Many Christians feel the need to do that in America, but that is like fighting to defend the temple in Jerusalem. As Jesus says, “Do not go after them.”

Of course America is under judgment, but not by us. We are not the judges nor the jury, for every nation must now judge itself against the standards of the gospel, exposing to itself its violence, exposing to itself its greed, exposing to itself its disregarding of the poor. Of the contradictory patterns of healing and generosity and love we are witnesses. Even in our weakness, especially in our weakness, for then it is Jesus who is exposed in us and in our common life.

The whole point of this sermon is to encourage you, congregation of Old First, so that you “not be weary in doing what is right.” You are tempted by our weakness and by your experience of suffering which contradict the promises of God. And even the promises can be contradictory. Jesus says, “Some of you they will put to death, but not a hair of your head will perish.” So, you’ll die but with a full head of hair? Of course, prophetic language is never not both literal and metaphorical. How about this: “Old First, you will be betrayed by your colleagues and even hated because of the name of Jesus, but not a rib from your sanctuary ceiling will ever fall.”

But of course it’s how we deal with the falling of our ceiling that is our chance to witness. We bear witness by the priorities that we set for our community in such a trying situation, where we put our energy and love. Because as our preacher (Rev. Dr. Steve Pierce) said to us last week, Old First, you are not your building. You are not your pastor, you are not your history, you are not your program. You are your community of Jesus within the community of Brooklyn welcoming persons of every race, ethnicity, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God and to love your neighbors as yourselves. You just do this, and you let God take care of judging the world and saving it. It is God who loves it, after all, and more than you do!

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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