First Reading Malachi 4:1-2
Second Reading: Psalm 98
Epistle Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Gospel Reading: Luke 21:5-19
Sermon: “Opportunity in Disguise”
Planning is a good thing isn’t it? Teachers diligently plan their lessons, corporate boards and executives construct detailed multi-year strategies and architects and engineers may spend a couple of years of detailed planning before the first shovel full of dirt is ever turned on a new facility. We humans plan and plot and scheme and sometimes… rarely… Well …OK, almost never do things go according to plan. Events overtake our plans, unforeseen obstacles appear, people fail us, or perhaps its our fault and we fail others. As Dwight Eisenhower once said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” We end up realizing that we are not in ultimate control.
That can be a very humbling thing – perhaps a very scary thing, but also a very good thing if we trust in God who does all things well. So hang on tight for a ride into the unknowable future, where opportunity lies waiting in the strangest places. Fear not – Don’t be terrified Jesus says. You don’t control events but be ready – that is willing to respond to the opportunities that present themselves to witness to the truth of the gospel. Strangely, Jesus says don’t rehearse, don’t try to write it all out in advance. Just trust the Holy Spirit, which is the gift of Jesus to all who believe in him, to provide what needs to be said, when it needs to be said.
Trust in God is the point of all of the readings today. Trust that God is in ultimate control despite the scary things that have been going on and will continue to occur. Jesus had tried to teach them that lesson out on the lake – Out in the fierce storm when they were so panicked while he slept in the back of the boat. Jesus showed himself master of the winds and the waves. Well, we are going to be talking about different sorts of winds and waves today – winds and waves like wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues and the like. Events that impact our lives – failures and betrayals and injustice. Scripture asks us if we believe strongly enough to get in the boat again and again. Not because we trust the seaworthiness of the boat, but because we trust the Lord.
Our gospel lesson today is starts off innocently enough. Jesus and his disciples were in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus had been teaching there since his dramatic entry on Sunday. He had just pointed out the Widow who had put in her 2 little copper coins and the disciples had gotten distracted gazing in wonder at all the glorious architecture and fabulous decorations all around them. The original temple which Zerubbabel had built after the return from the Babylonian exile was a functional, but relatively modest structure. However, Herod the Great had embarked on a massive project to rebuild, not only the temple, but much of Jerusalem. He doubled the size of the Temple mount with massive retaining walls – the only part of the temple which remains to this day. He built a massive temple and surrounded it with colonnades and courts where people could gather. The original work, begun in 19BC was completed in only a couple of years, but the details and decorating was on going Through Jesus’s ministry, clear up until 64AD. It was the largest Temple anywhere in the Roman world, and the very center of Jewish life.
What a shock it must have been to the disciples to hear Jesus say that not one stone was going to be left on another. Of course it did happen exactly that way when the Romans quelled a revolt in 70AD and Jerusalem together with its temple was conquered and systematically demolished. This event had likely already happened when Luke penned his Gospel. But he records Jesus’ words prior to the events as a way of reminding the church that no one sneeks up on God. These events were all figured into God’s plan and this was no time to give up and despair.
The young Church had already experienced much of what Jesus had told them to expect. Persecution had already started. The Book of Acts tells us much about how this played out, first with the Sanhedrin trying to silence Peter and John when they continued Jesus preaching ministry in those temple courts after his resurrection and ascension. They treated their arrest as just the opportunity Jesus had said by preaching to the Sanhedrin, the temple guardsmen and anyone else who would listen. And so the church continued to grow.
Later Saul persecuted the church until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Then and there, the foremost persecuter of the church became its foremost evangelist spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. All along his path were those who opposed him, betrayed him, arrested him and beat him. Yet in the path behind him were new congregations and church after church; also a string of converted jailers, soldiers and kings and governors who heard the gospel.
After Paul’s final arrest, he even appealed to the Emperor himself and was taken to imprisonment in Rome. That only gave him occasions to spread the gospel even more. Further persecution under Nero resulted in the execution of both Peter and Paul by the Romans. What happened? Did the church die with its foremost leaders gone? No, it changed and grew. The destruction of Jerusalem that Jesus warned about only
dispersed the early church and sent it’s leadership into new areas, Later, the harsh persecutions under emperors Decian and Diocletian only dispersed it further, and occasioned impassioned writing and speeches, some of which we still have with us today.
Through it all, the Words of Jesus echoed truly, and the great congregation of believers found new ways to be the body of Christ in the world, outlasting the Old Roman Empire. In the course of time, the base of the empire moved to Byzantium and Christianity became the region of the State – what we remember as the Holy Roman Empire. Though it certainly resulted in some wondrously gorgeous architecture and grand building campaigns, the fire of the early church began to dim. The Eastern Church split from the Western church and many challenges beset both. Eventually, with the rise of other powers and the rapid growth of Islam in the 700’s, Christianity found itself on the defensive once again.
We don’t have time to trace the incredible history of church on through the intervening ages, full of challenges, mixed with opportunities – but always… always God planted men and women of faith who spoke and wrote the truth of the Gospel in good times and bad. Their testimonies preserved the truth. Always, there have been trials, scary times, and wondering whether the end of all things was at hand – right up to the present day.
In his classic song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” Billy Joel lists over 100 names and events spanning history from the aftermath of WW2 in 1949 up to 1989 artfully arranged to fit the tune in rhyme and meter – year by year. Most of it is a depressing list with a few bright spots scattered in. For those of you who may not remember it, the 5th and last verse covers the last couple of decades before 1990.
The chorus goes like this: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning. We didn’t start the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it. It just goes on and on and on”.
That’s one way to look a history and the trajectory of events. We could write another couple verses to bring the song closer to our current time, but many of the same problems are still very current and it wouldn’t make the song any more upbeat if we did. Jesus would have us look at it another way. Rather than looking for the bottom or the end. Jesus reminds us of the long thread of salvation woven all about through history. Many of the greatest things grow from some of the worst, like the spread of Christianity spread by destruction and persecution. Do we seek such things then? No, of course not. But we must be aware that in such times and through such events, opportunities will be brought before us. Opportunities to testify to the truth and show the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ. Nor are we to give up and just wait as Paul firmly reminds the Thessalonians. Here is work to be done, souls to be saved and love to be shared. Opportunities abound – only realize that many of them come disguised as problems and worries.
Today, many look at what is going on around us and bemoan the passing of “American Churchianity,” as some call it. True, the Church is changing, it is in the process of becoming something new. Here in the middle of it, we cannot yet see what that will be. But we do know that God is faithful and that there is much work to be done. Beware of false Messiah’s – folks with easy simple answers to all problems. It’s never worked that way. Faithful, prayerful, loving perseverance is our instruction. That is enough for us.
This is our mission – to persevere – firm in the Knowledge that everything is working out to plan – God’s plan for the Kingdom of Heaven to be realized on this earth at the appointed time. We don’t have to plot and plan and worry – matter of fact our powerlessness to know in advance how to speak and act might be our best qualification – we belong to God and we have Jesus’ promise that “I will give you words.” They are and will always be a gift to the faithful. Our Christ possesses a wisdom that this troubled world cannot calculate or comprehend.
So Pray, watch, Testify and Work to share the love of Christ until he comes again.