Thanks be to God?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), November 17, 2013

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugenm Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In many churches, after the Gospel is read, the congregation responds “Thanks be to God!”  It happens largely by rote, because it’s the appropriate thing to say.  I wonder how many people are going to have trouble saying “Thanks be to God” after today’s Gospel lesson?  Jesus is talking about wars, famines, plagues, persecutions, signs and portents, and he’s pretty clear that Christians won’t be spared.  These aren’t things only the unfaithful will have to deal with, and they’re not punishments for being bad.  They just are, and being faithful is not a get-out-of jail-free card.

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from the later part of Luke; the next chapter starts the beginning of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ last days before the crucifixion.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, and he knows what’s coming.  He knows that the Pharisees and the Saducees and the chief priests are conspiring against him.  He knows that although he’s told the disciples—quite plainly—about what’s going to happen to him, they don’t understand and don’t want to understand.  Like many people today, the disciples thought that being faithful to God should mean success.  This is only a few days after Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, with crowds shouting his name and praising him as the Messiah.  That was what the disciples hoped would be the pattern for the future—rapidly growing numbers of followers, the Gospel spread far and wide, society reformed to be closer to God’s plan.  Good people rewarded, faithful people praised, and bad or unfaithful people left out and gotten rid of.  They thought Palm Sunday was proof of how well things were going, and an example of how things were going to be from then on.  They were excited.

Jesus, meanwhile, knew what was coming.  While they were congratulating themselves and admiring the Temple like a tourist, Jesus was getting ready to die.  And he was trying to prepare them for what was going to come.  Jesus knew that faithfulness is not a magic armor against the problems of the world.  Jesus knew that his own faithfulness was going to result in his arrest, trial, and death on the cross.  True, the world would be saved through that faithfulness even to the point of death … but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was really going to have to die a brutal, painful death, first.  And Jesus knew that God’s kingdom, God’s reign on Earth was going to come … but that the road to get there wasn’t going to be easy.  The disciples needed to be prepared for what was coming.

So when they stood around admiring the Temple, Jesus interrupted their admiration.  Yes, the Temple was very impressive—but it wasn’t going to last for long.  “The days will come,” he told them, “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  The disciples were shocked—they were talking about the Temple, the holiest place on Earth!  Surely God wouldn’t let it be destroyed; or at least, surely its destruction would herald the coming of God’s kingdom when the Temple would be rebuilt even grander.  “Teacher,” they asked, “When will that happen, and how will we know?”

As it happens, the destruction of the Temple was not a sign of the end times.  Most of them would live to see it.  In 70 AD, just about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, killed most of its inhabitants, and razed the Temple to the ground.  The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is all that is left of it.  The Temple was destroyed in retaliation for a rebellion against the Roman Empire, and it was neither the first nor the last such rebellion.  In the 2,000 years since there have been many wars.  There have been famines, persecutions, earthquakes and famines, portents and signs from heaven.  There have been people claiming to be followers of God who have led many people astray, and there have been many who claimed that they knew when the end was going to come and led people astray that way.  And during all that time, Christians have not been immune from any of these hardships.  To the best of my knowledge, good and faithful Christians have never suffered less than other people, and sometimes Christians actually suffer more than other people because of persecutions.

The disciples certainly suffered in the decades after Jesus’ death.  Some were killed in persecutions of Christians; Peter, for example, was crucified like Jesus was.  Paul was imprisoned many times for his faith.  And many of those who weren’t killed for their faith got swept up in the wars and uprisings around them.  When Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, many Christians who lived in the city died alongside their neighbors.  Many of those who didn’t die suffered in other ways.  As if that weren’t enough, there were people right from the beginning who claimed to be followers of Jesus who distorted the Good News and led people astray.  Jesus’ followers needed to know what they were up against; they needed to know life wasn’t going to be a bowl of cherries.

Jesus had tried telling them this in parables and other teachings, but they hadn’t listened.  So in today’s Gospel Jesus was very blunt.  Yes, the end is coming.  But you aren’t going to know when, and there’s going to be a lot of bad stuff happening between then and now.  Don’t be surprised by it, and don’t ever think that bad things mean you’ve been abandoned by God.  Because throughout all that time, through all the wars and rumors of war and natural disasters and false prophets, God will be with you.  No matter what happens, God will be with you, guiding you.  God’s Holy Spirit will fill you with life even in the midst of death.

I’ve never been in a war zone, or a natural disaster; I’ve never been persecuted by my faith.  But there have been hard points, times when I’ve felt my life crashing down around my ears.  There have been times I’ve failed, and felt life bowing up in my face.  But even then, God was with me, giving me strength and inspiring me with the Holy Spirit to face the trials in front of me.  I didn’t always see that strength and inspiration at the time—too often it felt like I was on my own.  But looking back I can see God’s grace and the gifts God gave me when times were hardest.

I know many of you can tell similar stories—times when you have faced things that seemed like they would destroy you.  Abuse, bankruptcy, serious illness or injury, mental illness, addiction, rape, the suicide of loved ones.  All these and more have disrupted and destroyed lives of those inside this church and this community.  Things may look nice and pretty on the outside, but people tell me stories of the darkest times in their lives, and that darkness can be deep and overwhelming.  And yet, when people tell me those stories, filled with heartbreak and frustration and despair, I often hear something besides pain.  I hear how God helped them through that darkness, in many and various ways.  Sometimes it was through the actions of friends and family who offered a shoulder to cry on when things seemed beyond hope.  Sometimes it was through a surprising turnaround at the last minute.  Sometimes it was through a beloved hymn or scripture passage that comforted them.  Sometimes it was the strength to endure, or the courage to begin rebuilding their life and themselves after their old life and self had been destroyed.

We get this picture sometimes, of what life is supposed to be like.  Like the disciples, we often think that being faithful Christians means that things should always go well for us.  We think that troubles should be easily surmounted, that hard work should always ensure prosperity, that praying should ensure we always have everything we want when we want it, and that our church should always be harmonious and filled with life.  And then something happens—a drunk driver who kills two teen girls, maybe, or cancer strikes a loved one, or the economy fails—and we can’t make sense of it.  Where was God?

People ask me, sometimes, why bad things happen to good people, why a loving God allows horrible things to happen.  People ask me why there is suffering and evil in the world.  I don’t know.  But this I do know, for certain and sure: no one suffers alone.  God, who created us, who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake, whose Spirit dwells within us, is always with us.  No matter what evils we face, no matter what has been done to us, no matter what we have done or failed to do, God is with us.  Even when friends and family abandon you, God does not.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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