Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Preparing for the Worst”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 17, 2019
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “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.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 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. “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.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
When my daughter Amelia was in elementary school in Utah, every school year began with certain reminders. We had to send her with the usual items – backpack, pencil and markers, paper and notebooks. But there was one more item that we were asked to provide which made me feel more than a little bit uncomfortable. In fact I dreaded it every year. It wasn’t the selling of popcorn or candy or wrapping paper for the PTO – although I hated that too. At the beginning of each school year, we had to pay for or provide what was known as a “Comfort Kit.” Since Salt Lake City sits on the edge of the Wasatch Fault Line, a large earthquake is predicted for any future date. I remember reading accounts of how when the “big one” hit, the entire valley would be turned into a lake and all along the mountain benches, buildings would collapse or be swallowed up by large crevices. Preparations for such an event were a point of public discussion and residents were urged to have emergency food stuffs, water, and medical supplies on hand. The public schools chimed in with these “comfort kits.” The kits were essentially ziplock bags filled with a snack, a water bottle, a family photo, a game or toy or activity book, and a note from the student’s parents. At the end of the school year the comfort kit was given to the child and then the next fall another comfort kit was constructed.
This note was a hard thing for me to write, so I usually left the task to Laura. I mean what do you write to your daughter when you know she is reading it after an earthquake has stranded her at her school without the knowledge of whether her parents were dead or alive. You can tell them that you love them. You can tell them not to worry. You can tell them that everything is going to be just fine. But you can never be certain if that indeed will be the case. Although the comfort kit and the note was probably an excellent preparation for an unforeseen future calamity, I preferred to have Laura write the note, thus I didn’t have to even think about the possibility.
A few years ago I was asked to speak at a Memorial Day service at a local cemetery. The invitation was delivered informally, well in advance of the event, with a promise of a written invitation which I never received. The week before the event I tried to contact the organizers but for whatever reason my phone calls weren’t returned. I simply figured that someone else was actually planning the event and someone else had been chosen to speak. I wasn’t called because no one wanted to hurt my feelings or perhaps no one knew that I had been asked to speak. I was going to attend the ceremony anyway so it would not be a big deal. When I arrived at the cemetery on Memorial Day morning, I saw my name in the program as one of the two speakers. Fortunately, earlier in the week I had jotted down a few notes, an outline if you will of what I might say if called upon to speak. Before leaving for the service I put those notes in my suit coat pocket. I was prepared. And because I had prepared I was ready for the unexpected.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Temple. According to the author of Luke, this incident occurs after the Palm Sunday grand entrance and shortly before the Passover observance in the Upper Room. After pointing out a poor widow who give all that she has out of her situation of poverty, Jesus starts to speak out about the end of the age and the challenges of faithfulness and discipleship. Jesus’ words are more than slightly frightening, something perhaps like the possibility of that devastating earthquake that we would rather not consider. Even as his words make us feel uneasy, they sound a quite a bit like our current nightly newscast. Rumors of war. Nation rising up against nation. Earthquakes, famine, and plague. Persecution and pain for those who are tested for their beliefs. The destruction of the Temple, the most sacred place of the Hebrew people, the place where many believed God actually resided.
Some throughout the centuries have used these words of Jesus to point at what is happening in the world and warn the faithful that the time of Jesus’ prediction is near. Some faith leaders have gone so far to actually attribute hurricanes and flood and earthquakes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks to certain moral sins or the secularization of society. Others have comfortably and confidently said that natural disasters are tools of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful, just as Jesus predicted. In many ways, this passage has been lifted up as cause for God’ people to prepare for the end times by interpreting the deep and dark events of their world as God’s sign that something big was imminent.
But I believe that it is important to note that Jesus’ words here in Luke are not a prediction of things to come, but more of a reflection upon things that have already happened. Historically, scholars believe that Luke’s gospel was written in about 85 A.D., fifteen years or so following the destruction of the Temple by Roman forces in around 70 A.D. So, instead of predicting the future, the author of Luke uses Jesus’ words to make a statement about the things that we humans perceive to be secure and comfortable.
Yes, Jesus says that there will be times when even the most secure thing in our foundation might be shaken. There will be times in our life experience and times in the unfolding of world events in which we feel as if everything is falling apart. These words are an example of apocalyptic writings. Such literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should put their trust in God when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Here in Luke, as Jesus describes war and famine and persecution and even the destruction of the Temple, he tells his listeners not to be afraid. But he does not say that these events are signs of an end or a judgment. He says that they are the kinds of event that move us to trust that God is with us in the midst of our life. The things of the world will not last. All around us may seem like chaos and darkness, these things are not signs of God’s absence by God’s presence. God is still there with us, holding us up and giving us the strength that we need.
Jesus says that such times are an opportunity not to judge or fear or proclaim God’s judgment upon the rest of society, although fear and judgment are ways in in which much of the world functions today. No, he says that instead, such times are opportunities to testify. He warns us not to be to fixed upon the things that make usually make for human security but to be firm and to keep our eyes set upon that which God seeks and that which offers to others God’s mercy. Despite the images of destruction, this passage is ultimately a passage grounded in hope, a hope that God is always present in the world, even in the moments in which it feels otherwise. The hope is not a denial of the struggles and pain. The hope is in the opportunity for us to endure and to point to where God is working to change things for the better. In his commentary on this chapter, Father Michael Patella writes, “The best way to prepare for calamity that could happen at any time is to always be looking for Christ in every person and circumstance.”
Theologian Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion on the wall of his study, painted by the artist Matthias Grunewald. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, his extra long finger raised and pointing the onlooker to the cross of Jesus in the center of the painting. It was said that when Barth would talk with a visitor about his work, he would direct them not to the cross in the center, but to John the Baptist in the corner. Barth would say, “I want to be that finger.” He wanted his life to testify to the presence and victory of Christ in all things.
In her book, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about a friend of hers who was 97 years old. The friend suffered from short term memory loss but her long term memory seemed to get better with age. One day she told Barbara about a hike she and her girlfriends took up Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The then young women started their hike too late in the day and went much too far. Before they knew it, the beautiful sunset that they were admiring had turned into a fog so dusky that they could not see their hands in front of their faces. No one had a flashlight, since flashlights had not been invented. No one was sure which way was the best way down, but they would hands and under no circumstance let go of one another and they walked down the mountain together. This is how they did it, one girl in the lead, picking her way down the mountain one step at a time. The rest of the group was behind her, strung out along the path, holding each other’s wrists like a human chain. Recalling the day the woman said, “Sometimes, all I could see was the hand in front of me and the hand behind me. Sometimes my arms ached so badly I thought I would cry out loud. But that is how we made it down the mountain at last. We found our way home by holding on to one another.”
As the faithful, we are to prepare for what is around us and what is to come. Come earthquake and famine, come persecution and pain, come signs of terror and doubt- we are not to base our future on items of our own security and the lifeboat of judgments of fear and hatred. We are to cling to the promise of God and to hold on to one another. Jesus said, “Do not be terrified for all these things must take place. For lo, I am with you always. This is your time to testify.”