Heavenly people in a challenging world
Heavenly people in a challenging world - 17th November 2013
Readings: 2 Thess 3:6-13
Luke 21: 5-19
We’re going through a bit of a rough time with the Lectionary at the moment, aren’t we?! We’re looking forward to those wonderful advent and Christmas readings, but in the meantime we’ve got some of the most challenging AND difficult to understand passages in the whole New Testament. I don’t know about you, but I like my Jesus reassuring, teaching, leading me closer to God; this week we have him giving a Spirit-inspired prophesy about events in the future, and it isn’t comfortable to read or listen to.
Yet in some way, this sequence of readings in November is quite exciting, because normally as the Lectionary drives us briskly through the Gospels we don’t often get the opportunity to follow a theme across several sermons, and yet today’s is the first of three interlinked passages which each form a part of something very deep and important which it is vital to understand if we want our faith to mature.
Last week, on Remembrance Sunday, we heard a parable about what eternal life will be like, and how the faithful dead are now alive in God’s presence awaiting their final resurrection. But we also thought about the effect that each person’s life on earth has on the world and the lives of others; we thought especially about those who fought and died to give us freedom, but acknowledged that every single one of us can do God’s work of saving and healing when we follow Jesus’ example of love and sacrifice.
This week we hear Jesus telling his followers about two events in the future; one destined to happen only 38 years in the future, and one whose timing even Jesus did not know. He didn’t give them this prophecy to frighten or confuse them, but to help them prepare themselves for both these well, frankly, earth-shattering passages of history, because their relationship with God through faith in Jesus was going to be crucial to the survival of their bodies and theirsouls!
Next Sunday, which is the day on which we think about Christ as King, we will be considering even further the world-changing effect that the coming of the Son of God had on human history and human hearts.
The challenge all three of these passages give us, as they have every believer in every generation, is this: when decisions need to be made, when we need to interactwith history as it happens, when our choices affect not just ourselves but our families, churches and whole community, have we got the raw courage to open ourselves up to the will of the one who created and sustains the universe, and are we prepared to join ourselves with him (even if it means personal sacrifice) to enable his will to unfold?
In these verses of Luke’s gospel (and please, when you get a moment, read right through to the end of the chapter, as it helps to get a feel for the whole prophecy) Jesus is doing two things: predicting both the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD and also the day, sometime in the future, when he will return in glory and those who believe in him will enter joyfully into the wonderful New Jerusalem we read about in the book of Revelation. The first will bring death, suffering and misery for all; the second unimaginable joy for some, but fear and confusion for others. Unfortunately for us, as modern Bible readers, in this speech of Jesus’ the two prophecies are interwoven, either because Jesus was deliberately linking them or because the source from which Luke, Mark and Matthew took these words was itself rather confused about what Jesus meant.
Has anyone read any of Lindsey Davis’ historical thrillers about Marcus Didius Falco, the Ancient Roman detective? They are great fun, I do recommend them, and they include a lot of very well-researched historical detail (from which I have learnt most of what I know about this period!). They are set in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, who seized power in the Empire at the end of Ad 68, the Year of Four Emperors, following the death of the crazy Emperor Nero who may or may not have fiddled while Rome burned! Vespasian had become Emperor on the strength of being a great general of Rome’s armies, and his most successful campaigns had been subduing the restless native rebels in Judea, helped by his son Titus. In the year 70 AD, when the Jewish Zealotfreedom-fighters started yet another rebellion in an attempt to push the occupying Roman forces out of Jerusalem, they tested the new Emperor’s patience with the region just too far; Vespasian was actually quite a good emperor (well, he wasn’t as bonkers as some of the others!) but he couldn’t allowinsurgents to threaten the stability of his Empire, so on behalf of his dynasty he decided to flex his muscles and crush them once and for all. We know from the contemporary historian Josephus, who was there to cover the action like a war-zone journalist, that the long siege and eventual sacking of the city, which included the burning and desecration of the beautiful temple and the devastation of the surrounding region, resulted in about ONE MILLION people being killed and countless others suffering from hunger, disease or injuries. By the time Jerusalem was a smoking ruin the Jews were no longer a united people-they scattered across the world, and none of them returned to their homeland until the State of Israel was established after the Second World War.
In a very moving earlier passage of scripture, we were told that Jesus had wept over Jerusalem because he knew that the total failure of the people to listen to his words and repent had made this result inevitable. He also foresaw, however, that a good many of the Christians who HAD listened to his message and committed their lives to him would already have had to leave Jerusalem years before this disaster, because the terrible persecution doled out to them by the inflexible Jewish authorities would drive them out in fear of their lives into the other Roman provinces. I think it’s very interesting that as he warns hisdisciples about the coming persecution of the Early Church, Jesus comforts and encourages them as well, reminding them that God will be right there withthem and give them the right words to speak, working with them to communicate with a hostile world.
The rebellious Zealots who brought about the destruction of Jerusalem were religious people, with the intention of doing something positive for their fellow Jews, but they were acting on their own initiative, without seeking guidance from God, and their actions precipitated a terrible tragedy. Now from what Jesus says, it was inevitable that the Jews would at some point have to leave their homeland, but in God’s plan for them there would never have been this terrible loss of life and suffering. As he so often does, God brought what blessings he could out of the disaster, ensuring that the Jews who dispersed across theworld took with them their unique culture, with its humour, artistic flair and family values, to enrich the new societies they inhabited. But it is a sharp lesson, from which we all need to learn, because as simple beings tied to our own time and understanding, we can never fully comprehend the Master Plans our infinitelywise and infinitely powerful God has for the world and the future of its people. Instead of forging ahead with our own solution we should cultivatethe discipline to WAIT and PRAY for guidance.
As Jesus told his disciples, “ by standing firm you will gain life ”, or, as former Bishop Tom Wright intriguingly translates it, “the way to keep your lives is to be patient”.
How big is your God? Or mine? As churches, and on a personal level, do we tend to make our own decisions and then use our prayer time to ask God to rubber-stamp them, or do we follow Jesus’ example? At decision points in his life, he took time to listen to his Father, and even if the answer wasn’t what he wanted, he prayed “Not my will, but yours”. Do we do that? Do we have patience, and allow God to give us the words to speak?
Jesus goes on from warning the disciples about the coming destruction of their homeland and the persecution they will face as his followers to give them a glimpse of the far future (.....or is it???!!!) when he returns in glory. By doing this he gives them a solution of how to stay positive whilst these trials are crushing them: to remember that although they inhabit this world with all its problems, they are already, through their faith in him, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven!
As the courageous Chinese evangelist and church leader Brother Yun, who was also (like the Early Christians) tortured for his faith by China’s Communist dictators in the 1990s, shouted at his persecutors: “I AM A HEAVENLY MAN!” If we inhabit this world lightly, living as heavenly men and women, wecan bring God’s Kingdominto our nation, community, church and personal lives, and we will be enabling God’s will to be done through us.
I’m going to finish by reading some words from a wonderful hymn which I found the other day when looking for something else. I don’t know what the tune is like, but the words are awesome! Let’s pray these words together:
Father, although I cannot see
the future you have planned,
and though the path is sometimes dark
and hard to understand,
yet give me faith, through joy and pain,
to trace your loving hand.
When I recall that in the past
your promises have stood
through each perplexing circumstance
and every changing mood,
I rest content that all things work
together for my good.
Whatever, then, the future brings
of good, or seeming ill,
I ask the strength to follow you
and grace to trust you still;
and I would look for no reward,
except to do your will.