Sermon: Dreadful Portents and Great Signs

Sunday 13 November 2016
The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21:5-19

57ordinarioc33“Race will rise against race, and empire against empire. There will be powerful earthquakes and widespread famines and epidemics. There will be terrifying sights and great signs.” What is Jesus talking about? If you think it sounds like the end of the world, you would be in good company. It’s easy to get that impression. But it’s actually not the case here. Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world, he’s talking about something else.

There are three versions of this story in the New Testament. Mark 13 and Matthew 24 both record similar stories about Jesus and his sayings. For short, we call this story the Little Apocalypse. In all three gospels, toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus tells stories with apocalyptic signs that seem to foreshadow the end of the world. But each version of the story is different.

Matthew, Mark and Luke—what we call the synoptic gospels—share many of the same stories. But each of the three evangelists tends to tell the story a bit differently than the others do. Each one interprets the stories of Jesus a little differently, each is trying to make a slightly different point about who Jesus is and the significance of his message.

When Mark tells this story, it is most certainly about the end of the world. Matthew’s version is even more rooted in end-of-times theology. But Luke is very careful when he tells this story to make sure that his readers know that Jesus is not talking about the end of the world, but about something that is much closer at hand. As Luke tells it, Jesus is not talking about the end of days; he is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus dies and is resurrected sometime around the year 30 CE. The Gospel of Luke is probably written somewhere around 80 CE. But between these two events, something very important happens, something that isn’t recorded in the bible, but that many of the authors of the New Testament were well aware of. In Roman history it is known as the First Jewish War. Jewish historians tend to call it the Great Revolt.

In 66 CE tensions erupted when Roman soldiers refused to protect the sanctity of a Jewish synagogue in Caesarea, a Roman city on the Judean coast. In response, Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem stopped performing sacrifices on behalf of the Roman emperor in the Jewish Temple. The Jewish king, Herod Agrippa II, who was a Roman collaborator, fled the city of Jerusalem, fearing that anti-Roman sentiment was about to get out of hand. Rome sent in the Twelfth Legion from Damascus to restore order, under the command of Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria. To everyone’s surprise, Gallus did not succeed. Jewish rebels defeated him at the Battle of Beth Horon and their dream of an independent Jewish state was finally realized.

Rome, however, was not about to let a defeat like that stand. Emperor Nero assigned a new commander to retake Jerusalem and teach the Jewish people that Rome was not to be trifled with. The new general was Titus Flavius Vespasianus, commonly known to history as Vespasian. He arrived on the scene with his son Titus, three legions, and additional auxiliary troops, in total about 60,000 soldiers. Vespasian was a great general, and he went about systematically subduing the cities of the region one by one.

While the war was still going strong, there was political upheaval back in Rome. Nero, under increasing pressure, eventual committed suicide, leaving a political vacuum in the great city. Vespasian’s own troops declared him emperor of Rome. After gaining support from other military units, he returned to Rome to claim the throne from its current occupant and left his son, Titus, to finish the job in Judea.

Now more than ever, Judea would have to be made an example of. Not only was the Jewish Revolt a black eye for Rome, but now Judea would be crushed all the more in order to elevate the standing of the new, but far from universally accepted, Emperor Vespasian. Like any uneasy ruler, he needed an enemy, someone to demonize and someone to crush, and he found that enemy in the Jewish people.

By the year 70 CE, Titus was at the gates of Jerusalem. After a siege, his troops breached the walls in the summer of that year, and they showed no mercy. Nearly every inhabitant of Jerusalem, both men and women, about 600,000 people, participated in the defense of the city. Nevertheless, the Romans crushed them, ransacking and burning nearly everything. They destroyed the holy temple, as well, and left nothing of it standing. What they did not destroy or burn, they took back with them as booty to Rome. The temple of God, so important to the religious life of both Jews and Christians, would never be rebuilt again. All that was left standing was a bit of retaining wall on the west side of the temple mount. Even to this day, Jews still visit this last remnant of the temple structure, the wailing wall, to offer prayers to God. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Romans wrapped things up in Judea, finally facing the last of the Jewish resistors at the famous fortress of Masada.

These are the events that Luke believes Jesus is talking about. He is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, about the destruction of the temple, when not one stone would be left standing on another. Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world, although, for those involved, it probably felt like it. These events, these prophesies, that so many Christians today try to use to tell the future—according to Luke, these things have already happened. They happened back in the first century even before Luke wrote down his account. Wars, insurrections, nation rising up against nation—for Luke these are not the signs of the end times, they are events of history, a history that his Christian audience has already lived through. They have already lived through the persecutions, they have already been hauled before authorities and forced to testify, they have already been betrayed by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends. All those things happened during the reign of Nero Caesar. These aren’t events to be afraid of in the future, these are events from the past that believers are happy to have already survived. Those dreadful portents and great signs—they took place nearly 2000 years ago.

And yet, in this week of all weeks, it is hard for many of us to avoid the feeling that the world is ending. The whole world has been shocked this week by the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Some oppose him, some support him wholeheartedly, others support him with reservations, but I think it is fair to say that nearly everyone was surprised when he won. It was not what the experts had predicted. And the depth of the shock people are feeling leads me to risk wading deeper into the political world than I would normally care to do in a sermon. And I hope you will forgive me if I get it wrong.

Across the country now, protests have sprung up. In Portland, thousands of protestors have been out in the streets for five nights now, blocking traffic, trying to get their message heard. Whether we agree with their tactics or not, whether we agree with their message or not, it’s probably fair to say that they think something akin to the end of the world is occurring.

Much of the president-elect’s message is easy to support. Wouldn’t we all like to make America great? Wouldn’t we all like to see more jobs, to see an improved education system, to see a country in which every person has greater opportunity to achieve their dreams? These are all things he has promised. And they are all things I pray he achieves.

At the same time, there are other parts of his message, and the message of some of his supporters, that are deeply troubling. He has often used language of division, a division of us against them. And most of us have little to fear from that division. We are on the safe side of it. And yet, even here in Hood River, Karthik, at ten years old, has been told that he will have to leave the country now because he isn’t a real American. Our daughters, Kaylah and Kiahla, have been told by children at school that they will have to go back to Africa now that Trump has been elected. We can trace their genealogy back seven generations in this country, but that does not keep them from being suspect.

Of course, they heard all of this from other kids, and kids don’t always understand the whole story. They don’t always get all the facts right. But that does not lessen the fear of a child who comes home asking what’s going to happen if they are kicked out of the country. And our three children aren’t the only 9- and 10-year-olds in our community who go home from school worrying about being deported or separated from their families.

Recently, an assembly at Hood River Middle School was interrupted by students chanting, “Build the wall.” Now, on the one hand, that is an exercise of free speech. One of our core values as a nation is that everyone has the right to express their opinions. At the same time, imagine the fear that a hispanic student might feel, regardless of their immigration status, to be in a required school assembly and hear their fellow students chanting a message of exclusion that they feel is aimed at them. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how that could start to feel like the first warning signs of the end of the world.

There is plenty of fear to go around. Many of the president-elect’s core supporters are motivated by the fear associated with declining economic opportunity in rural and industrial America. The sorts of blue collar jobs that used to be plentiful, that used to support a family: there are fewer and fewer of them. They are replaced with machinery, or their jobs are exported to places where there is plentiful cheap labor. These dramatic shifts in our economy have led many to despair, have led many to fear. And they have led some to feel those same kinds of apocalyptic angst, that pressing feeling that the world we thought we knew, the world we thought we could count on, is passing away.

“Whenever you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t be terrified,” Jesus says. “It is necessary that these things happen first, but the end will not come immediately.”

I don’t know what you’re feeling right now. I’m guessing that many of us, on both sides of the aisle, are feeling some of that anxiety and confusion that come with a world in the midst of change. And it’s alright to feel what you feel. Whether it is anger or confusion or optimism or betrayal or anything else. The first thing is to feel what you feel. The Psalms give us boundless examples of that. God is strong enough to handle our emotions, whatever they might be.

Second, though, I would suggest along with Luke that, no matter how much it might feel like it, it is not the end. We have been here before. The church has been here before. We have faced uncertainty before. We have faced struggle and strife before. We have faced injustice before. We have persevered before. We have endured before. We have been transformed before. And we will do it all again. Our ancestors in the faith faced everything we are facing, and often much worse. It doesn’t make the struggle now go away, but remembering that there are others who have walked this way before can help to make the journey lighter.

It is often at the moments of greatest stress and strain that the church has made the strongest and clearest witness to the gospel message. It is often when we are under the most pressure that we are at our best. It is often when the road is hard that we are best able to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

However you are feeling about the news of the last week, however you may be feeling about the other struggles in your life, the truth is that we all face the future together. And so, I pray for wisdom for President-Elect Trump and for his administration. As Secretary Clinton said this week, we owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. I pray for our other leaders and lawmakers, whether they be at the national, state, or local level, that they might act in the interest of those they have been elected to serve. I pray for all of us in America, that we might follow Jesus’s example, that we might be led away from hatred and toward understanding, that we might have the strength to stand up to injustice wherever it might present itself, that we be able, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to love beyond our small circles, to take a risk for those who might be more vulnerable than we are, to see each person as a beloved child of God.

We may see dreadful portents and great signs, but it is not the end. Others have walked this way before. And we don’t travel alone. We travel with the one who laid down his life for the sake of others, Jesus the Christ, our savior your lord. Thanks be to God.

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