Jesus and his disciples were getting attention in Jerusalem. The important people were uneasy with his talk about the Kingdom of God, since he was talking trash about the religious leaders. The disciples, mostly fishermen, were sightseers in Jerusalem. At least they were unaccustomed to a city. One of them remarked, “Look at how big these stones are, and how big these buildings are!” Jesus had a different opinion. “These great buildings? Not one of them will endure. They will all be destroyed.”
Later, some disciples asked him, “Tell us when will these things be destroyed, and what forewarning will we have? When will this world end?” People in all ages have wondered when the end will come, and more important, all of us have wondered if our own private world will end. We have all known the world of the unexpected. If we are in good times, we share the universal fear by asking, “How long will this good period last?” But the death of a loved one, an unexpected career change, the loss of a relationship, or a life-threatening illness – we know about a sudden stop. We wonder, “Will we know when the end is about to come? What will we do when the curtain closes?”
Over and above all these is just one question, “Is God with us?” I think Emerson said that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. It is easy to understand the feeling of desperation of so many people, especially in our nation. Think of current events – suicide bombers, school or shopping center shootings, terrorism, crime, lack of confidence in our governments, illness, unemployment, endless wars. We each have a list. The world is in deep trouble. Is the end near? We might say, “Surely God will bring this mess to an end.” Scripture does not encourage such a prediction.
If Jesus and his disciples walked through any shopping center in High Point, or Greensboro, they would find people fearful for themselves and their families. Jesus says to disciples in every age, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” We hear all kinds of voices telling us that surely we are in the last days, that the second coming and the-so-called rapture is not many days away. The world is about to end and we’d better get ready by discarding our sins so we can be saved at the rapture – although that word does not appear in scripture. Such preaching may make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but the alarm will pass.
Jesus said, with a much more realistic approach, even if you hear end of the world stories, do not be alarmed. These things happen, and will keep on happening, but they are not signs that the end of the world is near. “As for yourselves, know where you stand. Your first priority is to see that the Gospel is proclaimed.
“When you are called on for your witness, you should be able to rely on the natural presence of the Holy Spirit to guide you as you say whatever should be said. “Remain faithful to your calling and the words will come. No matter what happens, you are called to keep faithful.”\ That last phrase tells us how to live in the midst of extremity, whether we want to think about our personal situation or about the condition of the world in general. We are called to endure. We can also take lessons from what is not said. We are not called on to consider world or personal events and use them to make predictions about when or how the world will end or when Messiah will come.
Only the Father knows. When Matthew wrote this same story, he quoted Jesus saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We are called neither to identify certain persons as the long-awaited Messiah, nor to honor the claims of those who say they are especially sent from God. It is obvious that we as individuals cannot predict the end of the world, nor are we expected to identify the Messiah. The priority matter for us is revealed in answering the question, How shall we live? Once again, look at Jesus’ word to his disciples. He says, “As for you, beware.”
Then he describes some of the circumstances that the early Christians faced. The teller of this particular story to me 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection may have been careful to include those very troubles that the early church was suffering. Christians were indeed being handed over to councils and they were beaten in the synagogues. We need not be afraid of our judicial authorities because we are faithful Christians.
Nor shall we be taken prisoner and expect a beating if we say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But the intent of Jesus’ advice to his disciples in looking forward to a particular trial is still good for us when we face the difficulties of living in an unpredictable world. His admonitions are based on at least two assumptions. The first is that the Father in heaven is lovingly aware of our situation, whatever it is, and the second is that God is in charge, and we are not. Does that get our attention?
At a synod convention, I overheard a pastor saying he had been too long at his congregation. His sermons had no effect – that the three generations of fights among certain families were as bad as ever. Nothing he said could improve the situation. What hurt him the most, he said, was that while everybody was polite during worship, when worship was over and they went out the swinging doors at the back of the room, the people had obviously had not heard a word he said about love for others, and old arguments and disagreeable personalities were right back to where their ancestors were70 – 80 years ago.
Well. In a room such as ours, what happens in this room is deep reality for us, because in this activity we encounter God. He is present to love and bless and give himself to chosen people. Church is really like a gas station. We come with our personal tanks close to empty. Here we sing, pray, listen, take bread and wine and renew our baptism. We mingle with each other—and I love it. We share the common bond of our faith. We engage God because He is present and we are his people. And I love to overhear you talking with each other before I stand up to continue our formal worship. I think worship really begins when you greet each other and ask “How are you today?”
Here we sing our hymns and then hear the stories of Jesus and his days, of the Old Testament giants, heroes of mythic proportions. Here we encounter flesh and blood heroes who went forth for conflict, who conquered in the name of the Lord, who ran the race and kept the faith. We are their spiritual descendants. They are our network of support. If God was with them, he is with us. Some of those heroes lapsed into acts unworthy of them, but they got up and endured.
They held out until the end. If they failed and were discouraged and yet returned to faithfulness by the power of God, then the same will be true for us. When we go forth from this place, it is not as though we have engaged in something that is over until we gather again. Rather, we are caught up into the presence of God who comforts us and keeps us day by troublesome day and night by restless night. We have no assurance from God about how long the world will last, nor do we know when our own time shall come, nor can we know when some great change will come without warning. What we do know is that our present, past and future are in the hands of God. His Spirit is with us. He is in charge.
No matter how frightening or uncertain any current events may be, the love of God is with us. We may be worried about our family, our future, or some dramatic change in how we live, or be burdened with a vague and nameless dread. Can we face that future? Yes, we can because the Spirit of God is with us. You don’t have to feel anything different. God promised Isaac in Genesis to be with him. Then in the last chapter of the Bible it is written, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
And that, my brothers and sisters, means that we shall never be alone.