The days are coming when not one stone will be left on another; all will be thrown down. Prophets have been promising the end of the world for thousands of years. But in most cases, they are fear-mongers trying to gain followers by making them believe that disaster is imminent and that the only way to escape is to give the fear-mongering leader all their money.
But unlike most of the prophets of destruction, Jesus has a different motivation. Yes, disaster will come, he says, but you will be safe. You will be unharmed. And that’s a promise that you and I and all of us desperately need to hear. Somehow, the holy days of Thanksgiving and Christmas can raise the sorts of conflicting emotions that Jesus’ audience must have felt. Nation will rise against nation. You will be hated because of my name. But not a hair on your head will be harmed. At this time of year, perhaps more than any other, the happiness and joy of this season is struggling to push past the losses we’ve experienced throughout the year. The conflicts in our personal lives with family members can erupt over seemingly trivial matters, making the dinner table feel more like a battleground. The hyped-up expectations of the holidays are filtered through the media, advertisements, and our own childhood memories of a simpler time. All of which comes up against the real anguish of a broken world and the brokenness each of us feels in our own lives.
Luke’s gospel, with its words of warning, its cautionary expectation and, yes, its promise of hope can help clarify our own needs. We live in a country filled with anguish over the ways we are treating one another. We are a nation torn apart by fear and by very real prejudice over people who are different. We live in a world ceaselessly battered by endless wars.
We see so very clearly the divide between the haves and the have-nots, too often ruled by politicians for their own gain, self-interest, and profit, leaders who fail us and fail God. And, of course, we are struggling with our own concerns. Among us are folks facing a loss, battling an illness, struggling over our own mental and physical health. And beyond these walls we know there are families living without enough food, without clean water, and even without shelter. Where is the hope that Jesus promises, the hope we so desperately need?
They are here, if we only have ears to listen. Jesus offers words of hope as he prepares his disciples for the advent of a new age. He begins by describing the changes that will come into the world. In doing so, he reminds us of the impermanence of the things of this world. All that we devote our energy and effort and resources to, if they are things that are external, they are little more than monuments to our own vanity. The only thing that matters is relationship, the promise of hope and the trust of true faith.
And then he points us toward the promise that does matter, the promise that will outlast anything built with human hands, the promise he will fulfill with his own life, that “not a hair on your head shall perish.” We know that even in the suffering we are experiencing, we have at our core, through the promise of Christ, the courage to reach the place where hope can thrive.
Whenever we see signs that appear to indicate the end of the world – these stones will be thrown down – they are invariably indicating larger cycles of time. What looks like the end of the world might well be the end of a particular stage of the world’s history. And when things seem darkest, when the chaos appears to be at its peak, as Jesus reminds us, this indicates that the Kingdom of God is very near indeed.
And it is such a time that might well be the church’s moment. Just when popular culture has written us off, when surveys and the evidence of our own eyes seem to indicate that this is the end of the road – this is our time. Now more than ever is when we are needed to speak up for the vulnerable and oppressed of the world.
The church as an institution has always been associated with change in human lives – change that most of us go through like birth, illness, marriage, and death. The church pronounces blessing and grace during those moments of change, whether those moments are painful or joyous.
There is no doubt that you and I are living in a tumultuous time. But each of us gets to leave here today and be the church. Every single one of us can make a few deposits of moral capital in the seemingly depleted accounts of common decency and mutual concern.
Start small: If you are feeling scared, reach out and comfort someone who is also frightened. If you are feeling glad, share your joy. That’s what it means to be the church. It means that today you and I can be a new opportunity for love and a new witness to audacious hope.