Sermon - 13th November 2016
An opportunity to testify
Scripture - Luke 21:5-19
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
When we need to describe a big earth-shattering event in a truly vivid way, it helps if we have had some experience of what we are trying to describe. We tend to speak emotionally and with conviction when we’ve actually felt the emotions that follow some kind of catastrophic change.
A piece of writing similar to today’s reading from Luke is found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew as well. Each of the first three gospels have an episode - all of them in much the same dramatic style - where Jesus prophesies what will happen to the world when he is no longer in the world.
And the stories are vivid and gripping because each of the communities that eventually brought forward the accounts that we know as the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke actually lived through many of the dramatic events that they report Jesus as prophesying.
Their various traditions depicting Jesus’s life and teaching during the early 30s of that first century AD attributed these prophetic sayings to Jesus himself. But by the time the gospels emerged in their final forms - around 70 AD for Mark, 80 AD for Matthew, and 85-90 AD for Luke - those communities had seen those prophecies actually happen: they had had some experience of what they were trying to describe when they recalled and reported what they believed Jesus had said.
The magnificent temple in Jerusalem during the lifetime of Jesus was the result of a rebuilding project started by King Herod in 19 BC. Herod more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount. While the temple itself was completed in eighteen months, work on the outer courts and decorations continued throughout and beyond Jesus' lifetime until around 64 AD.
In Jesus’s prophecy, the destruction is described as "not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down". In fact, less than a decade after everything was completed in the temple of Jesus’s day, it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
Those three gospel writers knew about this - they probably watched it happen. And so, with the benefit of hindsight, they can include prophecies in their writings which they knew had already come true, or were highly likely.
Luke quotes Jesus as saying that the appearance of various leaders, some claiming to be Jesus or at least divine, and some predicting the end of time, will be the first sign that the destruction of the Jerusalem temple will soon take place.
In fact, during the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, many people either took action to defy the governing powers or were suspected of doing so and were destroyed by Herod’s troops or Roman soldiers. One recent piece of research lists fifteen rebel leaders between 4 BC and 70 AD who were reckoned to have led attacks on the Romans and were destroyed.
Jesus is quoted as predicting wars and insurrections. In fact, there was huge military and political instability during the rapid succession of the four Roman emperors who ascended to power in in the single year of 69 AD - all immediately prior to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.
Jesus predicts great earthquakes, and in some places famines and plagues. In Luke’s own account in the book of Acts of the middle years of that first century, he refers to a famine in the time of the Emperor Claudius around 47 AD (Acts 11:28) and an earthquake in Philippi around 50 AD (Acts 16:26).
Jesus predicts hardships, suffering for his followers, including being arrested and handed over to authorities. In the book of Acts alone, there are arrests in six of the book’s chapters (4, 5, 12, 21, 24 and 28), and other histories confirm the continued persecution of Christians well beyond that first century of New Testament writing.
When you come from a culture which has a powerful belief in the end of the world being very real and possibly very close, those highly disturbed and dangerous times must have seemed truly ominous and threatening.
But despite everything they went through, this was not the end of the world that those early followers of Jesus knew. It was not the end time of all things; and the challenge for us, in this difficult and complex passage in our scriptures, is to realise that beyond every ruined temple, beyond every war, every false prophet, every hardship, persecution and injustice, there are still lives to be lived and a kingdom of justice and peace to strive for.
The temple may have come to an end, but that was not the death of either Judaism or the Christianity which was beginning to grow out of it. Peace may come to an end and be swallowed for a time by war, but war is not the way the world ends.
The stability of our societies may fracture and be shaken in earthquakes - sometimes geological, sometimes economic or social, but fear and uncertainty do not lead us beyond the point where recovery and rebuilding are possible. People will try to misuse Jesus’s teachings, but the world does not end at the hands of people who deny and discredit the truth of the gospel message.
Dreadful predictions may tempt us to play the prophet by looking for concealed meanings behind mysterious happenings, but as disciples of Jesus nothing should ever divert us from our calling to live in the love which Jesus taught, and to live in the God to whom Jesus pointed.
There is an even greater drama unfolding: the challenge of speaking God’s truth to such a volatile, fragmented and disrupted world. "This will give you an opportunity to testify", says the gospel.
Every priority we have in this church is concerned with speaking God’s truth to our world. Every welcome given to a stranger, every concern we show for each other, every expression of love we share with another, every aspect of how we live our lives, all testify to the world around us about our understanding of God’s truth. In so many ways, we testify to our faith by getting on and living our faith in a world which may seem to be crumbling around us and descending into chaos.
November is the month when we remember - when we draw on the benefit of our own hindsight. We focus our minds on sacrifice, courage and loss brought about by conflict and violence in our world. There is a sense in which these passages in the first three gospels are also an act of remembrance, nurtured by those earliest communities of followers and embedded in their faith traditions, as a way of paying tribute to the courage and resilience of those who survived the ravages of the middle years of that first century AD and yet still testified to their faith in the life and teachings of Jesus.
Theirs is a testimony which remains a challenge for us in our own day, in the face of what continues to be a dangerous and unpredictable world.
And what does that testimony to the good news of Jesus look like? How do we take up our opportunities to testify?
We do so in every welcome given to a stranger, every concern we show for each other, every expression of love we share with another, every time we walk alongside someone who needs a companion: in fact we testify in every facet of how we live our lives, because our lives are our testimony.