Yr C ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Luke 21:5-19
I don’t know why apocalyptic writing is so popular with some people. You know, all that end of the world stuff. People always seem to be looking for mysterious and miraculous signs and wonders to convince them that something big and spiritual is happening. Or maybe it scares people and that somehow motivates them to pay attention or to change. Even Jesus gets on board with his wars, and insurrections, and famines, and plagues bit. But he doesn’t dwell on them. In fact, he says that even before any of those things happen that his followers will have to face something far more risky. And he meant us too.
Jesus is saying that we don’t need to wait for the world to be in cataclysm to act. Or maybe he’s trying to say, “Just look around. When isn’t the world having wars and famines and plagues? You don’t need to wait for signs. They’re already everywhere.”
Jesus is asking us to do something really important here. He’s asking us to realize that our religion is not totally wrapped up in bricks and mortar. And he wants us to imagine (Luke 25:6) that a day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
They were talking about the Jerusalem Temple – but I think it’s a powerful exercise for us to imagine our churches crumbling too.
Now, for Jewish people the idea that the Temple would fall was truly cataclysmic! For them, it was far more than a church to worship in. It was the centre of their identity as a people. Churches are deeply important for us – and the Temple was exponentially more so for them.
We need to pause here and understand the time line, because it’s really important. Jesus did his itinerant preacher thing in the early 0030s. The Temple was destroyed and brought crashing to the ground by the Romans in the year 0070. And the Gospel of Luke was probably written in the year 0085. So while this scene in Luke 21 takes place with Jesus and the disciples standing outside the beautiful Temple imagining it destroyed, the audience hearing Luke’s gospel didn’t have to imagine it. It was done. It was destroyed 15 years earlier.
Now, you can get into a debate about whether Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, or whether Luke just wrote it in to make Jesus look better, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you take the time to think about how drastically your approach to religion might change if your temple, your church, was gone.
As people of Faith United you don’t have to imagine at all. This place exists because faithful people let go of their bricks and mortar and threw in together to create this new place almost 23 years ago. The previous churches weren’t destroyed, they were sold – but they still had to be left behind. Unless you’re under the age of 23 you couldn’t have grown up here – so you’ve left churches behind too. I honestly think this is one of the reasons this place is so healthy and faithful. It’s because you’ve experienced letting go of bricks and mortar before, and you have had to imagine a life of faith in a new way.
That is what Jesus wanted his disciples to figure out.
It ain’t about the building.
It’s about the mission and ministry.
It’s about loving God, loving people, and loving one another.
It’s not about loving bricks and mortar.
That doesn’t mean that buildings don’t matter. God’s people need a place to hang out.
It just means that the building is not the thing.
That is a concept that our denomination desperately needs to contend with in a serious way.
I have this kidding/not kidding thing where I say that my fondest dream is that I will wake up one morning (this is a little dark) and I’ll discover that every single United Church building in the entire denomination has mysteriously been blown up.
That’s my dream.
If one church burns down or is flooded out or something it’s tragic, and the community rallies together, and we rebuild it. But if every single building was instantly gone – yes including this lovely place – then we wouldn’t just rebuild.
We’d have a huge conversation about where the body of Christ needs to be centred for a given community in order for God’s people to love, love, love in that time and place.
The vast majority of our current churches were built in a ridiculously different era and served decidedly different sets of needs. Oh how I’d love it if we could start again. It could never happen, of course, and if it does happen one night I hope they won’t be able to track the rented van or the balaclavas back to me!
I’m not saying we don’t need buildings. We do.
We just don’t need as many as we have, and in too many cases we don’t need them where they are.
In fact, you might say that in a way our churches are already crumbling.
Many, many churches have moved to part time ministers because they don’t have the financial resources to pay a full time salary.
And many, many churches have fewer and fewer members to share the load of keeping the building functioning so all the energy in a place goes to keeping the lights on instead of the mission and ministry of the people. Statisticians are projecting possible zero-member dates of 30 years from now. Yikes!
So, like Jesus, I’m asking us to imagine there was not one stone left upon another.
And I’m asking us to focus on what we think is important about church, and to talk about it.
That’s exactly what you did last month at the stewardship coffee parties. Well, not the blowed up church part, but the ‘what’s important’ part. Some of you even stood up here on Sunday mornings and told the whole church what you thought was important about your faith, and your Faith(!), and why the mission and ministry of this church is valuable to you.
You did exactly what Jesus asked his disciples to do.
Luke 21:12-13 Jesus said, “But before all [the end of the world stuff] occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
First, why are Jesus’ followers getting arrested? What is so dangerous about this message of love, love, love? I mean, has anyone ever looked at you when you told them you attend church and thought that made you dangerous somehow? We don’t get arrested – we get eye rolls.
This is another one of those things where Jesus is talking in 0033 but Luke is talking to 0085 people who were actually being persecuted. It was partly because the Temple had fallen and the Jewish faith became centred in the local synagogues, and there the followers of Jesus represented a divergent faction that threatened the peace and good order of the synagogue. Plus, you had Jesus’ world-inverting message of the Kingdom of God in which the conventionally rich and powerful were threatened by Jesus’ teaching of equality and respect and values. So yes, the teachings of Jesus are dangerous. And maybe if we’re never viewed as dangerous, well, perhaps we’re doing it wrong!
But the key thing is that when faced with a challenge the message Jesus offers is “That’s great! It’ll give you an opportunity to testify!” It’ll give you a chance to say what’s important to you about your faith, and why. If only there was a word that described what that was about? Oh yeah! There is! It’s called ‘evangelism’.
But we as a denomination have never bothered very much with evangelism – because we were too busy putting up buildings.
Well, here we are.
As a denomination our numbers are in a continual downward trajectory – despite places of great health and vitality, like this one – and our temples are crumbling.
What would Jesus have us do when faced with such profound challenges?
To testify is to speak your truth. If you were called to testify in a court of law you’d swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The truth as you know it. That’s what it means to testify. That’s what all those beautiful people did at the beginning of worship in August and September and October. They testified. They told their truth about their faith experience. And it was persuasive, wasn’t it?
And all of you who attended a coffee party started down that road too. You were all invited to tell some of your story about your faith life. You didn’t debate the finer points of theological opinion.
You shared your hearts.
You shared your hearts.
That’s what it is to testify. That’s what evangelism is all about.
And then Jesus said something that I disagree with. Yes, I think he was wrong!
Luke 21:14-15 He said, “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Look, I used to be a teacher. Not studying before an exam and trusting that Jesus is going to give you all the right answers is a bad, bad strategy! I don’t really think Jesus meant that we should never give it any thought.
I think instead he meant that you don’t have to have a finely tuned theological treatise memorized so you can dazzle someone with the depth of your knowledge and insight.
I think he just meant that you need to talk from your heart.
You will never argue someone into the kingdom. But you very well may move someone with your heartfelt passion, your truth, and then they might “come and see” for themselves.
So testify, says Jesus. Then he tells us that the reaction will be betrayal, families turning on us, and being held in less esteem because of our bold faith.
Some sales pitch!
But he’s got a point. I mean, giving your testimony here in church is one thing, and it takes a good deal of courage to be so vulnerable, but really, you’re among friends who are keen to hear your truth.
Out there, talking to a co-worker, or a neighbour, or a friend, or even to a family member, could be a very different reaction.
You’re not likely to be arrested – but the eye rolls can be pretty wounding.
I would never tell you to go up to someone cold and start to testify about Jesus. That’s not a good strategy. If a testimony is about sharing your truth and your heart then it requires some intimacy, and some openness. And then just tell the person why you do this church thing that stirs you and lights you up.
How is it enriching your life?
How is it stirring your heart?
How is it transforming the way you live and treat people?
And please, somewhere in your sharing, say something about Jesus. If I was to point at you and ask you to say right now 3 things that are valuable about your faith life, or Faith United, you’d probably start with “it’s friendly, there’s great hospitality, and it makes me feel good.”
Ok, but Tim Horton’s does that too.
What can we offer people that they can’t get anywhere else?
What is it that makes us a church and not a social club or a do-gooder society?
It’s God. It’s Jesus. It’s the Holy Spirit.
It’s the bible. It’s worship.
It’s our theological interpretive lens.
It’s growing in faith. It’s growing in Christlikeness.
It’s putting all that together and making a difference in the world.
None of that is on the menu at Timmies!
So yes, please, testify!
Do good in the world, and say why!
Share your heart. Speak your truth.
I know it’s risky. I know you’re nervous.
Maybe do some planning and have in mind a few things you might say when the subject comes up, but don’t fret about it. In the moment, if it’s really from your heart, the right words will come.
You are the only one who can testify to your truth.
And here’s the best part – people out there want and need to hear it.
Because their deepest desire is your greatest blessing.
They may not articulate it that way, but they want what you’ve got.
They want their lives enriched too.
They want their hearts stirred too.
They want to transform the way they live and the way they treat people too.
They just need someone to show them the way – to show them The Way.
That’s you. Yes, even you.
It’s a mystery to me that people don’t know that places like this have what they’re yearning for.
I guess it’s because we haven’t bothered to tell them.
So let’s change that.
Please don’t wait until “not one stone [is] left upon another.”
You can even do it at Timmies. But you won’t find it on the menu!