Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Friday, December 3, 2010

An opportunity to testify (November 14)

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6"As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." 7They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"

8And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them. 9"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." 10Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12"But before all this 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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Raise your hand if you’ve been to New York City. Do you remember your impression when you first arrived? What did you feel as you looked around for the first time?

I think a lot of those feelings are what the disciples felt when they arrived in Jerusalem, especially when they first saw the temple. They were men from small villages in the distant countryside. Maybe for some of them this was their first trip to Jerusalem, the first trip to the big city.

They have arrived in the historic capital of the nation of Judah and the spiritual capital of Judaism. Going to Jerusalem, especially around Passover, meant connecting with Israel’s history. It meant remembering the miracle of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It meant remembering the arrival in the Promised Land. It meant remembering the days when David was king and Israel was strong, independent and faithful to God.

Imagine these country men suddenly in the big city. Imagine these proud Jews coming to the center of their religious and national life. Imagine this group following the man they knew was the Messiah, God’s chosen king, coming to the city of David, God’s most famous chosen king of the past.

Religious reform, God’s power in a king, the royal city. All these things come together as Jesus’ disciples look at the beauty and majesty of the temple. They talk to each other about how amazing God’s house is; they also must be hoping that Jesus will step into his role as king and deliver a renewed and free Israel.

Jesus looks at the temple and sees another side. He sees the coming judgment of God and the destruction of Jerusalem. He is God’s chosen king, but the deliverance of Israel and the world isn’t going to be as simple as the disciples hope it will be. It isn’t a matter of simply crowning Jesus as king and renewing David’s rule. Our king goes to the cross first, and the Royal City will be destroyed before the New Jerusalem comes in glory from heaven.

All the human building and power and pride in the world will be humbled in the face of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom doesn’t come through human building and political power. The church’s ministry isn’t about big buildings or fancy robes; it’s about ministry in the midst of chaos and love poured out simply in service.

This passage is about the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the world as we know it. Jesus and the whole early church expected the end of the world to come quickly. That expectation gave them a sense of urgency; they had a life-changing message to share and only a limited time to share it. The time was short, the need was great, and they had a life and death mission to accomplish. Relationships, not buildings, reaching out, not building up; that’s what matters when the kingdom of God is our horizon.

That expectation gave the church courage because persecution was an expected part of the troubles at the end of history. Jesus tells the disciples that even their families will turn them over to the leaders to be jailed and even killed. Amazingly, the sentence after he says that, he says not a hair of their heads will perish and that by their endurance in the face of persecution they will gain their souls.

God protects us, but not always the way we expect. Keeping the disciples safe doesn’t mean keeping them from being physically harmed. Even as the disciples face jail, beatings, torture and death they know that in the most important way they are safe because they are in God’s hand. God protected the early disciples, the early church. Many Christians did loose their lives for their witness, but they didn’t loose their faith. Persecution and murder didn’t weaken the church, it strengthened it. As the early church leader Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

God will protect us in the same way now; we can trust God’s protection and presence in the midst of persecution or illness, in the midst of financial crisis or professional instability. We can trust God’s presence and love as we face death, as we all will some day. God is with us as God was with the first disciples. We will all die, and when we do we will be in God’s hands, just as we are in God’s hands now. When we know that, when we trust God’s protection deep down, we loose our fear of anything the world can do to us.

Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples that they will suffer and get through trouble and persecution. He tells them their trouble will be ministry. He tells them specifically that court hearings and interrogation by the powerful will be an opportunity for them to testify. Those hearings will be a chance for the disciples to share the saving love of God. They will be on stage, speaking so all kinds of other people can hear the truth that God loves them, that Christ wants everyone to come to him.

Jesus is talking specifically about being on trial, but all the turbulence Jesus predicts will be opportunities to testify. A couple of centuries later, a horrible plague struck Rome. Most people fled, but Christians, the persecuted, despised, mostly hidden Christians, stayed to take care of the sick. They knew that God would protect them, that if they got sick and died because of their ministry God would be with them then too. The courage and love to be with the suffering was an opportunity to testify to God’s love and power. Everyone noticed that there was something special about this small group of men and women.

The hundreds of years since then were also an opportunity to testify. It’s surprising when Jesus and scripture talk about the kingdom coming soon, that we are still here two thousand years later at all. At the same time, think of all the ministry, all the healing and proclamation and love the church has been able to accomplish in that time. Each kind word, every sick person supported, every child educated, every hungry person fed is a testimony to God’s love. Every decade, every year, every day, every conversation is an opportunity to testify.

The church lives in tension. On the one hand we expect the coming of Christ any day and on the other hand we know that many years have come and gone without the appearance of God’s kingdom. The kingdom is coming, but not yet; we’re in the world but not of it. It seems that some of the Christians in Thessalonica dealt with that tension by diving so far into the expectation of God’s kingdom that they totally neglected their responsibilities in the present world. They expected God’s kingdom right away so they got lazy and stopped working.

That’s wrong in two ways, for one thing it forces others to support them when that energy could be used to support the poor. At least as important is that it sets a bad example and makes the church look bad. In other words, it is poor testimony. Work can be annoying and wearing and discouraging, but it is also an opportunity to testify. When we take our responsibilities seriously in a way that reflects God’s love for others, people notice and they are drawn to us. That gives us a chance to share how God has touched our life, it gives us an opportunity to testify.

I think our risk is more in the other direction today. Many of us have lived our whole lives with the story that the kingdom will come one day, but each year reinforces the lesson of history, which is that the kingdom doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Most Christians in traditional denominations do not expect the kingdom of God in their lifetimes; many of us forget the possibility of Christ’s return entirely.

When we forget that expectation we value the world’s opinion too much; we think too much about our financial life, our career possibilities, the expectations of others. We also fear trouble and death too much because we become too attached to our lives. It’s important to hear passages like this one from Luke that remind us of God’s revolution and protect us from getting complacent. We never know when the world will come crashing down and all the ministry and love we have put off for a more convenient time will remain forever undone.

Even if the kingdom is delayed beyond our lifetimes, our lives are fragile. We pretend otherwise, and maybe we have to, but you or I might not wake up tomorrow. Our lives could be cut short by illness, or a car wreck or an act of violence. That awareness can drive us to seek security in bigger cars, stronger locks or an ever-increasing defense budget, but none of those things can truly keep us safe. Instead we seek safety in the arms of a loving God, we take shelter at the foot of the cross.

The awareness of our own fragility and the fragility of our friends and neighbors should give us a sense of urgency in our ministry. If you die tomorrow, will your life speak the truth about your priorities? What would you regret not having done? If your quiet, lonely coworker doesn’t wake up tomorrow will she know that God loves her? If you never see your cousin again will he know that God loves him? The world might not end tomorrow, or this month, but each day is someone’s last, and every day that goes by is a lost opportunity to feed the hungry, heal those trapped by preventable disease, and give meaning to our neighbors who wake up every day feeling like life is meaningless. Each day is an opportunity to testify.

The needs around us are urgent and the constant stream of information brings that need to our TV’s and computer screens. That reality can overwhelm and paralyze us, but instead it should awaken us to our opportunities. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. The world around us cries for healing and love. The trouble that surrounds us each day is an opportunity to testify to the love of the God who sends us out in ministry.

Who will you share God’s love with today? What life will you touch this week with God’s healing? How will you make the most of the opportunity to testify?

Thanks be to God.

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