5Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 10Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. 11Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains. 12Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare his praise in the coastlands.
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.
20“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
It’s hard for me to put together scene Jesus describes to his audience, but the overall picture is dramatic and destructive change. Jesus is talking about the end of the world as we know it. There are images of natural disasters and human conflict. There are also images of God’s judgment.
This year we hear a lot more about “end times” than usual. One long cycle of the Mayan calendar comes to an end on December 21st of this year, which has led to speculation about the end of the world. I’m not an expert, but from the little bit I’ve read about this theory it seems pretty far off. The two references in Mayan texts to the date don’t say anything about the world ending. Also, while the Mayans were an advanced civilization, that doesn’t mean they could predict events 1400 years later.
Many people have tried to predict the end of the world, but so far no one has succeeded. Jesus tells his disciples that even he doesn’t know when the world would end, and it’s not for them to know, so it’s not surprising that we can’t figure it out. I’m not anxious about the world ending in three weeks, but all the talk about the end is a good reminder that nothing lasts forever except God.
Jesus didn’t know when exactly the end was coming, but he thought it was coming soon. He tells the disciples that the current generation won’t pass away before all the things he’s talking about come true. The early church believed the same thing; they lived in eager expectation that Christ would return and God’s judgment would come very soon.
Obviously, they weren’t exactly right about the timing. Nearly two thousand years have come and gone and we’re still here. So what are we supposed to do with an image like this? And why am I talking about it this week anyway?
Thinking about the end of the world puts our life in a wider context that helps us remember what’s really important. Even if the world doesn’t end anytime soon, you and I will die some day, maybe tomorrow, maybe 40 years from now. When the world ends or you take your last breath it is not going to matter what you gave or got for Christmas and it’s not going to matter who was right in the latest argument. If we never think about death and we never think about the end of the world, it’s easy for our days and weeks to disappear under piles of things that ultimately have no meaning. Of course, we can also think too much about death and destruction and forget about God’s calling here and now.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season to prepare for Christ’s arrival. We do that in two ways: we look back and we look forward. Looking backwards, we remember Christ’s birth and by remembering we strengthen our trust in the God who loves us enough to become one of us. Looking forward, we prepare for Christ’s return and the judgment and redemption of creation.
Typically, we do a lot more of the first than the second. We know and love the story of Jesus the baby. Many of us can tell the story from memory. The familiar image of a stable with sheep, Mary and Joseph and the wise men, all blend together with family traditions of cider and cookies and being together. The story is familiar and comforting, but still powerful because God’s love taking flesh in a baby is breathtakingly beautiful.
The end of history: earthquakes and war, judgment and the return of Jesus in the clouds are not familiar or comforting at all. The scene Jesus describes sounds terrifying. It is basically the opposite of everything comforting and joyful about Christmas.
At the same time, the good news of Jesus Christ is all one story. The God who chose to take on the weakness of human life as a baby in a manger is the same God who will judge the world with love and justice at the end. The God who condemns evil, suffered on the cross to bear our condemnation. Even though the images Jesus gives his disciples of the end of the world are frightening, he tells them to “stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” When we meditate on the mystery of God’s love in the Christmas miracle we grow in our trust for God. When we know how much God loves us, we know that his judgment will bring healing, not just destruction.
If we can trust God in the ultimate crisis of the world’s end, we can trust him in the smaller storms we face each day. Whether we are going through struggles at work, problems in our families, uncertainty with our health or questions in our faith, God will be with us. God who became human for us, who suffered persecution, torture and death for us, who conquered death and rose into heaven for us, will certainly not leave us alone now. When we see all of history under God’s loving rule, we can face the challenges of each day.
We’ll also be more able to see God’s guidance in the changes we face as a church and as a society. Sometimes when a place that has been a rock of stability for us, like the church, changes it can feel like nothing is stable anymore. Change, whether big or small, can be scary. Jesus’ vision of the end gives us useful guidance for the much more manageable change we face as a congregation. I’ll bet there are other lessons you’ll find if you go home and read this passage again, but I’m going to sketch three points here.
First, things that seem bad can be opportunities for ministry. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be arrested and dragged before all kinds of leaders. Jesus says that persecution, those trials they are going to face, are opportunities to testify. They were opportunities to tell the story of Christ’s love. When we read Paul’s letters and Acts, we see the church did exactly that. When the apostles went to jail, they shared the good news with their jailers, with fellow prisoners and with those who sat in judgment of them.
We are less likely to literally face a courtroom for our faith, but we can still think of challenges as opportunities. For instance, the challenge of a bad economy is an opportunity for the church to serve those in need. The situation of a culture with less community is an opportunity to provide community through food, fellowship, prayer and singing. Even the challenge of a tight church budget is an opportunity to think creatively about our ministry, resources and partnerships. Our challenges are also opportunities.
Second, change is a fact. Buildings fall down, people move, culture and styles change, children grow up. Many of the forces of change are out of our control, but we can control how we respond to change. We can spend our energy lamenting or fearing change, but that doesn’t seem very useful. On the other hand, we can do what we did with New Beginnings and take an honest look at what has changed and what the situation is now. Armed with that information we can seek new ways of ministering to the community around us now with the gifts God has given us.
Our refocusing on our mission is working. There are people in church this morning who were not here six months ago, and there are people who have been here for years finding new adventures. Beyond Sunday, there are many new people finding community here through Supper and Scripture, Saturday Café, AA, GA, OA, Irish Dance, Cub Scouts, Avon and another church. Others will be touched by our Christmas baskets, angel tree, living nativity and Christmas Eve service. Some people will find a place in this community in an obvious and long term way; others we might not even know we have touched but will know the love of God in a new way because of our ministry. Change is inevitable; embracing it for ministry is a blessing.
Finally, no-thing lasts forever, but God’s love never ends. Jesus tells his disciples that some of them will be put to death. Almost in the same breath he tells them that not a hair on their heads will perish. The truth is that even when it all falls apart, even when we fail, or close or die God is still with us and death is not the end. The Jerusalem Temple was God’s house; this church is God’s house, but neither will last forever. One day, no stone will be left on another, the archways and pews and altars will crumble into dust.
I want to be really clear here. I think right now this building is an asset for ministry. Right now, for our community and other communities that feel at home here, this is a place that helps communicate God’s presence. That might not always be true and we have to keep an open mind because in the end it is only a building. One day it will fall down or collapse with the chaos of the world’s end.
Even then, God’s true temple, the living community of faith, will still be standing strong. After you and I have returned to dust, God will still be faithful and will still love us. One day he will bring all things and all people to the loving conclusion he has planned from the beginning. In all the changes of life and death, God is Love, and love wins.
Thanks be to God.