23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2019
It’s not the cheeriest way to start a sermon, but here it goes. Disillusionment is a part of growing up. As we grow older, our trust in things that we thought we could trust in crumbles. Teachers, clergy, esteemed leaders have been found to be doing awful, unspeakable things. As a kid, I thought I could trust my baseball heroes, but they were all doping. I thought I could trust my body, until my immune system turned on me and I ended up with diabetes. We cannot even trust in the permanence buildings, as we watched the Twin Towers turn to dust on our televisions. Turns out, even our money is fiction as we saw what little we had saved disappear in the stock market in 2008. We trusted that our homes were not in flood plains, but then we were inundated. We thought we could trust churches, governments, institutions to not fail us. We thought we could trust the Houston Astros and yet, it seems, that even they have cheated. They have all failed us. Disillusionment is part of growing up.
With a child-like wonder, the disciples gawk at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. “How it was adorned with beautiful stones dedicated to God,” Luke says. Indeed, in a world of mud huts and thatch roofs, the Temple must have been astounding, other-worldly, magnificent. The theological word would be, “awesome.” Just one of the stones along the Western Wall there at the Temple Mount weighs more than a 747. The whole thing shone brilliantly in the Mediterranean sunlight. The disciples look up at this, their most holy place, and put their trust in it. “Surely, surely,” they think, “this Temple will never come down.”
Jesus bursts their idealistic little bubble as the disillusionment sets in. “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.” The message is obvious. Do not trust in these stones, do not trust in these jewels, do not trust in this gold, do not trust in this place. Because it will not last forever. All, all will be thrown down. Aghast, the disciples clamor, “teacher, when will this be?”
Now, we need to dive into Jesus’ answer. Many people, many Christians of good faith, have read this passage as if Jesus is talking about the end of the world. And when they mean end of the world, they really do mean that. The end of the space-time universe. The rest of this passage, about wars and insurrections; about famine and plagues; about being handed over and arrested and persecuted; it has become a sort of roadmap to the end of the world. But that’s not at all what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is reading the writing on the wall, he knows that in just a few short years from then the Romans will come storming in and burn the whole place to the ground. Just as it does happen not one generation after Jesus. Stone is not left upon stone. The Romans set up their own gods in the wrecked Jewish Temple. And in that time, because of their faith in the Lord Jesus, those same disciples will be persecuted, arrested, betrayed, and hated for what they believe in. Jesus is not talking about the end of the space-time universe in some distant, far off future. No, he’s talking about the end of the world as they knew it less than forty years from his own day.
This passage, this seamlessly hopeless word from Jesus are a warning. It’s a warning about disillusionment. For you will be disillusioned if you put your trust in such flimsy things as stones and temples and jewels. If you wish to go through this world hurting, and disillusioned, and offended at the drop of a hat, by all means, trust in the things of this world. But I tell you, your disillusionment will become cynicism, and cynicism is a breeding ground for sin. Disillusionment will only drive you farther and farther inward until all you care about is yourself. And even then, you will probably disappoint yourself.
But you know, the hymnal says it better than I ever can. Here’s the second verse from our opening hymn today:
“Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.”
All our hope on God is founded. It is with God, and God alone, that our trust is renewed. The only thing that will not fail us is the covenant that God has made with us. God’s covenant to stay with us, to abide with us, to give us the words to speak when we do not have the words in ourselves. That covenant, that promise from God is everlasting and can withstand anything that the world throws at it because that covenant, that promise, has been sealed by the blood of Jesus upon the cross. For compared to the cross of Christ, every other thing that vies for your trust will be thrown down.
What this means, what this means is that Christians are to live differently. We live in full knowledge, full expectation that everything in this world will betray our trust. We live in full expectation that even those things we most cherish will fail us. So we choose to live differently and to put our trust in the cross and only the cross. Or as one theologian put it, those first Christians who heard these words from Jesus “will fit into none of the regular parties” (N.T. Wright, “Jesus,” 347).
If we are defining ourselves by the things, the parties, the cliques, the identities of this world, then we have failed to live fully into our Christian discipleship because we have put our trust into those things, parties, cliques, and identities. See, the world tells us one of two things. The world tells us that everybody is so different that we should live separately, and that is how we can be secure. Or the world tells us that we’re not different at all, and that is the way to harmony. Neither are true. True harmony and true security come first from our trust and faith in God. We have to admit it - peoples, cultures, and families are different. That’s been true since the Tower of Babel, it was even true on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples speak many languages, not just one language. But it’s also true that our differences are not irreconcilable. Through the cross, through a shared faith in Jesus, different peoples, nations, and families can live in harmony. So that even when the temples, institutions, and organizations around us fall to dust, we still have one another and God still has us. Because what God has in mind for us is that we would not fit into any of the regular parties of this world. Because God has a different vision for us.
That new vision, that new world is what my soul is aching for. Because I’m tired of being disappointed. I’m done with not fitting into the world’s lame categories. I’m tired of my own disillusionment and cynicism. I’m tired of one side clamoring for a security that is actually fear and I’m tired of the other side clamoring for harmony that is actually phony.
As Jesus stands there, beholding the gems, the stones, the might of the Temple, he has his eyes on something even better. Something even more beautiful. See, Jesus is talking about the end of this age, and the beginning of a new age. Jesus sees nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Not in heaven, but even here, on earth. He is talking about the end of the old ways - he is talking about the end of sin, of death, of the devil. He is talking about the end of this present age, the great stones of violence, corruption, and fear will be thrown done, not one will be left upon another. He is talking about a new people, a new community. Jesus is talking about us, the Body of Christ, that would not be given to the evils of this age. Jesus is talking about us, the Church, being born again to live in the Kingdom of God. Jesus envisions us, as a people, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in love with one another. And that, is the new age. Good people, our work as the church is nothing short of living as if we were already in the Kingdom of God.
So do not be disillusioned. For the cross is always with us. Just because we have seen a glimpse of that new age doesn’t mean we’re all the way there yet. There will be persecutions and accusations and treachery on the part of the world, because the world does not have the capacity to see the hope that we see. The evil one would want us to hang on to the old world with its lies and deceit. It will be through the cross, through suffering, through sacrifice, through self-denial that we learn the fullness of God’s promise to us. The promise of a new world.
In the meantime, between the horrendous “now” and the promised “then,” when the world around seems to be crumbling; when things you held dear vanish overnight; when your body fails you; when your loved ones fail you; when your trust in the vapid systems of this world evaporate;
hear again this final word from Jesus. Endurance. Endurance. To endure, to stick with this vision, to hold fast to the good news, to not lose sight of what God has in mind, to not fall back into the regular parties of this world. To live differently. For to endure with Jesus is to gain your souls.