I Believe in the Resurrection
Luke 21:5-19 (20-28)
St. Thomas' Memorial Church
November 17, 2013
By now you’ve all heard of the devastation that Typhoon Yolanda unleashed on the Philippines a little more than a week ago. A storm that some have called the worst in recorded history, where 10,000 are feared to be dead and over 100,000 displaced. Maybe you’ve seen some of the images and videos of entire cities flattened, of families separated, of corpses piled by the roadside. It’s hard to imagine what must be going through the minds of those living in the cities affected. Shock, fear, despair? Because I am so far removed from it and am going about my everyday life just the same, it’s hard for me to internalize it. It’s hard for me to realize that not only have hopes and dreams been shattered, but--more basic, more fundamental--livelihoods have become undone. Great buildings, great cities, strong towers have--unthinkably--been brought low. Families and friends are separated, possibly never to be reunited.
This morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke describes a similar story. It opens with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem at the Temple. He’s been teaching here for over a chapter. All of his previous arguments and rhetorical traps have been set in the Temple; these detailed discussions of the most Jewish of issues have been conducted in that most Jewish of places, the place one could encounter God in a special way. A few verses earlier, a faithful woman, both widowed and impoverished, threw her whole life into the Temple treasury and Jesus was impressed.
And now this morning’s Gospel lesson tells us that some of the people with Jesus look up and speak in awe of the beauty of the Temple, the center of the Jewish world. And rightly so, for the the Temple was stunning. The Temple was huge. The outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people, and at festival times it held crowds nearly that large. The Temple was overwhelming as is fitting to the building that honors the God who alone is God.
And here’s Jesus saying that the Temple would be brought low--’not one stone will be left upon another,” the texts says. “All will be thrown down.’
Jesus’ words about the leveling of the Temple would probably have been unthinkable. If you could go back in time and tell any New Yorker that the twin towers would fall, they would tell you that you’re out of your mind. How could such pillars crumble? Likewise, the Temple was the Temple, there’s no way this thing is coming down. And not only because it’s impressive, but God himself resides there. He will not let it be moved.
But that is exactly what Jesus says will happen to the beloved Temple in our Gospel lesson. And as we know, the Temple came down at the behest of the hated Romans in 70 AD.
But this morning’s text does not end with the promise of the destruction of the Temple. It then speaks of world political chaos (Jesus says there will be wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, and plagues). He then speaks of religious and social rejection (the authorities will arrest, persecute, and kill his followers, and often times because of family-shattering betrayals--your parents, siblings, friends turning you in.) The text ends with a promise of safety to his followers amidst the chaos of martyrdom--’not a hair of your head will perish,’ the text reads. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.’
The message of the text is simply this: in the midst of the chaos, endure. Be faithful to the one who endured the Cross for you, his beloved.
But if you were to read the next few verses--verses that we did not read this morning--you would notice that this passage, useful and edifying as it is, is swirled back into an ever larger chaos. Jerusalem, that beloved city of God, will be encircled and trampled underfoot by Gentiles and the people of the city will flee in terror. To hearers of Jesus this meant that the stability of the universe was to be shaken.
This is the Typhoon Yolanda of first century Jerusalem. The flattening of the Temple, the destruction of homes, hopes, and livelihoods--the refugee-status of the people of God.
Yet even in the midst of this world-destroying catastrophe, Jesus says that God’s faithful people should lift up their heads and expect resurrection, redemption, and rescue. It is worth remembering at this point when Anna saw the infant Jesus in the Temple at the beginning of Luke’s story, she spoke of him to all those who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. We, Luke’s audience, might imagine all those people whom Anna found as still waiting and expecting a resurrection of faithful hope.
What Luke is saying is that if Jesus’ listeners do indeed lift up their heads and look around, they will see, even in the moment of deepest catastrophe, the host of those who have been waiting with them since Anna found them and spoke to them.
Maybe you or someone you know has had your world shattered--your hopes trampled, your livelihoods destroyed. Maybe the recent church split shattered your faith in the Church, maybe a promising career ended abruptly. Maybe someone that you loved died and it’s wrecked your well-being. Maybe a family member, friend, or a lover abandoned you... Maybe you’re old enough to have learned to lift up your head and look for the promised resurrection even in the midst of the triumph of death. Or maybe, like many of us, you need the support of the community of God as you try just to make it through the day.
This morning’s Gospel lesson (verses 5-19) offers encouragement to heroic endurance, but the reason why I brought in the larger scene is that the chapter goes on to picture God’s people as always gathering to wait together for resurrection. Endurance is the goal--and a great goal at that--but sometimes it is not enough. Typhoon Yolanda hit last Friday and it is amazing to see how some of the people have endured. But the truth is thousands more are barely hanging on. When you’re at the end of your rope, the call to endure often engenders its opposite. It is at times like these--at the end of our rope (whether in the Philippines or the USA)--that only resurrection will do, and in Luke’s story, we wait for resurrection together in the company of people like old Anna. And waiting together we endure.
In the name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...
* I drew heavily upon Richard Swanson's commentary on the chapter over at workingpreacher.com. Raymond Brown's chapter on Luke in his Introduction to the New Testament was also helpful.