A sermon, based on Luke 21.5-19, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2019.
Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. They stand in the shadow of the temple. Some look up, marveling at its majesty.
The temple, history testifies, was a magnificent structure and a symbol of terrible contradiction. King Herod the Great, the despotic puppet of the Roman Empire, spent extravagantly to build and beautify the temple; which, as a testament to the grandeur of God and Herod, all at once, was hallowed and unholy.
Jesus prophesies its destruction. His listeners, though with no love lost for Herod, revere the temple and, mightily more, the God it glorifies. Alarmed, they ask, “When will this terrible moment be and how will we know?” Jesus foretells of natural calamities, political and social chaos, internecine warfare, betrayals, persecutions, martyrdom. Strangely, he promises peace amid the strife: “Not a hair of your head will perish.” Then reminds them of the necessity of perseverance in trying times: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
An essential message for our day.
America is in turmoil. One evidence among many… Three years ago, our presidential election was distinguished, I believe, tarnished, on both sides of the proverbial political aisle, indeed, on every literal personal side, by a historically divisive campaign season. Positions were vilified and persons, demonized. Relationships among families and friends, shattered. The façade of our national unity, splintered. Since then, with one investigation after another and, now, an impeachment inquiry, our national temper remains riled, the tenor of our times rife with unrest. Whatever our individual politics, I, generally, for the sake of fairness, reluctant, indeed, loathe to speculate about the attitudes of others, do not believe that any sound-thinking, fair-minded soul is happy about this.(1)
None of this approaches the cosmic dread of which Jesus speaks. Nevertheless, as I daily pray for our perseverance and the preservation of our national fabric, I find solace and strength in scripture.
Reading on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the destruction of not only of the temple, but also of Jerusalem. Even so, he implores his listeners, as God’s faithful people, to expect their redemption.(2)
Reflecting on the beginning of Luke’s gospel, eight days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph, in gratitude and according to custom, brought their infant son to the temple. There, the aged Simeon and Anna, having waited long for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, witnessed and welcomed the presentation of Jesus as a sign that the time had come.(3)
Throughout human history, Simeon’s and Anna’s faithful, hopeful watching for the coming of the Lord has been repeated, especially when the horizon was overshadowed with disaster and defeat.
Among countless salient illustrations, I think of the generations of slaves, some of whom were my ancestors, that died longing to breathe free. They left a legacy of expectation fulfilled by those liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation. They were followed by Martin Luther King, Jr., who, on the night before he was assassinated, declared his hope in something yet to be: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But…I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over…I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land…(for) (m)ine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”(4)
Harry Emerson Fosdick,(5) one of the 20th century’s most prominent ministers, wrote a hymn for the October 1930 opening service and the beginning of his pastorate of Riverside Church, New York City. The time was overshadowed by the Great Depression, a titanic moment of despair for America and the entire industrialized world. Fosdick’s hymn applies today. May we, in the face of all that besets and befalls us, sing it, pray it fervently:
God of grace and God of glory,
on your people pour your power;
crown your ancient church’s story,
bring its bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the facing of this hour.(6)
(1) As an intentional and vigorous counter to a repeat of our divisive election politics, the Episcopal Church, through the Office of Government Affairs, has produced a 5-week Civil Discourse Curriculum (https://episcopalchurch.org/OGR/general-advocacy-resources) aimed at promoting the practice of civil discourse as it relates to politics, policy, and legislation in the living out of the call of the Christian gospel. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched the Civilize It campaign (www.civilizeit.org) that emphasizes respectful dialogue especially with those of differing political views and, through a 3-part pledge, encourages the respect of civility, the rooting of political views in the Christian gospel and a well-formed conscience, and the engaging of others with compassion.
(2) See Luke 21.20-36, especially verse 28: Jesus said, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
(3) See Luke 2.21-38.
(4) From I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, delivered at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.
(5) Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969)
(6) God of grace and God of glory, verse 1
Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple (1874), Alexandre Bida (1813-1895)
Simeon’s Prophecy to Mary (1628), Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669). Note: Mary and Joseph appear surprised when Simeon tells them, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel…” (Luke 2.34). The prophet Anna, “at that moment…began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).