Watching with Hope
Scripture: Luke 21:34-36
Travel with me, back in time, to Jerusalem. The year is AD 58, about 30 years after Jesus’ death & resurrection. Many people in the holy city came to believe in Jesus in the impulsive days nearly a generation ago, & many of them are still here, older & more puzzled but still waiting & hoping & praying.
Things have been difficult, on & off. Once Pontius Pilate stopped being governor people hoped life might improve, but there was then a huge crisis over the emperor’s plan to place a huge statue of himself in the Temple. That threat, fortunately, was turned away; Gaius, the emperor in question, had died soon after; & when one of Herod’s grandsons, Agrippa, was made king of the Jews in 41 everyone in Jerusalem stood up & cheered. To be ruled by one of your own might be better than having a governor from far away who did not understand local customs. But that did not last. He too had died, struck down (some said) by God for blasphemously claiming the divine honors that his pagan masters had given themselves. Now there had been a string of new Roman governors, each one it seemed worse than the last. But in 54, when Nero became Emperor, many people hoped - again - that peace & justice would reign.
All along, though, people in Jerusalem were aware of the political tensions that were building. Revolutionary movements arose, had their moment of glory, & then were brutally crushed. Some said the priests were secretly involved. Some said it was all the wicked criminals, refusing to let ordinary people go about their business in peace. Some wanted an easy-going peace with Rome, others were all for driving hard bargains, & others were wishing again that the Messiah would come. Yet daily life went on: buying & selling, growing crops, tending herds, woodwork, leatherwork, money-changing, pottery, with the daily routine of Temple sacrifices, music, celebrations, & the seasonal feasts as the backdrop. The Temple itself was almost complete; the program of rebuilding begun by Herod the Great 70 years earlier was finally drawing to a close.
And in the middle of all this, those who named the name of Jesus, who still met to break bread & worship in his name, & to teach one another the stories of what he had done & said, were pulled & pushed this way & that. Some of them were friends of the ex-Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul. He had been in Jerusalem not long ago & had caused a riot. His friends said his opponents caused it, but the word on the street was that riots tended to happen wherever Paul went. Now he was gone, sent to Rome for trial, & he would not be back. Peter, too, had gone on his travels & had not been seen for years. Others were skeptical of Paul; he had compromised God’s law, they said, allowing Gentiles to worship God through Jesus without demanding circumcision.
The leader of the Jerusalem Christians, the wise & devout James, the brother of Jesus himself, was getting older, & his prayers for the redemption of his people did not seem to be answered.
How easy it was for Jerusalem Christians to become weary! If the gospel was creating exciting results, it was doing so across the sea, & they only heard about it every so often & did not always like what they heard. For example, Gentiles claiming to worship Jesus but not keeping the law of Moses - & that sort of thing. Their lives dragged on day by day. Friends asked them, sometimes unkindly, when this Messiah of theirs was going to reappear, & could he please hurry up because much more of these Romans banging around would bring on a world war, & anyway look what has happened to the price of bread, & if Jesus had really been the Messiah why has nothing much happened since? Not much use to say that when you met for worship the sense of Jesus’ presence & love was so real you could almost reach out & touch him. Not much of an answer to say that you had been told to be patient. Thirty years is a long time. All you could do was to retell the stories, including the sayings of Jesus such as we have read this morning. Take care. Stay alert. Keep your eyes open – physically as well as spiritually. Pray for strength to meet whatever comes. The Son of Man will be justified, & when he is you want to be on your feet.
Now travel with me to Charlotte, or Tokyo, or San Salvador or Reeds, of the current day. You emerge from church on Sunday morning – the Advent celebration, the Anglican Eucharist, or the Spanish Mass - & there is the world going on about its business, or in truth probably its pleasure. Your friends think you are odd still going to church. Everybody knows Christianity is outdated, boring, & irrelevant. What you need is more sex, more parties, more money-making, more revolution. Anyway, the church has done some pretty terrible things in its time. What about the Inquisition? They always say that! What about the Crusades? Who needs Christianity now that we have computers & space travel? (Of course, they said similar things before electricity & modern medicine.)
And anyway, they say, if your Jesus is so special, why is the world still in such a mess? They do not want to know about the freeing of slaves, the rise of education, & the building of hospitals. They certainly do not want to know about the lives that are being changed every day by the gospel.
They want to load you with the cares of this life; &, as Jesus warned, with drugs & drunkenness, both literal & metaphorical. They want to wear you down, to make you think you are odd & stupid. Why study an old book, they say, that has never done anyone any good?
Sisters & brothers do not let your guard down. Do not give up. These are great days to live for God! I am not called upon to reform the world or change the world. That is God’s business, not my business.
Normal people are stressed, overwhelmed, & exhausted. Many of their relationships are strained. Even though we live in one of the most prosperous places on earth, normal is still living paycheck to paycheck & never getting ahead. In our oversexed world, lust, premarital sex, guilt & shame are far more common than purity, virginity, & a healthy married sex life. And when it comes to God, the majority believe in a ‘higher power,’ but the teachings of Scripture are rarely seen in their everyday lives.
What are we, like the 1st generation Jerusalem Christians, supposed to do? We are supposed to follow Christ, faithfully, & to wait & hope & pray.
He has asked me to live for him, & he has asked me to get his Word out. That is what I am attempting to do, & I hope you are doing this also. The only comfortable place to live is in the will of God.
Pray that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen & to stand before the Son of Man.
How are you going to be strong enough to escape? The only thing that will make me strong is my position in Christ. Therefore, I have trusted him as my Savior, & I have committed my way to him, so that if I am alive at the time of his return, I will be going to meet him by the grace of God.
The answer is the same for us as it was for the Jerusalem Christians a generation after Jesus. Stay alert. This is what you were told to expect. Patience is the key. Pray for strength to keep your faith.
There are times when your eyes will be shutting with weariness; spiritual, mental, emotional & physical weariness; & when you will have to force them open. This is what it is about: not an exciting battle, with adrenaline flowing & banners flying, but the daily cycle of prayer & hope & scripture & sacrament & witness, day by day & week by week. This is what counts; this is why patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Read Jesus’ story again. Remind one another of what Jesus said. And stay alert.