Pentecost 25: The end of the world

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. (Malachi 4:1-2a)

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, "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." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And 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. 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." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. (Luke 21:5-19)

In case you hadn’t noticed it, the world is already preparing for Christmas. It might be only November 14, but we’re already on the threshold of the holiday season.

The church is also already on the threshold of a holiday season. Now, to be fair, we as a church are not quite on the threshold of Christmas, but we are on the threshold of Advent, the season in which we prepare for Christmas. We have exactly one more Sunday after today before Advent begins.

Advent is the beginning of our new church year, so it is worthwhile to take a moment here to consider the church year and its movements. It begins with Advent, a season in which we watch and wait and hope for Christ to come to a weary world. We dress the church in blue, the color of hope and of night, to anticipate his coming. From there, Christmas and Epiphany celebrate the incarnate Christ as God’s revelation and mission to all the nations. Lent, Holy Week, and Easter celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection as God’s saving and liberating intention for all people. And at Pentecost, we hear the story of how the faithful witnesses of the resurrection were transformed by the Holy Spirit into that thing we call the church. Throughout the long green season of Pentecost, then, we – the church – focus on what it means to grow in faith and to live into the promise and hope of the resurrection.

We spend the last Sundays of Pentecost at the threshold of the end of the world. The end of the church year is, symbolically, the end of the world, when we try to answer for ourselves the question, “What is ultimate end toward which God’s plan for the world is pressing?” The answer to that question is, of course, that God’s ultimate plan is the coming of Christ and the renewal of the world. And this, my friends, is why the church year is a big circle. If today, the second-to-last-Sunday in the church year, is the symbolic end of the world, and if next week, we understand that the end of the world is the return of Christ as the king whom we both celebrate and anticipate, then it is no surprise that we find ourselves back in Advent once again, that period of waiting for Christ the King to come to us, both for the first time and for the last time.

Today, as we stand on the threshold of the end of the world, we read some pretty harsh texts. A doom and gloom reading from Malachi, and then a long and troubling Gospel, where Jesus describes the destruction of the temple, but more than that, the destruction of everything that the temple symbolized for his Jewish audience: security, home, food, commerce, peace. For his audience, Jesus was talking about the end of the world as they knew it.

Now we need to remember that Luke was writing his gospel after said destruction of the temple had already taken place. Luke was writing for a group of people who were barely a generation removed from the temple’s destruction, who were living as an exiled and persecuted minority under the hand of Rome:
For the readers of Luke, the days that Jesus said were coming, had arrived. The temple had been destroyed. The stones had all fallen down -- actually, they had been burned up. For them the issue wasn't, 'When is this going to happen," but, "Now that it has happened, what do we do? What does it mean?" (Crossmarks, Pentecost 25)
And now for us, reading this passage nearly 2000 years later, we would do well to take a similar approach, not approaching this passage with the question “When is this going to happen,” but rather with the question “Now that these things are a reality, what will we do? What does it mean?”

As I was working on this sermon, I mentioned to a friend that it was a difficult gospel text to preach on, because no one really wants to have to find a way to preach about destruction. Her comment was “I agree – don’t preach on all of the bad stuff. We get enough of it in the news every day.” That comment gave me pause. She was right. We are not strangers to a world in turmoil. Similar to Luke’s audience, we are not people waiting around for future destruction; we are living in the midst of a world where stones have already been overturned and nations are perpetually rising up against nations, where there are already hungry people and there are already oppressed and persecuted people.

It is, perhaps, the perpetual state of all to be left waiting and watching and hoping for God’s ultimate salvation of our broken world. It is the perpetual state of all Christians to be living in the last days, where on the one hand, we see all around us so many terrible things that are not a part of God’s plan, and yet on the other hand, we live with the deepest and most profound hope that comes from knowing that at the last, God’s new heaven and new earth will enter into our midst, transforming all traces of death into the overwhelming glory of light and life.

So what of today’s readings, then?

Today’s readings force us to take an honest look at ourselves and our world. There is a notion out there that the world can continue to get better and better through human effort, apart from God’s hand. Today’s readings remind us that it isn’t so. Today’s readings shake us shake us out of a complacency that would view our world and our lives as “just fine, thank you very much.” For only when we consider the hardships of this life, are we able to really long for the alternative hope that is offered to us in Christ Jesus. It is only by reading these hard, end-times passages at the end of Pentecost that we can really appreciate the child for whom we wait during Advent.

So in their own way, both of our readings today proclaim good news, even if at first glance they seem to proclaim only doom. They promise that the hardships of this lifetime will be swept away in God’s time, to reveal Christ, the one who comes to us with healing in his wings. They promise that all that is broken will one day be restored. They promise that endurance in faith will gain us our souls – the inheritance of all of the promises and glory of God.

It is out of unwavering faith in these promises that the Apostle Paul could write, in his letter to the Romans, that "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

This is our prayer today, that whenever it feels like the world is crashing down around us, we can rely on God’s love for us in Christ, poured out through the Holy Spirit, and remember the depth of the hope to which we cling. And this is a hope, brothers and sisters, that does not disappoint.

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