One of the first things that jumped out at me in today’s Gospel Reading was not that Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, or the idea of false prophets that will try and deceive the people of God, or even the idea that God’s children will be hauled into the courts and persecuted for believing in Him, but rather, the first thing that I noticed was that everything mentioned in the Gospel reading dealt with a tension of what is seen set against that which is unseen.
For instance, Jesus tells the disciples that the beautiful temple that they are admiring will be destroyed. He says, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
On the one hand, the disciples see this beautiful temple that King Herod is still in the process of rebuilding at this time, and on the other they have Jesus telling them that this temple will be destroyed completely. Do they believe what they see? Or do they believe what Jesus has told them will happen?
Then Jesus tells them of wars, famine, plagues, things that will come before the end. He tells them of things that normally terrified people, and then tells them not to be afraid. In other words, trust me, not what you see.
Then he tells them that they will be hauled into the courts and that people will accuse them of all sorts of evil. He tells them that even their family will turn against them, something that might baffle people used to family loyalty.
But he also tells them that contrary to common sense, they should not prepare their defense. Not only that, but they should not be afraid, because God would give them the words to speak at their defense when they need it.
In other words, Jesus is saying, don’t trust what you see – your circumstances – but trust me.
This is what I noticed. This tension. This juxtaposition of what we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears, and understand with our minds, placed up against Jesus essentially saying, ‘Do not be afraid. Instead, trust me.”
This passage is often interpreted very literally, with the expectation that Jesus was deliberately talking about the end times – Armageddon if you will – and telling people exactly what to expect before he comes again in Glory.
There is a reason why we get more scriptures like this as we approach Advent. As we have followed the liturgy throughout the year we have learned of Christ’s birth, his baptism, his public ministry, his death and resurrection, the birth of the church and the growth of the church through the power of the Holy spirit. And as we approach the end of the church year we begin to hear passages about the end times, and about Christ’s return in glory, because Christ’s return is the fulfillment of what we, as Christians, believe.
It may often be easier to hear the scriptures throughout the year that deal with Jesus’ birth, or maybe his baptism. In fact, it’s probably easier to deal with the scriptures of Easter and Holy week, because while those passages deal with the death of our Lord, they still can come across as just stories – historical tidbits of information which have only affected us peripherally, stories that happened to someone else.
These passages about the end times do not deal with Jesus’ suffering, but instead, deal with our own potential suffering. Suddenly, we are no longer dealing with just the wonderful idea of heaven, but the possibilities of the pain and suffering that we might personally have to experience on this side of Glory.
These passages about the end of time really highlight the tension that we, as Christians, continually live in.
Right now, during every Eucharist, you may recognize these words:
We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory;
Or, perhaps the words we use more often are more familiar to you:
Christ has died.
Christ is Risen.
Christ will come again.
Christ has died. Past Tense. This is a fact. I believe that very few people would argue with you about this. There is enough evidence from Roman and Jewish historians to point to a man named Jesus who had a large following of people and who was executed at the hands of the Romans.
Christ is Risen. Present Tense. Christ is alive. He has conquered death and risen from the dead, and because he has conquered death we who believe have received the gift of eternal life.
This, of course, is where you enter into the tension. None of us who are alive today witnessed this miracle. None of us alive today witnessed the resurrection of a man crucified by the Romans. And yet, even though we were not witnesses to this event, we proudly and with vigor “Proclaim his resurrection.”
Maybe we don’t.
We may not need to bring up this little tidbit of information in our conversations with people because anyone who has been alive for half a day knows that Christians believe that Christ rose from the dead. What they may not know is that we believe that because Christ rose from the dead, we have been given the gift of eternal life.
I believe that this is something that we often understand conceptually, but this idea that we have eternal life needs to become infused into our very core and flow out into every aspect of our present, earthly lives.
Christ will come again. Future tense.
We might believe that Christ has died. We might even believe that Christ has risen from the dead, but what do we do with this in-between state? We live in a world where we might be betrayed by “parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.” We live in a world where we there is no perfect health. We live in a world of pain, of suffering and sickness. We live in a world, where, as Jesus said in the Gospel reading today, “they will put some of you to death” just for believing in him.
We will be confronted by the skepticism of people who do not believe that Christ rose from the dead. And, if we live according to the standards of this world – those reactions that Jesus described in our Gospel reading today – those reactions that dive into fear, rather than into the encouraging words of Jesus saying, “Trust Me,” then we may not have truly come to embrace the blessing of living as resurrected, joyful, fearless souls in a world that seeks to destroy us.
Understanding that Christ’s Resurrection and his coming again in Glory provide us with a life that will never end should give us the strength to move forward through each day that we encounter resistance to a fearless, joyful, and abundant life.
Why? Because we have already received eternal life, but we just haven’t entered into it yet.
Some of us are breathing a sigh of relief at that statement:
We already have eternal life, we just haven’t fully stepped into it yet.
Again, this is the tension that we have to deal with, because this life is not free from suffering or pain. But just as Christ told the disciples to trust him instead of what they see, we too must look toward Christ when confronted with terrible news or hardship.
It may be a bit of a stretch, but to each of us, when we encounter these difficult things in our own lives may feel that we are facing not the end of the world, but the end of our world.
Maybe someone in our family has been diagnosed with a mysterious illness for which there is no cure, and which brings with it an enormous amount of fear and uncertainty for the future.
Maybe someone in our family has died, or nearly died, and we are confronted with the fear that death so often carries with it.
Maybe we’ve been accused of horrible things or been betrayed by people we love.
Maybe we have not experienced anything so dramatic, but even some of the smaller uncertainties in life can take over our focus and pull us into a state of fear that may feel worse than death.
It’s true, these things that we experience might be terrifying, they may make us question the reality of a Risen Lord, and they may make us question the reality of our own gift of eternal life.
This is because the immediate unknown is often more frightening that the long-term known.
The long-term known – what Christ has himself has told us – is that we must not fear the things of this life, for this life is not the end.
Do we trust what we see, or do we trust God, and what he has told us to be true?
What we know to be true is that we have eternal life.
The end of this life is merely the beginning of a whole new one. One that never ends.
Christ has died.
Christ is indeed Risen.
And Christ most certainly will come again.
Conceptually, all of these things are simple.
But realistically they take time to fully grow into, especially when confronted with some of the terrifying things of this world.
That is what we need to internalize: that we are not bound to this world. We are bound for eternity.
Just as the collect for today says, we pray that we might hear the simple truths of scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, so that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.
With that eternal knowledge infused in every part of us, we most certainly can live a fearless, joyful and abundant life, even when confronted with the uncertainties of this world.[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on November 17, 2019. Listen Here.]