Lessons of the Day: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
There is a story that is told in Mark Twain’s autobiography:
The superintendent of the children’s department” at Brooklyn Public Library ordered that all copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn be removed from the room, due to their characters’ “coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices.” Soon after, unhappy with the development, the librarian in charge of the “Department for the Blind,” Asa Don Dickinson, wrote to Mark Twain to inform him of the ban. Clemons immediately wrote back, tongue in cheek:
I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.
Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood.
If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?
(Signed, ‘S. L. Clemens’)
In the end, the book was not removed from the library and while Samuel Clemons was clearly answering with sarcasm, he had a point. There are a great many narratives, stories, and passages that we probably would not read to our children right before they go to bed at night. Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke could probably be counted among them.
In the broader context of today’s lesson, we hear Luke tell of deceitful leaders, of insurrection and persecutions, of plagues and wars, of betrayal by parents and siblings and friends, and of being persecuted and killed by the government. When I looked at the passage several weeks ago, I thought, “Well, this will preach during Advent!”
Nevertheless, here we are at the beginning of a period of longing, of desire, of waiting for something. Here we are, waiting in the darkness, and we’re given this gospel lesson! So, there must be a message here for us somewhere.
A version of this story finds is way into the other Gospels, as well. In all of the accounts, Jesus has become increasingly frustrated with the religious leaders who refused to or were unable to understand his message of radical love and were thus unable to teach that message to the crowds. It was in this environment that Jesus encounters a little group of folks outside the Temple deep in discussion. (Luke 21:5) They weren’t, however, discussing the insistence of love, nor the invitation to welcome and compassion and forgiveness, nor even the law and covenant. No, instead, they were there discussing the building! They were pointing out the fancy adornments on the Temple, exclaiming over the beautiful stones that Herod had used to renovate the Temple not too long before.
Overhearing their conversation, Jesus challenged them,
“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. When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”Luke 21:5-7
They were stunned and didn’t know what to do. It was then that Jesus began to talk about awful and terrible things: wars, insurrections, nations rising against nations. It was a litany of horrible things, scary things – things you would never want to read to your children before bed.
The passage is commonly known by the subtitle, “Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.” We have to ask ourselves, though, what Jesus is really doing here and why the Gospel writers would record this in the remembrance of the life of Jesus decades after his death and resurrection, and years after the destruction of the Temple (which did in fact happen before they were writing).
While some have proposed that maybe it was included to show that Jesus could tell the future, I doubt it’s that pedestrian. The evangelists, recall, were writing to the earliest Christian communities, small bands of followers of the Way. Because of their newfound faith and journey, they would face hardships beyond our imagining, losing possessions and status and even life. They were oppressed by a government, persecuted and killed for what they believed. With that in mind, I doubt that this passage is included to solidify Jesus credentials as a fortune teller; but, rather, this passage is here because Jesus knew that the witness of the people of faith could not be eliminated. Even by the destruction of the Temple could not and would not stop them.
But what could stop them, was fear. Notice the progression in the narrative. There is a group at the Temple concerned about preserving the stones and the beautiful adornments all around them, afraid of losing a physical space that had represented their faith. A fear, by the way, not without historical precedent for it was destroyed once by the Babylonians and would be destroyed again by the Romans. It was this fear that motivated their conversation was about the Temple when Jesus interrupted the them. In essence, Jesus tells them that there is a lot more to be afraid of than losing the outward trappings of the faith. They don’t even really know what is at risk! They are concerned with the trapping of their faith but they are at risk of losing the substance of the faith or not grasping it in the first place. That is: they are at risk of losing radical love, of relinquishing the light.
Jesus is essentially admonishing them to lift up their heads, to look around at what is going on, to tear their myopic and fear-filled, inward-focused gaze to the world around them. Things are bad out there and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Temple and whether or not the stones look pretty. It has to do with the fact that the message that will heal our world has become offensive. Yes!! It makes people angry when you tell them to love their enemies and to give away their possessions to the poor and to welcome strangers at the border. When the people heard such a message, they grew afraid.
So, when you start to preach that message and live that message, the world around you is going to get really scary.
Sure, the people that day were afraid of losing the Temple, the trappings of the faith. The real loss, though, would be losing the substance of your faith, losing radical love and the light that shines in darkness. It is fear that will cost us everything if we let it in.
So, we cannot give into fear!! No matter what, we cannot let fear narrate the story of our faith. That is our essential and necessary work this Advent. As we prepare ourselves for Christmas and as we make ready for the second coming, our work the Advent must be about pushing back against the darkness and the fear. We must push back against the fear of loving totally, of giving everything, of living fully in the light.
You and I can survive a great deal. We can survive the destruction of the Temple or the loss of a church. We can survive the so-called war on Christmas. We can survive corrupt presidencies and inept governance. We can even survive wars and insurrections, and injustice of all kinds. We can survive all of that and by our endurance we will gain our soul. But if we give into fear, it will destroy us.
Those Jews in Jerusalem who worried about the preservation of the Temple needed to hear Jesus message about fear. Those first Christians decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, facing oppression, persecution, and death, needed to hear the message about fear. I think that maybe, just maybe, we need to hear the Gospel message about fear this week. Do we wish that we could have an easier passage, one with a sweet ending and a cozy message to get us ready for Christmas. We wish we could move this one right out of the library.
Jesus doesn’t say that all sorts of things will be easy. What we might want to hear, though, is that what we think will destroy us: from the low interest rates on our 401ks, a caravan of asylum seekers at our borders, and neighbors who believe differently than we do, to a country fundamentally unwilling of face its misogyny, racism, and love of empire. No, those things, though very troubling, will not destroy us! What will destroy us, is the fear of living into radical love and unfiltered light.
Did you ever have family meetings growing up? Ours were called when something serious was happening, something important that was the beginning of change or a new way of begin family together.
I think its fair to say that we are living in time of great fear. There are those all around, those in leadership and those following, those who claim faith and those who practice none, who hold values at odds with the value that we hold dearest as Christians: the value of radical love. You know that it is quite literally getting darker every day (at least in the northern hemisphere). That is perhaps a useful metaphor for this Advent. We search the horizon for the light and often cannot see it.
I think it might be appropriate that this First Sunday of Advent we call a little family meeting. Let not fear to root. Lets not allow darkness to grow. Instead, this Advent, together we might push back against fear and darkness. Let us remind each other that there is hope and God is with us.
But this means that we will increasingly be called upon to live into a new and more radical way as a bright light in the darkness, as love amidst the fear. We will increasingly be invited to be a voice calling for righteousness and love, justice and peace. We will be called upon to be the gathering place for a people who stand together in the Prince of Peace and the Sun of Righteousness.
As long as we have breath within us and as long as the Church of Jesus Christ exists in any expression, we will not give in to what will destroy us. We will not give in to fear. We will not give in to the darkness.
As that greatest of all magical teacher, Professor Dumbledore reminded his students, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
If we determine as a Gospel community that we are going to live this way, we need to be prepared to hear Jesus words not as a narrative we wouldn’t read to our children but more as a call to bold faith and deep commitment to tend the flame of our witness.
Maybe this Advent can become a time to testify to radical love, to righteousness, to goodness and faith and justice and peace. We are followers of Jesus so we will live the radical love of Jesus here and beyond these walls. We will walk boldly into the future of our shared life together with open hands and open hearts and with more courage than we ever thought we could summon.
And now, maybe more than ever before, we will absolutely and categorically, reject fear. Because it is fear more than any other troubling thing that will, if we let it, destroy us.