Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – 26th Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – November 18, 2018
As a child who grew up watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, every time I hear this Gospel reading, I cannot help but think of one scene from that movie. Indy, the singer Willie Scott, and Short Round are riding through the jungle on elephants and Willie looks up in awe: “Ooo! Look at those big birds!” Indy replies, “Those aren’t big birds, sweetheart. Those are giant vampire bats…” Now, the whole thing is silly, adventurous movie magic, but when I hear the one of the disciples say, “‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’” I feel it has the same basic effect. The disciple, like naïve Willie, is awestruck, and Jesus, like Indy, has to fill them in that they are way, way off base.
This encounter takes place in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. The disciples have no idea what is about to happen even though Jesus has been trying to prepare them. So, once again, he tries to help them understand what they are in for: “‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Still, they don’t catch on and they wonder when these things will take place and how they can know it’s about to happen.
The disciples talk to Jesus about the permanence of a building, not realizing they are sitting in the very place where Jesus will weep, agonizing over his upcoming crucifixion. Where he will be betrayed and arrested. They speak about the future and signs, missing the signs that are unfolding around them, leading toward Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus tells them to beware – to be alert and discerning – so they are not led astray by anyone. This seems so vague. But, really, it gets at a larger question. If Jesus is concerned about his followers being led astray especially in times that are alarming or scary, what does it mean to be faithful?
Faithfulness. Constancy. Loyalty. Devotion. Steadfastness. Dedication. Trust. Hopefulness. Those are beautiful words, but if I’m honest, I don’t feel like I often live up to them. I have trouble sticking to an exercise regimen – how on earth am I going to be faithful to the God of the cosmos?!
So what does it mean to be a faithful follower when there is so much that distracts us? “‘Beware that no one leads you astray…’” It doesn’t just need to be someone claiming to be a prophet or a messiah who will lead us astray. It could very well be our selves. The Prayer of the Day says, “give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world,” and that’s beautiful for sure. But more of this is about God’s faithfulness to us. As Eugene Peterson wrote, “Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness.”
When the future seems unclear or uncertain, we remember that it is God who is faithful to us. This also means that the hopes and dreams we have for growing in our faith and our relationship with God are not our own. As we have our congregational meeting today and plan for the future, we are called to remember that the desire to see this congregation connect with others and experience God more deeply is not just our own. God, too, wants this for us! It may come about in unexpected ways, but God wants us to thrive as a community and as individuals. It’s never about us or our agenda. Our mission, vision, and values are rooted in God’s love. We are always responding to God’s grace active in our lives through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit. That is our honor, calling, and privilege. So this text about the impermanence of things is both a warning and a loving call to remember and trust God’s unfailing faithfulness even as we respond faithfully.
This reminds me one of my favorite German hymns, ,,Von guten Mächten.” “By gracious powers wonderfully secured, We await, consoled, whatever may come, God is with us evenings and mornings, And most assuredly each new day.” These words were written by German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Tegel Prison shortly before he was executed by the Nazis. I think about this man’s short life – a life spent trying to live as a faithful disciple in times of uncertainty and crisis. I marvel at his faith. But what is even more remarkable is that his poem is about God’s faithfulness even when the world is falling apart around him. It’s not cleaned up or sanitized. It’s about Christ, our light, shining in the darkness. It’s about hope and faith born from despair and trials, wrestling and doubts.
I sing those words and I wonder if I could have such courage under fire. If I could have done any better than the disciples in their desire to know the future and have everything nice, neat, and squared away. The answer is a resounding, “no.” I’m just like them. But I also know that Jesus’ words are for me, too. They’re for each of us. “‘Beware that no one leads you astray. … do not be alarmed.’” There will be wars, rumors of wars, nations and kingdoms rising against one another, earthquakes and famines. We will all experience moments in our lives when the world seems to crumble around us, whether it’s global or national events, or ones that hit closer to home. A health diagnosis. A broken relationship. Job loss. Grief. But keep watch and don’t be afraid. Hold on to the One holding you. God will bring new life from these birth pangs.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to suffer or struggle in order to punch through to some new place. And I don’t believe God heaps horrible things on us so we will grow. But looking back, I do see that times of struggle have led to new growth – that they have taught me something and often deepened my reliance on God. I look back and see that those impressive artifices and and walls I’ve constructed inevitably crack and crumble and in the rubble, there’s tender new life poking through, ready to be nurtured and tended.
Our barriers, walls, and defenses have to be torn down as we, too, learn what it is to be in relationship with God who is faithful, loving, and gracious to us. As we learn how to be faithful and loving to God and each other. It’s the theology of the cross – the way of true life. The narrow way of discipleship.
And it’s tough. Our world changes so quickly. High-speed communication and interconnection mean that political instability, natural disasters, economic crises, and food shortages are no longer isolated affairs, but events that radiate outward and affect people around the globe. It can feel as if there’s nothing to hold onto.
But the author of Hebrews tells us otherwise: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Jesus, the one who has forgiven us through his great sacrificial love, is faithful. We can cling to him when all else seems uncertain for he will never abandon us or lead us astray. But it is never just about a one-on-one with Jesus. We always live this in community. Bonhoeffer was able to continue with hope in his prison cell because he knew he was a part of a larger Christian community who strengthened him through their letters, prayers, and companionship. As we hear in Hebrews: “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another…” We draw strength from each other in our time of need, and we empower others through our own faith and trust when they are tired, worn, and weak.
We have a God who is faithful – our security is not dependent on our goodness or faithfulness. In the words of the psalmist, God is at our right hand, and we shall not be shaken. Our hearts can be glad and our spirits rejoice, because God will not abandon us to the grave, but show us the path of life so we might enjoy the fullness of joy that is living in God’s presence.
Bonhoeffer’s words in ,,Von guten Mächten” remind me of the strength of God’s love that carries us through every unknown. But maybe another classic by George Gershwin can remind us of the God whose faithfulness is everlasting: “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, They’re only made of clay, but God’s love is here to stay…” Thanks be to God. Amen.