Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

A young man phones up his father at work for a chat.

The dad says, “I’m so sorry, son, I’d love to talk, but I’m up to my neck in work today”

Son says, “But dad, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you.”

Dad says, “OK, but since I’ve got no time, just give me the good news.”

Son says, “OK.  Well, the air bags work . . .”

I know they’re corny, but I love a good “good news/bad news” joke. They’re funny because of the element of surprise, but also because we can relate to the scenarios. They appeal to the cynic in us that just expects the world to operate in that order–good news first, then the bad news.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus had to deliver some really bad news to his disciples. But he didn’t deliver it in the order we usually expect. He told them the bad news first.

Jesus and his disciples are standing in the Temple courts, and his disciples couldn’t help but remark on how beautiful the place was.  And it was very beautiful. The Temple courts sat on 36 acres of land. The enormous stones of the Temple were made of blinding white marble.  Some of the stones were even gold-plated so they reflected the sunlight. From a distance, the whole complex looked like a glowing jewel. But Jesus has the difficult task of telling his disciples that this magnificent center of Jewish life and faith, this building that represented the heart of Jewish life and culture was destined for destruction.

And as he prepares to give them this news, in verse 6, Jesus prefaces his announcement with some important words.  He says, “As for these things that you see. . .”  “As for these things that you see.” 

It’s so easy to put our faith in the things we can see.  The things that we can touch and feel.  It’s so easy to be impressed by appearances . . . to get our sense of security from that which is tangible.

But Jesus knew something very important.  He knew that what motivates us to put our trust in things — things we can touch, things we can see, things we can own, is FEAR.  It’s fear that motivates us to put our trust in worldly power and physical possessions. It’s fear that drives us to look for security and significance in what we can control. It’s fear that drives us to turn to things like our appearance or like the things we can own for a sense of security. And, importantly, Jesus also knew that sometimes fear leads us to chase after things that are NOT real.  Things like people who are not real.  Or, at least, who they portray themselves to be is not real. False prophets who promise us security and significance.

Because fear and worry often lead to an increased desire for control in our lives. And an increased desire for control of our lives in turn leaves us susceptible to those who would claim to have all the answers for how we can control our lives. Just follow this path, and you’ll be in control.  Just do as I say, and you’ll be in control.  Just take on this practice and you’ll no longer have to feel fearful about that which is out of your control.

But Jesus says that the only real solution to fear is to trust in God.  No matter what life throws at you, trust in God.  He says this so beautifully in verse 14.  “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” Think about that “Make up your mind not to prepare your defense. Not to worry beforehand.”

Vernon Jordan is an American businessman, lawyer, civil rights activist, and former national director of the Urban League. President Clinton chose Vernon Jordan to be a close advisor during his presidency. In May of 1980, a man named Joseph Franklin tried to assassinate Mr. Jordan. Afterward, from his hospital bed, Mr. Jordan told his pastor that he had a vision that he had died in the shooting, and his whole life had passed before his eyes. And one message kept coming back to him as he looked over his whole life. It was the message that his mother put at the end of every letter she ever wrote to him: “Remember, son, if you put your trust in God, He will take care of you.” Vernon Jordan said to his pastor that as he lay there in a pool of his own blood, he found great comfort in the words, “Remember, if you put your trust in God, He will take care of you.”

It’s been said, “All worry is atheism, because it is a want of trust in God.”  Hmm. “All worry is atheism, because it is a want of trust in God.” Why is worry a form of atheism? Because it stems from a focus on earthly things, on physical security, on tangible self-protection. Worry is rooted in the need for a self-controlled life rather than a God-controlled life.

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spoke about visions of a heavenly kingdom in which all people from all nations would find identity and security. The people of Jesus’ time took their identity and security from a magnificent Temple. But Jesus took his teachings outside the Temple, into the streets and into the fields where the average person was just scraping by. He took his message to the lepers and the widows, to the Samaritans and the tax collectors. In the Gospel of John, Jesus shared a secret with a despised Samaritan woman. He told her that worship was no longer confined to the Temple. He told her “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus reminds us that the earthly things that we put our trust in will one day go away. But the kingdom of God will never go away.  Because the kingdom of God is not something we can touch or see. It is the Spirit of God working in human hearts to bring about holiness and justice, righteousness and peace, until the day that Jesus comes again. And before the Spirit of God can come alive in your heart, you have to die to the “self” and the need for security and certainty that the self always seeks.

We are deceived if we place our trust in earthly kingdoms and temples built by human hands. Jesus told his disciples that the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem would be torn down. He told them that their fellow Jews, their loved ones, all the people they trusted would turn against them and persecute them for their faith in him. He told them that every earthly kingdom, every tangible thing in which they put their trust had to be torn away in order for them to know that the kingdom of God is the only sure foundation for their life—because it is eternal, and it will never fail.

When we’re surrounded by hard times and what we perceive to be persecution, when all that is tangible in our lives seems to be falling apart, how can we keep from giving in to fear and seeking answers from sources that actually only have their own best interests at heart?

What Jesus says is that when it comes, we need to see our moments of suffering not as signs that we need to find some new truth, but as opportunities to witness to God’s truth.  How would it change your life if you looked at every setback, every failure, every loss or heartbreak as an opportunity to witness to God’s goodness and faithfulness? More importantly, how would it change the lives of everyone around you if they saw you witnessing to the love of God in your life specifically in the midst of your troubles?

In this passage, Jesus promises that God has already prepared to defend you.  God has said that a hair of your head will perish. And if you stand firm, you will win your life. It’s a promise from an eternal and faithful God, and you can bet your whole life on it without fear, without failure and without regret.

Diet Eman and her boyfriend, Hein, were Dutch Christians who hid Jewish citizens from the Nazis in World War II. They knew they were risking their lives, but their faith compelled them to protect innocent people from persecution. In 1944, Hein was arrested and sent to Dachau. Diet was arrested soon after and sent to a different camp. Although she suffered greatly in the camp, Diet continued to trust in God’s promise of protection. She even took a hairpin and scratched Jesus’ promise from the 28th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel on the prison wall, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end”.

Diet was eventually released, but Hein died in Dachau. Fellow prisoners reported that Hein radiated the love of Christ in the concentration camp. Before his death, he wrote a final note to Diet. It read, “Darling, do not count on our seeing each other again soon . . . Because here we see again that we do not decide our own lives . . . But even if we don’t see each other again on earth, we will never be sorry for what we did, that we took this stand.  And know, that of every last human being in this world, I loved you most.”

Think about that.  We do not decide our own lives. Sometimes that is bad news. Jesus knew that this truth could cause his followers great fear and anxiety. It could lead them to stray from the truth of God’s Word. Or, He knew, it could lead them to decide beforehand to trust in God—to see any suffering that came into their lives as an opportunity for sharing God’s faithfulness. And that ultimately, the bad news leads to Good News.  The bad news that we really are not ultimately in control of our destiny. And the Good News that a loving God is.