(A sermon for Pentecost 25C — November 14, 2010 — Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19)
It was a beautiful day. I spent Saturday morning here with about a dozen folks getting the church building ready for winter. Leaves were raked out of the flower beds and scooped out of window wells. People climbed tall ladders to put up freshly washed storm windows. Various mysterious tools were used to get the driveway ready for snow and sand, which will soon be plentiful if this winter proves more typical than last. Everyone worked hard and did it happily, with a sense of love and care for this church.
It’s our church, and we’re proud of it, proud of these tall windows that let in so much beautiful light. It’s worth the trouble to take the storm windows off, so that we can feel a breeze in the summer, and worth it to put them back up again so we can be warm when we worship together. It’s a beautiful space, and so is the fellowship hall. We have a facility full of places to gather for all kinds of purposes, and we can rightly feel proud of its history and the way we take care of it.
Do you hear a “but” coming?
It’s a little worrisome to tell you all those things, or to remember how pleasant it was to sit and drink coffee and eat doughnuts together later in the morning, when we think about what Jesus had to say in our gospel lesson. He tells of a time when everything will be torn down. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.
We all fall down.
When I gave our administrator this title for the bulletin, she said, “How awful!!!” Julia knows the origin story of Ring Around the Rosy, or the one that has become best known, anyway, that it comes from the time of the Plague. Supposedly, what I learned as “Ashes, Ashes” was really “A’tishoo, a’tishoo,” an indication that a person who showed symptoms of illness would surely die, would soon fall down, never to arise again.
He is in *some* trouble with those people who are in authority. He’s come into Jerusalem, and he’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the best stories we have about him, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels, with variations. He comes to the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.
It’s in this same gospel that we hear the story of his visit to the Temple as a 12-year-old. If you’ve been to a Cottage Meeting you’ve heard it recently. Jesus and his parents have gone to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays, and on the way home, his parents assume he’s hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he is nowhere to be found, they go back to Jerusalem and search for him for three days. Three long days they search for him, and finally they discover he has been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.
This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. This time they wish he were dead. And they’re on their way to making sure it happens.
We all fall down.
It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.
It can happen at church, too.
Jesus warns that people will lead us astray. It will happen. Jesus warns that there will be disasters and wars, and he’s right. We’ve had them. People have always had them. Jesus warns that people will argue with us about our beliefs, and that our beliefs will be questioned, and we will have to testify to those beliefs.
He names a whole array of anxiety-producing scenarios. If you’re one of those people who dreams about having to take an exam in a class when you didn’t know you were registered, or that you have to give a report when you didn’t expect to do it, or in my case, that you got to the wrong church at the right time, or the right church at the wrong time, you know the feelings.
We all fall down.
At the end he says some of the worst things of all, the stuff that no one likes to hear. Our own families will cut us loose, will turn us in, will disbelieve and betray us. The people who by the very nature of their roles in our lives, by the definition of who they are to us, should be faithful and loyal, they will choose their own security over us.
It’s a bleak picture. And it must be just how Jesus felt about what was coming.
It’s the nature of the liturgical year that we come up against one of our favorite national holidays, Thanksgiving, with the end of the life of Jesus, and without the Resurrection. Every year we cycle through one of the gospels, starting in Advent, and we’ll do that with Matthew beginning in two more weeks. But first we finish the second half of our journey through Luke, and all through the past 10 weeks, since I arrived here, we’ve been feeling the increase of tension and worry and drama in the words of Jesus himself. Next week we’ll meet him on the cross.
We all fall down. Even Jesus.
It’s the human experience, and the gospel of Luke assures us Jesus had one.This passage is not without hope, but it’s probably not the hope we want to hear. We live in a time when things are always crashing down and falling—and that is every time, it’s just that we know about ours, and we have 24 hour cable news to be sure of it. We want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this anxious speech gives us only an eternal hope—if we are faithful, and trust that Jesus will give us the words and wisdom we need, we will gain our souls.
He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won't get to keep his own.
And on a beautiful weekend, when the weather was unseasonably warm, and raking leaves and washing windows would have seemed like a treat even without a pumpkin doughnut—which I hear were delicious!—we want to hear something a little less apocalyptic. Otherwise, what was the point of cleaning out the window wells?
So. We all fall down. Things go wrong. People we rely on disappoint us. People at church—heaven forbid!!—disagree over things. Sometimes they leave. Sometimes it hurts us, and other times it may be a relief, but never are we happy about it, because it’s our human nature to want it all to come round right in the end.
Listen to Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. (Isaiah 65:17-23, NRSV)
That’s more like it. No more servitude. They will get to live in the houses they build and eat the food they plant. It sounds beautiful.
Isaiah wrote for people who had been in exile—we’ve been hearing about them off and on at the same time we’ve been walking this hard road with Jesus. The inhabitants of Jerusalem had been divided, some living in their own occupied city with the Persian invaders right on top of them, and the others trying to figure out how to be faithful to God in faraway and extremely foreign Babylon. We’ve talked about how they believed that only in the Temple could they really be close to the LORD.
And not only were some of them too far away, but the invaders destroyed the Temple. The one Jesus is talking about is the rebuilt version, although it would be torn down, too.
And this peaceful, happy-sounding good news passage in Isaiah? Comes right after a passage of bad news. It comes as part of a story of a community ripped apart.
And it means a lot to me, and I think it should to us, that Jesus felt these same feelings and expressed these same emotions in his human life.
We all fall down. We do.
But don’t let people tell you it’s all coming to an end. Do not despair. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection. It’s still true, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, even at the times we think we’ll never get up again. It’s still true.
And here’s the good news about living in community. Even when we’re down, in the fallen place, at the absolute bottom, through the actions of others, or our own mistakes or poor choices, whether it’s personal or bigger than we are, when we are down in the nightmare of a window well and can’t see how we will climb out again, we are not alone. We are never alone.
“Before they call, I will answer.”
“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
God is with us. Christ is with us. He's been in the deepest window well himself. This community of Christ’s people stands ready to extend a hand in Christ's name, even and especially when we fall down. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Ring Around the Rosy, date unknown, by Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927).