The New Kingdom
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 13, 2022
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
When I think of beautiful buildings, churches always come to mind. I have been blessed to serve as pastor of three beautiful churches—each lovely in their own way. Other places of worship that have touched my heart include the Washington National Cathedral, the Iona Abbey, St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, and Church of the Mount of Beatitudes by the Sea of Galilee. I wonder, what ancient structure has taken your breath away? (Time of sharing.)
It seems to be in our very nature to be awed by monuments and historic relics—things that take us back through time and things that whisper to us about the possibilities of our future. So, what is it about such structures that speaks to us? Someone has said that people today are especially interested in the stones of the past because “in a world of disposable diapers, non-returnable soft-drink bottles, throw-away cartons, biodegradable shopping bags and plastic everything, it’s reassuring to encounter something substantial.”
If we are searching for something of lasting value—we are not the first to do so. For even in the days of Jesus, the Temple, built of beautiful stones—speaks to the disciples. They surely feel that this will last—this thing built by man BUT dedicated to God. This, now this is impressive!
In our gospel reading, while the disciples play the “tourist,” Jesus plays “the tour guide.” But what Jesus predicts is unexpected—to say the least. It must have been difficult for the disciples to conceive that this great temple (one of the wonders of the world) will be destroyed, torn down, stone by stone. The temple, the very center of national life and pride, the very seat of God, in ruins? Unthinkable! Yet this is what Jesus says and barely 40 years after he speaks these words—they come true. Jesus’ words still ring out through history: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences…great signs…”
At first glance, it appears that Jesus is spreading fear to the masses. “The time will come when not one stone will be left,” Jesus begins. Then the disciples do what we would all do. They ask, “When, Jesus, when? Give us a sign.” It’s a reasonable request. The disciples want to know more—they want to know what to watch for on the horizon. But Jesus isn’t handing out timelines. Instead, he offers guidelines for the journey ahead. He warns them not to be misled. Many will come and say, “I am he. Don’t follow them. You will hear of wars and revolutions. Don’t be frightened. And when you are brought before the authorities to give account—this will be your opportunity to testify—Do not worry about your defense—Just testify! I will give you words. I will give you wisdom.”
Jesus the Great Tour Guide attempts to calm the fears of his followers—even in the face of the hardship that lies ahead. “Do not fear…do not worry…” he says. The apocalyptic words of Jesus offer a glimpse of the supernatural world beyond this world—a glimpse of things to come. Concerning apocalyptic writings, the time between the old world and the new world (the time in which we now live) is often referred to as the “in between times.” During these “in between times” transformation happens on a cosmic level. This type of writing is particularly difficult to understand because, often, historical events are mingled with future ones. In other words, what is going on in history is mixed into the bigger picture of HIS Story. The mingling of stories makes apocalyptic literature especially vulnerable to exploitation. So, it is no surprise that such texts have been used to instill fear and to control believer and unbeliever alike—even though the true purpose of apocalyptic literature is to offer hope—not fear. In the words of Fred Craddock, “As strange as this type of literature may seem to us, it’s a witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God. Amid painful and prolonged suffering, when relief is nowhere in sight, faith turns its face toward heaven. Desire for a glimpse of new heavens and a new earth is hope’s response.”[i]
The Romans destroy the Temple in 70 A.D. This catastrophe for Judaism, creates a spiritual vacuum into which Christianity quickly moves—because Christianity focuses on the person of Jesus—the Resurrected Lord— not on a central place of sacrifice. Those who believe in Christ see the destruction of the Temple as a sign of God’s activity in the world. And the false prophets, wars, and persecutions, of which Jesus speaks, are all things the church experienced and is still experiencing. For the early church, there is comfort in knowing that Jesus himself has predicted these things. For the church today, there is comfort in knowing that, in the end, God has the last word, and only God knows when that last word will come!
Today, there are those who would have us believe that there is nothing good happening anymore—that evil is the real victor! We can watch destruction and despair played out on our television and other screens 24 hours a day. For now, perhaps more than ever—fear sells! In the days of the disciples, yes, the Temple is destroyed—but not the whole world. The world goes on—and it still goes on—even though wars and rumors of wars continue. But we, who are followers of Jesus, dare not focus on evil or live in perpetual fear. In John 14, Jesus promises, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives peace.” The peace we long for is his peace. Peace based on the recognition that it is not our task to make history come out right or to save the world—because in Jesus Christ, history has already come out right.[ii]
In these “in between times” we anticipate the coming of the New Kingdom—when evil will shut its mouth and all the world will be at peace. As we wait, we pray that God will keep us faithful. As we wait, we keep busy with the good work Christ has left for us to do—loving God with all our heart and mind and soul, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
No doubt every generation has speculated if the end of time is drawing near. When we witness wars that never cease, natural disasters, and political chaos, we can’t help but wonder: “Are these the last days of which Jesus spoke?” But Jesus reminds us to not to be filled with fear but to recognize such times as opportunities to testify. But what kind of testimony can a faithful person give in the face of death and destruction? One example that comes to mind is actually a story I have shared before—but it is so compelling—it is worth hearing again.
Thomas Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1889. He was an amazing song writer, and gospel and blues musician. As a young man he moved to Chicago where he made a living playing piano in churches, clubs, and theaters. Eventually, he devoted his career to the church. In August of 1932 he left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis to be the featured soloist at a large revival. After the first night, he got a telegram with the news, “Your wife just died.” He raced home to learn that his wife had died during childbirth and his son had died the next day. Crushed, Dorsey refused to compose or play music for a long, long time. Eventually, however, sitting in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed over him. That very night, Dorsey recorded his testimony—one that has struck a chord in the hearts of people ever since.[iii] (Kinney sings.)
Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near;
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
We are on a pilgrimage. There are days when the light shines and hope reigns. There are days when the bottom falls out and we stagger, fearful and unsure of which way to turn. Nonetheless, our instructions remain the same: It is our task to tell others about the love and mercy and grace of God—the God who counts the hairs on our heads—the God who holds our hands—and, yes, the God who leads us home! Amen.
[i] Interpretation Series: Luke, Fred Craddock
[ii] Christian Century article, William Willimon
*Cover Image “The Return” by Ira Thomas, used by permission