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Wrecking Ball

November 18, 2013

“Wrecking Ball” Luke 21:5-28 © 11.17.13 Ordinary 33C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For a first century Jew, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a disaster and crisis like no other. While it stood, the towering edifice was a powerful symbol of the sovereignty of Israel’s God over the Roman occupation force. Its opulence and beauty were daily reminders that life did not have to be ugly and mean. Even if the Jews were under the thumb of a foreign government, they could simply look at the Temple and know that God was still with them. It functioned somewhat like the flag in our national anthem. As long as the Temple, like the Stars and Stripes, was “still there,” the battle was not lost. The Jews could take courage when they worshipped in the courts of the Temple.

So, when Jesus predicted the soon and sad fate of the beloved house of worship, he was not merely reminding his audience that buildings don’t last. Instead, for most people of his day, the statements would be close to blasphemy. What he said certainly wouldn’t win him any friends. Whatever he actually meant, the perception would be that Jesus claimed God could be defeated. With not a single stone of the Temple left in place, the God of Judah would be reduced to little more than a memory, stripped of any power to save. So subversive and dangerous were Jesus’ statements that Luke reports he made them only in the hearing of his disciples. Subversive not of public order and government, but of hope and faith. Dangerous, because they could get him killed.

The cataclysms Jesus predicted were familiar to anyone acquainted with the sort of literature known as “apocalyptic.” Daniel and Revelation fall into this category of writing that’s filled with images and visions of strange beasts, vengeful angels, and predictions of terrible calamities and horrible punishments. Usually the author of such a work will claim that God has given him a special revelation which lets him see into the inner workings of heaven, as in Revelation 4. This kind of literature is so misused these days to bring fear that it may be hard for us to realize that its intent was comfort, especially in the midst of persecution.

And comfort in abundance was what the disciples would need. They would not be spared the turmoil of the coming days of trouble when the Temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed. Instead, followers of Jesus would be hauled before authorities, charged unjustly with sedition and lack of patriotism, and accused of felonies and lies. Persecution, arrest, confiscation of personal goods, torture, and imprisonment would be an all-too-present reality for believers as the century neared its close, and local Roman authorities began to respond to complaints from loyal citizens. They wouldn’t even be able to trust the members of their own households or their friends, who might turn them over to the Romans. Some of those early Christians would even die for what they believed.

But God would be faithful to them in their dire straits. They would receive comfort. And strength, courage, boldness, and wisdom. The greatest gift would be sure and certain salvation; suffering and martyrdom would be a doorway into eternal glory and wholeness.

What possible point of contact could you and I have with such a scenario of persecution and death because of our faith? In 139 countries of the world between 2006 and 2010, Christians faced some form of discrimination. In Eritrea, for example, some Christians are imprisoned because they are part of an independent Protestant group not approved by the government. In North Korea, a quarter of the nation’s Christians live in forced-labor camps (“Persecuted,” The Christian Century, 11.13.13: 7).

But in this nation, to be afraid to admit your faith or to be hauled before an interrogator and be tortured because we are Christians is unimaginable. As I said a couple of weeks ago, loss of privilege for a certain kind of Christian viewpoint in the culture does not equal persecution.

But that doesn’t mean there is no word from the Lord for us this week. We may not experience the physical deprivation and fear of those first disciples or brothers and sisters in some repressive country, but we are their kindred in another way. So is every human being. Here are people wondering about tomorrow, struggling to make sense of a changing world. Who of us could not be described that way, at least every once in awhile? And isn’t our society chock full of self-anointed deliverers who promise answers to everything that troubles us? All for a price, of course. The worst kind are the religious ones, who play on our fears and prejudices in the name of an intolerant, hateful, violent Jesus I don’t even recognize. Sometimes we give in to their wiles, because we are so hungry for hope and a hero that we will listen to anybody.

The disciples of that ancient day were sometimes frightened, dismayed, betrayed, and wronged. And so are we. Don’t we know what it’s like to have the structures and the ways of life we trusted come crashing down till there is not stone left upon stone? Nothing is certain anymore, except death, taxes, and deadlock in Washington. As the poet put it, “things fall apart; the center does not hold.” The institutions, the leaders, the givens we once trusted in and took for granted can’t be counted on anymore. We look up and right outside the Temple, as it were, is a big crane with a wrecking ball attached, and the huge orb is hurtling toward the beautiful wall.

Where do we find meaning, comfort, and stability in a disintegrating world? For some, it’s job and career. When I was a campus minister in Alabama, I had a student in the group named Ben, who worked for minimum wage doing manual labor when he wasn’t in class. It was hard for me to imagine at the time, but he told me that the job brought him great satisfaction. Then one day, something happened not to his liking, and he quit. He found other work, but he was no longer happy. He became depressed, even suicidal.

Ben’s is an extreme case, but how many people invest their work with meaning beyond putting food on the table and shelter over their heads? I certainly did when I was employed full-time. When I lost my position with Presbytery, and was unemployed for two years, that took some getting used to! I asked questions like “Who am I? What’s my purpose in life?” Work becomes a measure of worth; productivity, the source of self-esteem. Then, in the church, in the business, comes the shake-up, the downsizing, the outsourcing. Or maybe work ends because of retirement or God forbid, a debilitating illness. Did I hear a crashing sound as the wrecking ball strikes, and the walls fall down?

For others, ultimate meaning is invested in and expected from a relationship. It might be one we have or one we want. If only I could meet Mr. or Ms. Right, someone might say, I will be fulfilled and happy. If I could just find a way to recapture the romance and excitement we enjoyed when we were younger and so in love. Marriage is thought of as a way to become and be complete. Others will not put so much of the focus on their spouse as they do on their friends, who become like their tribe; spouses and lovers come and go, according to this line of thinking; friends are forever, and they better be there for you.

Peter Berger, the sociologist, wrote years ago that we count on relationships to sustain a sense of order and stability in a world full of chaos and rootlessness. But can others really carry the burden of ultimacy we place on them? What human being can do that consistently, constantly, without fail or fault? Once again, the wrecking ball is swinging.

Then there are those who depend on a carefully constructed theological system. Five points of this, chapter and verse of that, excluding all other viewpoints sometimes with ferocious anger, so great is their insecurity. I remember vividly a pastor in my church as I was growing up whose view of the truth of Scripture depended on every word being literally accurate. In Sunday school one week, we were studying how Jesus was crucified. We read how the technique was to put the spikes through the wrists, lest they pull out from the sagging weight of the person on the cross. The minister, named Dan, got a worried look on his face. “What does that do to the reliability of the Scripture?” he asked. “My Bible says his hands.”

For Dan, whether the Bible was the Word of God depended on every word being exactly right or nothing was true. For others, some doctrine is shown to be outdated or politically motivated or prejudiced or simply untrue, and their whole universe implodes. Crash! Boom!

Crises, all. And the litany I’ve recited is not exhaustive by any means. There are all kinds of cataclysms that tear down the secure structure of our confidence and hope. What do we do then?

We have two options. One is to keep spiraling down into despair, sucked into the maw of the black hole of anger, fear, and self-pity, never to escape its pull. Or we can allow the crisis to transform us, to remind us in the most forceful way possible that there is only one Mighty Fortress that nothing can shake. We can invest with ultimate meaning the only One in the cosmos with shoulders broad enough to carry that weight. Do we still love others? Of course. Do we still believe our jobs are important and try to do our best? Certainly. Do we cherish the tradition of the Church, a system of worship and belief? Yes. But we no longer turn them into idols to be worshipped. We have reasonable and proper expectations of them, a right perspective on what they are. We see them as wonderful gifts, but we know that meaning with a capital “M,” security with a capital “S” can’t depend on them.

When we realize the transformative power of crisis, there is one further step we need to take. We have to testify. You may remember the late Christopher Reeve. After the accident that left him paralyzed, he said that what happened changed his perspective, his focus. He told his story, bearing witness to the transformative potential in even the most terrible sort of event.

How can we not want others to know what can happen after the wrecking ball smashes the walls and the Temple is destroyed? How they, too, can survive, and more than survive, come through stronger, more focused, more imaginative, healthier, more alive even? How can we not bear witness to the grace and wonder that lift us up and change us, that bring us from despair to hope? We can’t keep quiet! Maybe in the providence of God we will truly touch someone else, and they too will find treasure in the rubble. And then go witness to their hope, so that the chain of life keeps adding links.

Some years ago there was a commercial for a well-known insurance company. A wrecking ball comes hurtling toward an empty building, which obligingly collapses. But then in the next frame, the ball itself shatters against a structure, meant to represent the solidity of the advertiser.

A modern-day parable, perhaps? Don’t we trust One who, among other titles, is called “the Rock of Ages?”

Live it. Tell it. Thanks be to God.

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