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When Things Fall Apart

November 14, 2016

“When Things Fall Apart” Isaiah 65:17-25, 2 Corinthians 4:14,16-5:7, Luke 21:5-28 © 11.13.16 Ordinary 33C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Imagine a society divided and dispirited in the time following a national crisis, a cataclysm no one expected, which the experts said could not happen. The institutions and even physical structures which once undergirded the nation, kept evil at bay, and symbolized its best values and aspirations are gone. A foreign government interferes with national affairs. People are filled with resentment against each other, with one group being called outsiders and elites, while the other is despised as ignorant and well-nigh worthless, labeled as “less-than.” A popular commentator poetically describes the situation this way and complains to God: “Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil becomes a target” (Isaiah 59; based on NRSV). 

So it was with Judah in the mid to late sixth century BC. The commentator is the anonymous prophet we know as Third Isaiah, who was either the author or the editor of a hodgepodge collection of sayings that range from despairing in the days following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon to exultant and hopeful. An example of the latter is the Old Testament text we heard this morning. Early attempts at rebuilding the Temple burned and ruined in the invasion of 587 BC had come to nothing. The people who had been left in the land and making it on their own now resented the returnees coming in and taking over under the auspices of the Persian Empire. The clergy and other leaders were no help. The prophet describes them this way: “All you wild animals, all you wild animals in the forest, come to devour! Israel’s sentinels are blind, they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs that cannot bark; dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all. ‘Come,’ they say, ‘let us get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink. And tomorrow will be like today, great beyond measure’” (Isaiah 56:9-12). His was a rudderless society and religious community with corrupt and ineffective leaders.

The Temple eventually was rebuilt, an ugly thing that saddened and frustrated people who could remember Solomon’s magnificent edifice. But almost 500 years later, in Jesus’ day, there was a new, wonderful house of the Lord, built by King Herod. And everybody was so very proud of it, even it was constructed by a descendant of hated Esau, installed on the throne by the Roman Empire. The towering building and its courts were powerful symbols of the sovereignty of Israel’s God over the imperial 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.

We don’t have to dig very deep to identify with the Jews of Third Isaiah’s or of Jesus’ time. The institutions we have trusted to uphold us and guide us have failed. We are a country deeply divided, with no healing of the rift likely to come anytime soon, despite the political rhetoric. Christians cannot agree among themselves on what the will of God is or who most closely fulfills it. In our personal lives, we may and do face crisis, doubt, fear, and despair, whether over the news of the day or because of our relationships or our uncooperative bodies and minds or some other change in our lives we don’t welcome or want.

All is decidedly not well. Yeats was spot on in his poem The Second Coming: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity./ Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand” (

I have nothing so grandiose as a revelation to offer, and I don’t know if the Second Coming is indeed around the corner, but I think we can get some clues from the texts this morning on what to do, what kind of people we need to be, can be, when things fall apart.

First of all, we are and can be people who practice discernment. Not only about public figures and issues, but perhaps mostly about our own hearts and tendencies. When we’re grieving some loss or have some particular pressing need, it’s easy to be fooled, to make bad decisions, to follow or embrace the first person, accept the first solution, that promises to ease our pain or at least distract us from it. When Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, with not one stone left on another, he knew people would be looking for answers, for scapegoats, for leaders who could give them a feeling of safety and help them make sense of sorrow and suffering. Hence his warning: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them” (Luke 21:8).

So, to bring that down to earth with a few examples, we don’t or shouldn’t go to the grocery store when we’re hungry or turn to shopping or the bottle or overeating when we’re disappointed and empty. We don’t or shouldn’t make big financial decisions under pressure and in a hurry. We don’t or shouldn’t enter too quickly into relationships when we’ve lost one, whether after leaving a job or becoming disenchanted with a church or experiencing the end of a romance from infatuation to a marriage. We need to be self-aware enough to know our hearts, to admit how our emotions play with our capacity for reason, to own up to how easily we can scam ourselves into believing anything and anybody when things fall apart.

I recall the first time I was in love. Her name was Wendy, and she was a student at Belhaven. I was a single seminarian in my 20s, eager to be married, because that’s what the professors told us would make us real and complete men. She and I went out a few times, and I was smitten. But then came a Valentine’s Day when I professed my love for her, and she lowered the boom. I had no idea that she had been hurt and let down so badly by the church and ministers, and I stood for everything that was wrong about the institution. It wasn’t fair, but it was the way she saw it.

I was devastated. Soon after that, I got a position at Westminster Church in Mobile. I made a fool of myself dating this young woman, then that one, clueless that my frantic search for female companionship was all about Wendy and my own lack of self-esteem. Relationship after relationship either ended badly or never really got started until I met Susan after I had left the church and begun working for a law firm. If only I had practiced the discerning self-awareness then that I recommend to you now, I would have saved myself a great deal of heartache and regret. But on the other hand, pain and failure, however cruel, teach us about ourselves, don’t they?

But if we are called to discernment and self-awareness when things fall apart, so are we invited to be people who are determined not to be defeated. When life hands us a huge disappointment or we have to undergo some long period of painful therapy following surgery or we lose someone dear to us, we can spiral into despair or we can rely on our faith as a resource for resilience. As the classic Sinatra song put it: “I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king/I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing/Each time I find myself flat on my face I pick myself up and get back in the race./That’s life (that’s life), I tell you I can’t deny it I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain’t gonna buy it…” (

That’s remarkably similar to something Paul said. In the lead-up to the text we heard today, he talked about his experiences and how he dealt with them: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8,9). If the outer nature, those external structures, props, that support and sustain us, is wasting away and even destroyed, our inner nature, our determination, our desire to succeed, our resilience, our refusal to give in and give up, can be and is strengthened and renewed. Defeat clarifies and convicts and challenges. It shores up flagging resolve. As William Faulkner has one of his characters in Absalom, Absalom! observe, a line we have heard quoted recently: “Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?” (

Finally, not only can we and ought we to be self-aware and determined when things fall part, we can be and ought to be folk who are convinced that deliverance will be ours. Indeed, renewal and hope are God’s promise to all people and the entire creation. Writing perhaps to counter the pessimism and despair of his day, a contributor to what became Isaiah Part 3 put forward a glorious vision. The prophet expected the change to come soon, any day now. New heavens and a new earth would mean the end of pain and crying and the advent of joy and delight. People could dwell securely without fear of someone confiscating their property or taking away their livelihood. The city with its typical problems of infant mortality and the suffering of the old would be no more, replaced by a community where all could live in health and hope for generations.

Fast forwarding to the first century, Luke reports that Jesus told his followers that the signs of deliverance would be unmistakable and very public. They didn’t have to be stricken by FOMO, fear of missing out because they weren’t in the right place at the right time or didn’t get the memo. Nothing would happen in secret. In between the now and that not yet would be tough times of conflict and doubt and war and troubles. The author, writing in 90 AD, even has Jesus predict in very specific terms the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70, an event within living memory of some of the older members of his community. Surely a time when things fell apart. They had had some truly tough days. But still they hung on, and they would keep doing so, because they trusted in God’s providence. With Paul forty years before, these folk would say “we walk by faith, and not by sight.” Like Luther, they could boldly and defiantly affirm: “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.” And they no doubt would commend to us the words of the hymn writer: “If thou but suffer God to guide thee/And hope in Him through all thy ways,/He’ll give thee strength, whate’er betide thee,/And bear thee through the evil days./Who trusts​ in God’s unchanging love/Builds on the Rock that naught can move.”

When the center does not hold, we can find hope again in Jesus Christ, the Rock of Ages, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. When things fall apart, he will hold us together. We can stand up, lift up our heads and our hearts, and be confident in God’s care, whatever comes.

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