I had the great honor and privilege to accept a second invitation to preach at Cedar Grove Lutheran Church in Leesville, SC this morning. While several family members have asked for a manuscript of the sermon, I generally preach expositorily from an outline, so what follows is a remembered approximation of what came out in the pulpit. While the message was geared towards a rural Lutheran parish about to form a call committee as it hopes and wonders about its future under new leadership, I hope that those who read will be given what the Spirit intends for them. Grace and peace.
"Made to Last"
Texts: Malachi 4.1-2
2 Thessalonians 3.6-13
We began by talking about the difficulty of these passages. Words concerning the winnowing of false believers from the true, of the idle from the industrious, and the persecuted from the persecutors are not easy to decipher. On the one hand, they tempt us to place ourselves smugly on the inside, and to create criteria with which to judge others and place them on the outside. On the other hand, talk of signs, wonders, judgement and end times fascinate us, enticing us to delve into schemas, novels, predictions, and speculations. The problem is, both options place us safely at a distance from the message of the text. But just as these texts proclaim, God does not plan an easy ride for those God calls. Jesus did not say "take this pleasure cruise upon you," but "take my yoke." The Spirit often places difficult texts before us so that in wrestling with them and being challenged by them, in stumbling over them, we might also experience the delight of conversion in discovering new depths of the Gospel. If we are to hear it, than we must hear them speaking to us, not just about others or events at a distance, here and now.
Here and now finds us approaching the end of the church year, which is one reason the church has seen fit to make this time a time to focus and engage in talk about the end. As is often the case, when facing the end of things, we wonder what their legacy has been, and we wonder what the next step might be. Cedar Grove is facing the end of one era, and looking forward to forming a call committee, to new possibilities and a fresh future. Others have seen the end of an era with the evaporation of their pensions, the loss of retirement packages and jobs, or have seen their political party rise to power (or fall). And so, with the church, we reflect on what will pass away, and what will last. These things too are difficult.
In the Gospel, Jesus is speaking about a particular ending. "Not one stone of this temple," he announces, "will be left to stand upon another." He might as well have told you all that this church would disappear tomorrow. Think of all you have invested in this church - it is a family church; generations stretching back to before the Civil War have filled this place with faith. Your identity and your community is here. For the Jewish people, the temple was a symbol and an actualization of the reality of the promises of their family, and a sign of the covenant of their relationship with God. Inside, God's very presence was said to dwell with God's people. And here is Jesus, claiming that it would be gone like a wisp of smoke, utterly forgotten.
Quite naturally, this disturbed his disciples. How will this be, and when, they ask? And while Jesus appears to give them more of an answer than he usually gives anyone, complete with a catalogue of signs, wonders and portents, there is more to his answer than just what's, or when's, or even why's. Make no mistake: Jesus is predicting a real historical event, the fall of a real, physical place. But what that place represents, and the signs he gives them to describe its fall, are also meant to say something about a WHO. Jesus is far less concerned with the particular "whats" of a temple, or a building - rather, he is concerned with the WHO of His followers, with the kind of people HIS people are called to be.
Now, the details, the WHATs, do reveal a great deal to us. Certainly, Jesus preached them as apocalyptic signs of the traumatic events that were to occur when the Romans demolished the beloved temple in 70AD. But Jesus is also challenging the people to consider their legacy. What will be left behind? Not a stone. There is no security, not in gifts dedicated to God, not in the most sacred and holy place imaginable in the kingdom. If not in the temple, in the promises of God with us, then where? Where is our identity, our promise, our legacy? Perhaps in the land, in the stability of nature and creation? No, Jesus says. These will betray us too, for there will be earthquakes, the moon will darken, and the world will be turned away. Even the land you tend is not a legacy on which to build. Well, how about the government? Certainly, America is a "Christian nation?" Surely, we can find security in the legacy we leave behind politcally? No, this too will rise up, persecute you, hate you for being who you are. No hope in Rome, in a Jewish state, or in this country. Nation will rise against nation, he proclaims. War and death await, not their promised peace. Surely, family is something we can rest on! This is a family church, and Israel was the family of God, right? No, Jesus says that even family will betray, for brother will rise against brother, sister against cousin, friend against friend, and you will be hated by them. Many of you know the deep betrayal and killing pain of the brokenness our families visit upon us. Well then, surely, knowing the right words, the doctrines, the Bible, this is a legacy? Yet, even this, Jesus says, will not save you. He says that in persecution, it will only be the Wisdom and the Words given by God that last - even having the answers to faith's questions will not last. All of these things will not last. There is no earthly legacy in which we can invest, no sure thing, nothing that will last, for in destroying Israel's temple, God is signifying that there is nothing on earth in which security or lasting hope can be found. Its truly a difficult text.
Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that these things are evil. God made them good, and they are all God's good gifts to us. But we must be as shocked as the disciples were when they heard that the temple would be vaporized. Jesus' language is not just historical description or apocalyptic convention: rather, this event signifies to us that there is nothing sacred to God, there is no legacy on this earth, no attachment, no investment, and no sure thing, in which we can find our lasting heritage. We are (again folloiwng Augustine), pilgrims passing through this place, and our enjoyment is not to be found here. We are given gifts, but ultimately, in light of eternity, we cannot hope to enjoy them fully. They are not our goal, tempted as we may be to see them as our ends and our final legacy.
What then, will last? If the sacred temple of Israel and our own sacred temples will not last, then what can possibly stand? As I said, Jesus is not concerned with WHATS. But he IS concerned with WHOs. In v.19, he promises, "by your endurance you will gain your souls," and in v.15 he says, "I will give you words." Jesus does not promise us prosperity, or an escape from pain; but he promises Himself, and He promises us eternal relationship with Himself, and with one another. What lasts is not our love of things, but God's love for us, a love won by the one who suffered so that our suffering might be redeemed. Human loves are disordered and will fail; God's love is delightful, and will last for all eternity.
Nor is this pie-in-the-sky promise of heaven. It is the promise of God with us, forever. Jesus says that no stones will be left standing, but in 1 Cor. 3, Paul tells us that WE, YOU, each of us, is the LIVING TEMPLE of the Holy Spirit. WE are the living stones out of which God is building an eternal temple for His Glory, a new creation, and in us, the Spirit will dwell. God's legacy in this world is not what we build for God, but what God is building in us, for us, and from us. The Church - THIS church - is the dwelling place of God's glory! A pilgrim temple, headed on its journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem in which there is no temple, but only the Lamb, and the Church, and a new creation of eternal relationship and reconciliation - things truly made to last!
Jesus' discourse in St. Luke's Gospel is less about signs and wonders, and more about God is making US into a legacy that lasts, making US to be the signs and wonders, the Joyful Noise and the new song, that is resounding through creation! In Revelation 21, St. John describes that in the heavenly Jerusalem, where there is no temple but the Church, there is a tree for the healing of the nations. And, the gates are always open! They are always open because God longs to invite all peoples, from all nations, from all situations, into this new creation of reconciliation, redemption and relationship. You see, Jesus had already cleansed the Jerusalem temple. You remember! He drove out the tax collectors and the money changers, because their practices were making it hard for foreigners, for the poor, for non-believers, for Gentiles, to enter into the presence of God. But Jesus said "my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL PEOPLES!" God has destroyed that which will not last so that, joined with Israel, the Church might continue Israel's mission with her, to invite all people into the glory and presence of God. As God's temple int he world, we are given the mission to be SIGNS of the end to which all people are called - to live lives that witness to and proclaim this Good News!
And to live such lives will be hard work. In 2 Thess., Paul describes his hard work ethic, and as many of you are farming folk, I don't need to tell you what hard work means. But Paul is not puffing himself up. Rather, we all know that to make something that lasts, to put in hard work, to grow and be strong and be the kind of people who could go even before a king or an emperor and, faced with suffering and death, be faithful to God, requires a lot of good habits, blood, sweat and tears. But Paul says this is to be an example to others. God has begun a good work in you, in Baptism he has claimed and begun to mold and form you into something that lasts, in relationship with Godself. And God promises to bring this work to completion. We are called to live lives of witness here and now, to become so detached from the world and the legacies we make for ourselves and the idols we worship, and so in love and thus so committed and disciplined to the one who loves us that, when we come before suffering, persecution, and death, it will be second nature to us to let the Spirit shine forth from the temple of our hearts, and from this community, with nothing but the Spirit's Wisdom and words on our lips. And it is in laboring with Christ this way that we will truly find Christ's peace.
(At some point, I challenged and invited each person and family to the hard work of praying and discerning one's "legacies," and noted that each family and the church community together would have to discern what living out their eternal legacy of relationship might look like as they form a call committee, look to the future, and dream about what kind of legacy Cedar Grove will leave to the community - a challenge we all need to take up as we consider our call to suffering witness revelatory witness.)
This is a peace for which the world desperately longs. In a recent country song, called "Made to Last," Austin Cunningham gives voice to the world's longing for eternity. He sings about an old wristwatch he sees in a case, about how beautifully it is made, about how old it is, and how he "lusts for it" whenever he walks by. Similarly, he talks about his old pickup truck, "made of De-troit steel," that he has worked tirelessly on throughout his life, and still runs like a dream. And he sings in the chorus, "in a throw-away world I'm a sucker for/ something made to last." Things that last, legacies that cannot be cast down, they are the result of careful craftsmanship, of tireless hours of care and of a lifetime learning an art. The world longs to see the church living such a life of artful care and hard work, so that we will not give to the world another throw away temple made in the image of our own hopes and dreams. Rather, we will show them God's legacy, our lives, transformed, and displaying the love of God in such splendor as to welcome the stranger and the estranged. People long for something made to last.
God is still working on us. But God has given us sustenance for when the sufferings of the world, and the losses of our dreams, weigh upon us. We do not face persecutions, like the church in Iraq who faces genocide, or Malaysian believers who cannot translate the Bible into their tongue for fear of imprisonment. But we do face the death of our idols and our dreams. And for many of us, this is our cross. Yet God has given us Baptism; each week God feeds us with His body in the Eucharist; and, just look around you. Look at the person next to you, your brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given you each other! When you share the peace today, touch, feel, EMBRACE God's embrace of you! YOU are the signs of the end, YOU are the glory of the temple, YOU are the welcoming love and the invitation of relationship and the sustaining care of the eternal God. The world will know this because of what God is doing in us. Let us work with God, and respond to God's gifts by giving them to others.
The final verse of Austin Cunningham's song talks about love. He does not name the person to whom he speaks; he merely says "your love is such a righteous thing...you've walked with me through fire...and you whisper words of courage when I'm broken and downcast/when I'm hungry and I'm stumbling, you give me/something made to last." YOU are signs of the end of earthly legacies, and of the advent of new creation. YOU are signs of this righteous love of God, a love that will also sustain you as you work hard to discern the legacies in your life that keep you from God, and pray together and discern the legacies God is calling you to pursue in this place. But know this: when we are faithful, when we let go of our plans and we suffer the embrace of God's love, we are given something made to last. And when we shine with the light of this love, we offer to a world that is hungry, stumbling, broken, and downcast, a love that beckons unto eternity. These difficult passages invite us not to ask who out there is wrong, and how we are right. Rather, because of how right and loved God has made us, we are invited not to fall into idleness, but to become the kind of temple into which others are invited, welcomed, received, and loved, so that all may know the glory of God, God's offer of eternal relationship, and of new creation.
YOU are the signs you've been waiting for. YOU are the temple of living stones. YOU are the legacy of God, made to last by the hard work of the cross, and the loving sustenance of the Spirit. Let us make a joyful noise, be a new song, and proclaim this invitation to the world, so that, at the end of things, all might come to a new beginning. Amen.