By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 8, 2019
Matthew 3:1–12 (ESV)
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There is something very interesting about this time of year. It seems as if the entire world is caught in a state of anticipation. Children across the land eagerly seek out the man in a red suit to whisper their greatest desires into the ear of the one that might fulfill their greatest longing. Lists are being made as living rooms are being decorated with garland and lights. We eagerly wait some something miraculous.
There is something about this season, even when the true meaning is so often lost under layers of secular veneer, that can almost give us a glimpse into the holy anxiety of advent. Yes, I use the word anxiety because I feel it encapsulates the tension of this season so much more than anticipation. There is excitement and dread. There is stress and there is joy. We eagerly wait yet we also long for something simpler. The season is filled with anxiety. Anxiety with a righteous twist.
I want us to consider the anxiety as we think about the coming day, we celebrate the dawning of our salvation. I want us to consider it because there is anxiety. As we anticipate time spent with family, we know that there is joy and stress. You travel distances, you plan a meal, or you are reminded of a vacancy of those that you will not see. There is joy and stress, there is hope and there is tension. Yet the day will come and when it comes, we see smiles, we hear laughter, we sing for joy because we know even in our darkest days there is hope.
Remember that anxiety and as you consider it, you might just get a glimpse into the lives of those that lived so long ago. For centuries they longed for the day where the anointed one would come. They longed for that day because it gave them hope, a hope that one day they might see a future where peace would reign, and work might be easier.
They had heard for generations that one day their messiah would come. One day they would not have to struggle, one day their children would not face the horrors of war, one day their bellies would not growl while they slept. They longed and they hoped.
This holy anxiety was at a point where nearly the entire empire felt its pull. They knew that something was about to happen, and they did not know what. Some faced the day with dread because they enjoyed the wealth and status they accrued, while others looked at that system with disdain and sought a different lifestyle, while others just hoped to survive.
This is the setting of today’s passage. An entire culture gripped with some form of anxiety, a longing for change coupled with a desire for things to remain. In those days John was out in the wilderness of Judea preaching.
There is something in these words that stirs my heart. Something that gives me hope even though I have heard the story countless times throughout my life. John was preaching in the wilderness. There is something mysterious about it, something that attracts our imagination. The wilderness in ancient times and even today is something veiled. There is something to be respected and feared, while it also gives us a sense of possibility. John is out in the wilderness. Often the idea of the wilderness was a lonely place, an empty waste, filled with abandonment. It was to the wilderness the religious leaders would drive the goat to carry the sins of the nation, separated from the people and lost to the great unknown. It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist began proclaiming the Gospel.
He was out in that empty place, the place of separation and waste. He was out there on the fringe of life, yet it was there the glimmer of hope began to take form. He proclaimed, like an announcer at the start of a football game, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Sometimes I feel we do not fully see what is going on as we read these words. We forget that the world in ancient days was a much larger place. Today we travel distances unimagined even a hundred years ago. The distance I travel to work each day, is a greater distance than my great grandfather would travel in a week, which is a distance that his grandfather probably would not travel in his lifetime. To us mile seem small but, in an age, where the distance was covered on foot it is great. John was not just on the outskirts of town; he was in the wilderness. That area where no one was, separated from the rest of society, a place no one needed to go because there was no reason to be there. Yet it was there he preached, it was there in the wilderness people gathered, and it was there in that wilderness people longed to go because this holy anxiety they experienced found some release.
He stood there in along the banks of the Jordan peaching. He cried out in the wilderness to those that made the journey to listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That one statement is loaded with so much.
Do we know what it means to repent? At times we hear words so many times we no longer value the meaning. I feel repent is one of those words, but it carries so much depth. The word encourages us to reconsider, to turn around, or to change our mind. It prompts us to look at our current activities from a different perspective and examine our place. Repent, John said in that empty place, for the kingdom is at hand. One meaning of the word repent that I came across as I studied this week is to become sober again. This struck me, not because I am one that lives a life of intoxication but because at times, we can live lives bound in various influences.
As I thought of that concept of becoming sober, I considered mindfulness or being in the right mind, or frame of mind. I sat with this idea for a while. How often do we get bound in our minds? How often do we allow our minds to be bound by worry? I must admit there are moments where my mind can be gripped by various things, things that I think are important, I plan and I reconsider aspects of the plans that I make, I try to figure out where resources will come from and how we can stretch those resources. I can be so bound in my own mind that I totally miss what is going on around me. I am bound in a mindset that can be toxic.
John is out there proclaiming in the wilderness, “Wake up! The kingdom is approaching.” His words are just as jarring as someone honking their horn at a light that had turned green while you still have the brakes on. You did not see the light change because you were distracted. Your mind was elsewhere while those around you had places to be.
John is in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” The word straight came to mind as I read this portion of scripture. To me I find the wilderness inviting. I love going to Colorado where you can go out into the mountains and hike. I love driving on the mountain roads that twist and turn. I love it, but there is something about those roads that is annoying. You drive miles and you do not really get anywhere. You feel like you are driving somewhere fast and going a great distance, because the forces of gravity push and pull on you body. Yet the distance covered is only a fraction of the distance you could have covered in the same time if you were on a road in Kansas. There is something else about those winding roads, you must pay attention. You mind must stay focused on the road or you might run the risk of great harm. Although I love the twist and turns, I cannot fully enjoy the wilderness because my mind is bound not on the scenery but the lane lines, and the warning signs.
What is John saying out in the wilderness? Wake up! The kingdom of heaven is approaching. One might even say that he is telling us slow down, take a breath, stop and smell the roses. He is saying if you do not open your eyes you are going to miss everything.
John was not just a radical preacher, but he was a son of a priest. His birth was one that was foretold by an angel from God. John’s father served in the temple of God and it was in that temple that his father got the announcement of his long-anticipated son. John was a child that was born into one of the most influential families in the nation. In Israel, a priest was important. I used to think of John’s dad as simply being a pastor, but he was much more that that. The temple of God in Jerusalem was probably the single greatest religious structure in the world. To serve in the temple meant that you worked in the greatest center of commerce in all of Israel. This temple was the engine that drove their entire economy. And John’s father, was a priest, but not just any priest, he was a priest that served inside. He was one of the priests that brought the incense into the holy place. He literally carried the prayers of the people to the very seat of God.
John was born into a family that had influence. The temple and those that served there, were at that very center of Israel. They provided the services that gave the people their status and identity. Every Child of Abraham traveled to this place three times a year. And while they were there, they offered sacrifices and gave their tithes. This temple was not just a local church, but it was a marvel of the empire. The wealth of the temple, after its destruction financed the landmarks of Rome. The temple had influence. Yet John was not in the temple. He did not participate in the politics of this religious industrial complex. John was not in the center of Jerusalem; he was out in the wilderness. John seemingly turned his back on his very culture, and he cried out to them to open their eyes, because they are about to miss the very thing, they say they are waiting for.
John did turn his back on the mainstream culture. Those that served in the temple had certain requirements, John was raised in a family that was used to these finer things. I am not saying that John’s father was not a Godly man, but while he served in the temple, he wore clothing that reflected the majesty of the place he worked. Have you ever wondered why we know what John wore? It is because of it was so far removed from his father’s attire. His father wore priestly linen, and John wore camel’s hair. Camel’s hair was the garb of the prophets, it was the fabric that people used to make tents. John’s garments were not for pleasure but durability. We are also told of his diet. The priest of the temple would eat the meat of the sacrifices, but what does John eat? He eats locusts and wild honey. He foraged and lived off the land.
I want us to think about this. John turned from the social norms, he lived a simple life in durable clothing, eating what the land provided. And he is crying out in that wilderness, “you are missing it.” The entire culture is revolving around religion, yet they are about to miss the one thing they are looking for. The anxiety is building, the anticipation mounts and their minds are turned the wrong direction. He cries out, “Repent,” because he hears the voice of God, yet those that in a position to be the mouthpiece of God are not even listening.
He cries in that wilderness, and people begin to wonder. This son of a priest, a priest of a high order has left his rightful place in the temple and is out in the wilderness. He has sacrificed a good lifestyle and is living a life of poverty. And they wonder why? He looks out at the people that gather, and he sees those of his own class, and he yells at them, “You brood of vipers!”
And this is where my heart begins to ache. Israel at this time knew how to do religion. Their religious economy was the greatest it had ever been. They had a structure that had so much excess they could put golden siding on a complex larger than an NFL Stadium. They knew religion. They had a righteous marketplace that was selling perfect sacrificial animals that guaranteed that your petitions would be heard by the living God. They had a perfect religious community that was bringing a great majority of their nation to their steps.
And John looks at these religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. The viper had a sour history in Israel. God had sent a plague of vipers to Israel while their ancestors wondered in the desert. Those vipers were released on the people because of their grumbling. They turned from the God that brought them out of Egypt, they complained that God did not care. And God removed his hand of protection from them for a moment. And the vipers stuck. The venom of rebellion coursed through their veins and the only remedy was for them to turn and look toward the place God sat and lift their eyes up to the bronze representation of their rebellion.
John looks out at the religious leaders and he calls them a brood of vipers. They are leaders of rebellion, instruments of the grumblings. John left their system and went out into the wilderness to call the people to turn. But these leaders were filled with nationalistic pride. We have Abraham as our father. And John says who cares God can make children for Abraham out of the rocks they are standing on.
What can we learn from John, in this time of holy anxiety? What is it we are looking at? Are our lives focused where it needs to be? Repent, turn around, become sober again. Get in your right mind and focus on the right things. Simplify your lives. Take the exit off the winding road and get on the path that take us to the true destination. The kingdom is at hand. It is near and all around us, but do we see it? The very place God wants us to be and serve is right here with us already but are we grumbling about what we do not have?
I am far from perfect. I live a life that is filled with busyness and distractions, I grumble, and I worry. I often find myself focused on what I wish I had instead of being thankful for what I do have. I am no better than a brood of vipers. I am filled with anxiety, yet do I see the precious gift God has provided? As we anticipate the coming day, we celebrate Christ’s birth I pray that we can approach it with sober minds able to see the kingdom. The kingdom he has called each of us to participate in, the kingdom that has no boarders, or limits, and will never end. A kingdom that Jesus rules and is available to us if we are willing to turn and follow him.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 1, 2019
Matthew 24:36–44 (ESV)
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
For most of my life I have been active in the church. I love the church. I love the songs, the sermons, the potlucks, I even love the business meetings, but there are some things that have always found a bit off. The reason I love the church is because it gives me strength. No matter what I am going through in life, the moment I step inside a meeting for worship the worries of the world seem to drop away for a moment and I am at peace. This is something I love about worship. It transports us to a realm of experience that is beyond human understanding. But then I hear a sermon about the second coming of Christ. I listened to several of these throughout my life and to be honest I dreaded these. You would think that the second coming is something that we should anticipate with righteous excitement, yet for much of my life I faced the anticipation with fear and dread.
This is something that I have struggled with for most of my Christian life. Why would I look at the fulfillment of all my hope and dreams with such dread? As I said in my last sermon, I often neglect the apocalyptic aspects of the gospel. The biggest reason I do that is because I have often found that we tend to be inconsistent with our interpretations regarding these passages. We say things like God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to save it, not to condemn it but to save it. Yet then we look at the apocalyptic portions of scripture and we seem to approach them with a vengeful blood thirst. We use them as a threatening sword to cast dread and fear to those around us, saying not that God loves you and wants you to turn toward him, but God hates you and if you do not turn he will torture you for all eternity.
I struggle with this. And some might say that the justice of God must be satisfied so it is inevitable. I respect that opinion, but I still do not feel that God takes pleasure in the loss. I feel as if God weeps at that thought that some might refuse to believe. I struggle because I think at times, we do not consider the loss of the apocalypse. As I read this passage over the course of this past week, I am reminded of Jesus looking out over Jerusalem that day of his triumphal entry into the holy city, and the tears that He shed. The city praised him, and Jesus wept not because of his approaching passion, but because so many rejected him.
I hesitate with the apocalyptic passages, because so often we look at them from a human perspective, with vengeance or fear, and often we forget the massive loss that God might feel. The loss of so many souls that he loved and gave his life to save only to be rejected.
I thought about this as I studied that past few weeks. There is a reason that Jesus and many prophets used apocalyptic language to teach. It was a shocking form of language to inspire a change in activity. One might liken this language to the language that is used in political campaigns and even the presentation of climate change discussions. The language used does not have varying degrees of negativity, but if we do not radically change right now the entire world as we know it will collapse. Before you begin to laugh, I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. There is some truth in apocalyptic language, although it might be stretched a bit for drama. If humans do not change their actions the pollution, they cause will have devastating consequences to the environment. We know this to be true. If you dump oil on the ground that soil is by all accounts dead. If you dump sewage in a river it will cause disease. And if people throw a cigarette out the window as they drive across Kansas, they can start a wildfire at certain times of the year. We know that there are consequences to our actions, there always will be. If we do not consider those consequences, we run a dire risk of being blindsided by our own ignorance. This is what apocalyptic literature is about. It is a literary tool that is used to cause us to reconsider some of our thinking. But the question is why would we need to use such things?
Jesus, in today’s passage and prior to what we read today, is using an apocalyptic form of speech. He speaks of an abomination that causes desolation, of darkening sun, and all sorts of calamities. The initial reaction to these sorts of things is shock, then acceptance or denial. We do not always get an accurate depiction of the true experience of the people in history because we often see it from one side or the other. For example, when we speak of American history leading up to the revolutionary war, we often only see it through the perspective of our nation’s forefathers. We get a righteous anger for the concept of taxation without representation. It can also be said that the American colonists were not being treated unfairly but were being taxed to the same degree as any other landowner in the empire. Perspective can often change how we interpret history and the world around us. In the first century we often assume that the provinces of Israel were being unfairly treated by their Roman overlords, but the reality is that Israel was not that bad off. They had several significant cities and some portions of the community were doing quite well for themselves. There was a thriving tourism economy that was highly profitable which revolved around the Temple, which was probably the greatest single religious structure in the entire Roman empire. And their religious structure mandated a pilgrimage to this temple a minimum of three times in a year. Imagine the great wealth that Jerusalem could amass. It could be said that during this timeframe Israel might have had greater wealth than any other time of their history.
But there was unrest in the prosperity. There were people that wanted to maintain the status quo and those that felt that they would be better off if something changed. The extremes were at constant debate, constantly driving a wedge within the community. And as the wedge continued to be struck an unreconcilable divide emerged until the damage could not be redeemed. This process is what Jesus was speaking about. The sides were so blinded by their own perspective that they were ignorant to the damage they were causing.
Jesus spoke these warnings and urged them to repent because if they did not, they would walk themselves directly into their own destruction. But no one will know exactly when these things will occur. He then spoke of Noah. Noah lived in a time of history where he and his family were the only righteous people in the entire world. Can you imagine how that might feel? The entire world rejected God, except for eight people. God was greatly grieved by this, the account said that he regretted the creation of humanity. I have often wondered what was meant by that. But He had a plan, so he commanded this one righteous family to build an ark. This ark was to be built to preserve the good of creation. Every animal was to be taken on the ark, male and female, so that all of creation would be preserved. Have we ever thought of why such a drastic action would need to have been taken? Could it be that humanity through their ignorance and apathy were living their lives to such a degree that they totally disregarded the world around them to the point that their actions threatened the very possibility of sustainable life?
God urged Noah to build an ark, to preserve creation. It is not too much different than the various natural wildlife preserves. Just this week I read an article that the koala bear of Australia is on the verge of being functionally extinct. This basically means that there has been a steady decline in koala populations even after efforts to preserve them have been made. As the continent of Australia faces intense fires the threat intensifies even more. What is the cause of this? Some might say humans are the cause. As humans have largely been the cause of the decimation of so many animal species. Noah was urged by God to take drastic action to preserve life, could we be faced with a similar situation?
Jesus goes on to speak about the days of Noah. He said people continued to live their lives. They ate and drank. They entered marriages and gave their children to be married. They lived their lives as if nothing could possibly happen to them. Yet while they lived there was a man and his three sons building a boat saying that there was going to be a flood that would kill all things. He was going to build this boat to preserve life, and they rejected what was right in front of them. Why? Life was good. There was plenty to eat, plenty to drink, life had never been better.
Jesus says that the day of the lord will be like the days of Noah. Life is good until suddenly a sprinkle begins, which builds to a drizzle, then a gentle shower, and then all at once the heavens open and rain comes so thick you cannot even move. The people of the first century are living their lives. They believe that their way is right. They continue to live as if nothing could possibly be wrong with them, because life has never been better. They are aware that there is trouble coming, but they are ignorant to their part in the coming storm.
Let us go back to the story of Noah. The story begins with Adam and Eve, who gave birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain was jealous of Abel because God was not pleased with the offering Cain presented. And as a result of Cain’s jealousy Abel was killed. Cain went on to become a great man and his family increased and we are told that it was through Cain that the first cities were created. And Adam and Eve knew each other again and had a third son named Seth. Seth did not build civilization but lived as his father. He loved God and he became a steward of the land. As time goes on, we are told that the sons of God we attracted to the daughters of men. There are many ideas and theories about what this might have meant. And I have my own theory. If Seth was a man of God and a steward of the land, and the children of Cain were the offspring of men creators of cities and empires, then what we are seeing is the urbanization of the earth. Sons leaving the farms to find their wealth in the cities, and the cities demanding increasing resources. They eat and drink. They do not know where the food comes from or how they get it, but they want more. They consume more and more, to the point that the stewards of the earth can no longer keep up with the hunger. And Noah builds an ark to preserve life.
It is a common story of the rise and fall of empires and nations. The constant battle between urban and rural. The war between labor and management or even the producers and the moochers. There are many derivatives of the story but there is a common theme through them all. If we continue this path, we will cause our own destruction.
Two men will be in the field, one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be at the mill one will be taken, and one will be left. So often we read into this passage the ideas of rapture, but Jesus was speaking to a people that was living a comfortable lifestyle but were about to face an economic collapse of their own making. They were poking a sleeping bear thinking that they were secure in themselves from any retaliation. But they were going to face hardship. Their children were going to killed and displaced. They their land was going to scorched and laid to waste. What once could support two would barely support one. The end of life as they know it was going to come to an end.
There is much fear in apocalyptic literature, but there is also a glimmer of hope. There is a call to repentance or an urge to turn around. In this passage Jesus is calling the people of Israel to repent of the lifestyle they are leading and turn their attention to the kingdom around them instead to the kingdoms of men. It is a call to encourage your neighbor, to be mindful of those people living right here around you. Instead of living your lives to better your own selfish desires, live for the mutual profit of your community. He is urging us all to stop looking to the cultural center, stop looking at Rome, Jerusalem, or even the temple and start looking at that of God in those around you. He showcased these ideas by healing a woman in the synagogue because she was a daughter of Abraham. He illustrated it by healing the servant of the Roman official because he had greater faith than all of Israel. He encouraged us to focus on that of God in Mary listening at his feet, in the prostitute that wash his feet with her tears, with the healing of the blind man from birth. He was saying all you need is right here around you. Do not worry about Jerusalem or Rome you have what you need right here in front of you. But will you see it? Will we focus on God with us, or will our attention be diverted to the kingdoms of men? Will we stay true to the sons and daughters of God or will we be attracted to the giant offspring of men?
Jesus says we need to be ready because at any moment life as we know it can change. When that happens were will, we be? Is our faith in God or in ourselves? Is our security in Christ or in the empires of man? Are we driven by fear or are we living our lives in such a way that fear cannot move us? Perfect love cast out all fear. Perfect love is found in Jesus, who lowered himself to become man with us, even though he was equal to God. Perfect love lived with us and showed us what life with God truly was. Perfect love gave itself for the benefit of others and was killed on a cross for our sin. Perfect love was buried in a grave for three days and rose again to conquer death and to live forever more. Perfect love does not fear but lives. Perfect love sees that of God in those around it and encourages it to grow. Perfect love builds and encourages. If the words of the media give you fear, maybe your attention is in the wrong place.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends. Let us consider the story of Noah. Let us consider our own day and our own time. Are we driven by fear or do we see the hope of Christ? Let us quiet our hearts and listen to the voice of hope that multiplies instead of divides.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 17, 2019
Luke 21:5–19 (ESV)
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” 8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
There are several themes that seem to make the rounds in Christian circles. As the calendar approaches the last month of the year, the Advent of Christ is the theme most of us remember. And then there is the passion and resurrection of Christ. But the third most popular theme is usually the second coming of Christ. This is not surprising, because the story of the second coming really attracts our attention. We want to know when that day is. We anticipate that day with either fear or hope.
If you have noticed I am not one to place a great deal of attention on the second coming of Christ. I believe the day will come but I do not focus on it. That might annoy some people, but I have my reasons. The first and most important is that I do not feel that fear is spiritually healthy, and much of the eschatological discussion often focuses on fear. The other reason that I do not focus on the various end times theological discussions is because many of the stances seem to stretch scripture in ways that I do not feel are the most honest. In many ways it almost feels as if many of those that promote the end times theologies are more interested in selling books or tickets to movies than encouraging a true relationship with God. This is my opinion and I know that at times my opinion is not popular and that is fine, because theology is something that can have different perspectives, as long as the central theme remains that same. The central theme should always be focused on the Gospel. Which is that the kingdom of God is at hand, and the access to the kingdom is provided through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today’s passage is one that most people associate with eschatology, or the theology of end times. It is not surprising since the language used by Jesus is very apocalyptic. This style of communication is one that is filled with extreme symbolism, and hyperbole. This was often used by the ancient prophets as well as many first century disciples to cause us to stop and think. Even today people use apocalyptic themes when they discuss aspect of current events that they would like to see changed. Those that listen to the message can see the seeming exaggerations and decide to disregard the message because they see the one carrying the message as being less than truthful. But apocalyptic language is to point out the extreme consequences that might result from inaction. If we were to watch the news, we can hear the use of apocalyptic language frequently. The danger of this type of language is that it can be overused, and people can become desensitized to the message.
We often look at these sorts of passages through lenses based on our own perception and we forget that during the time that the words were written the perception might have been different. In the first century, they had not yet experienced many of the things we take for granted. As the days shorten and the night lengthen, they were not making Christmas lists, because they had not yet realized that God had come to live among them. They were instead preparing for the feast of dedication, that week-long celebration focusing on the temple of God and the miracle of God providing hope in the middle of the darkness.
After our two thousand years of history since Jesus walked among mankind, we can take a jaded view of religious life in the first century. We might fail to see that they were passionate about their faith. The religion of Israel was probably at its peak during the time of Jesus. For centuries we have regarded this time as the dark ages of Jewish history, we often think of it as being the end of four hundred years of silence. This is not really the truth, just as saying that the dark ages in western history is not the most honest representation of history. The medieval period of European history was some of the most impressive eras especially for the church. It was during the Dark Age that the great cathedrals were constructed, and it was during this time frame where the Church had the greatest influence in the lives of the people. The first century was like that in Jewish history.
Today’s passage begins with admiration of the temple of God. It is difficult for us to image the greatness of the temple. Josephus, one of the Jewish historians from the era of the Roman occupation explained the temple in this way:
The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.
I have never seen a building covered in gold. The idea of a building with golden siding seems almost unimaginable. I am unable to even wrap my head around the wealth within a religious organization to finance such a structure. For this to happen or to even be possible would mean that this building was very important to those within that culture. And it was extremely important. Their lives revolved around this structure, because it was this place where God and humanity communed. It was in this place where it was believed that God himself sat between the wings of the angels upon the lid of the Ark. We could debate if the Ark of the Covenant was actually in the holy of holies or if it was lost to history, but they believed that it was there and because of that belief they literally thought this was the one place the one and only true God dwelled on Earth.
Every day offering and sacrifices were brought through the gates, to be placed upon the alter. The smoke from these offerings could be seen rising into the sky. That smoke was filled with the acrid smell of burning flesh and the sweet aroma of the incense reminding all that approach of sin and grace. This one structure held the attention of the Empire.
This time in Hebrew history was probably the golden age. People cherished their temple; it was a beacon of hope and promise. But even during this religious golden era, there was an undercurrent of corruption that cause many to pause. There was a reason that John the Baptist was out in the wilderness crying to the people to repent. There was a reason that there was such a curiosity of the people asking for signs for the coming kingdom. They were anticipating the day when God would reveal the ultimate plan. Some believed that that day was at hand, so they studied scripture looking for what to expect so they would be ready for the advent of their coming king.
When Jesus was teaching, many believed that that day had come. They believed that at last they would see God lead them into the greatest era of history where Israel would be the light to the world, the hope of nations. Yet there was one problem, they were not free. They lived under the heavy-handed rule of overlords. They could worship freely, but how could Israel be the light to the gentiles if they did not have authority?
Apocalyptic language flowed, because no matter what people believed they knew that things were going to have to change. And that change would not come easy. What are the signs, how will we know what to expect? But Jesus took this beyond anyone else. Many anticipated the coming age would have war, but very few considered that the temple itself would be central to the battle. That structure was the beacon of hope, yet Jesus claimed that it would be utterly destroyed.
This got people’s attention, because how could something so massive and spectacular cease to exist? New questions began to be asked, at first what were the signs of the messiah, now suddenly they wanted to know the signs of the coming end of all they held dear? Jesus says:
See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” 
Very comforting right? What is Jesus really saying? There are going to be people that are going to use language to excite and terrify you. There are going to be people that will urge you to be driven by raw and blind emotion. Do not listen to them, do not go after them. Do not let your lives be so driven by emotion that you forget the most important things. Do not be terrified.
He goes on to say that nations will rise against nations, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and pestilences. There will be terrors, and people will even be taken before officials and imprisoned. In short Jesus is saying life is going to royally suck. You will experience things that will make you question every aspect of your life and your faith, and this will happen because of Him. He says all of this, and then he says the most important thing, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”
This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Jesus speaks of these things as if they are good. He speaks about it as if it is something to look forward to. Is he raving mad or do we need to change our perspective? Just this week a meme has been going around the internet again that I have seen before. It is a simple statement that says, “Faith is not about everything turning out okay. Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.” That statement is something that has stuck with me as I was studying this week, because I think that is at the core of what Jesus is speaking about.
The people of Israel in Jesus’ day may not have had everything they wanted but they were not that bad off. They had their faith, and their faith was very efficient. Their temple was the envy of the empire and it was extremely profitable. They were in a place where they could worry about luxuries instead of survival. They were looking for signs of the coming kingdom, not because they were desperate of hope, but because they were comfortable and desired more. And when their comfort was challenged like Rome taxing them more than they would like, they began to speak of rebellion and separation instead of how to attract people to faith. They desired judgement on those that opposed them instead of grace.
They stood at a crossroad where they could choose which direction to turn. No matter which way they walked there would be consequences. There were people on one side saying we must do this, and they were trying to convince others to support their position. Jesus said do not listen to them. Then they were people on the other side of the road saying do that, and Jesus says do not follow them. What exactly were they supposed to do? Like so many things we assume that the answer lies within this or that, either/or. Jesus is saying, this will be your opportunity to bear witness.
The witness is something beyond human understanding, of left or right. It is on a different plain altogether. The answer is to follow Him. Within every great movement of church history there was a decision made to not listen to the status quo at the time. It could be the rise of the monastic movements, the reformation, or even the beginning of our own faith tradition of Friends. People were given an either-or choice, and they chose something altogether different. When St. Francis began his movement, he could either become a priest or join the family business, he stripped down and rejected both and took a different opportunity. When Martin Luther was presented with a choice, he said that he must listen to the word of scripture and walk accordingly. When George Fox in his spiritual seeking was presented with the choices of the Church of England or the Congregationalists he went out to the field with his book of scripture and he listened to a different voice.
We each, at this moment, have a choice. We each stand at a crossroad in life. We are each looking at the future before us with some sort of dread. If we choose this way this might happen. If we chose that something else might happen. What should we do? The answer is neither. The answer is to seek God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength. The answer is to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others. The answer is not left or right, it is not black or white, it is not this or that. The answer is to follow Christ.
We can look at the theologies of the end as something to fear or something to hope for. We can look at our world as something to dread. We can listen to the news and think all is lost or we can see it as times have never been better. I ask where is your faith? In what are you placing your hope? Is your faith in the things of this world or is it in the one that overcomes the world? Do we live in terror or do we see our day as an opportunity to bear witness of Christ who came and lived among mankind, who taught us about life with God, who took on our sin and shame and died on the cross. Do we today as an opportunity to be buried with Christ in the grave, and to rise again when all hope is seemingly gone? Today is an opportunity to live not in fear, but in faith. Will you take hold of that opportunity?