Luke 21:1-19 (NRSV)
1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, thispoor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.” 5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “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. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 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 plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Many of you were undoubtedly captivated by the images on the internet and TV a few weeks ago, when the Chilean miners were rescued from the depths of the dark underworld. Buried. Entombed. Helpless. Trapped. And then, like in Jacob’s dream, a ladder descends from above, with angels descending and ascending, in the form of a capsule inside a two- foot-wide tunnel. The entire world fixed its eyes on this one spot. Who can ever forget the image of the giant wheel of fortune – turning and pulling the tiny capsule up from the depths? And then, one by one, they appear! Risen and alive, rescued from the dark belly of the underworld.
Jonah had nothing on these guys. A story too good to be true, one that Hollywood could never match (though I’m sure they’ll try). The ultimate gospel image before our very eyes. No words were needed . . . . right? Well . . .
It seems Christians always feel the need to add words to explain things, for the world is just not smart enough to figure out such imagery for themselves. [By the way, this is one of the things that Ellen and I so appreciate about this community. . . y’all don’t do that here!]. But sadly, this happens all too often in many Christian traditions – at least the tribe that Ellen and I have emerged from. “What an incredible testimony!” was a phrase I began to see in emails and on Facebook posts. Only they weren’t referring to the miners’ story. They were referring to the miners’ T-shirts – given to the miners by a local evangelical ministry. With billions watching, a veritable public relations coup for the Jesus Film Project.
But as I began to shake my head in derision over such schmaltzy “evangelism” techniques, a thought came to me. Putting those nice T-shirts on the miners – isn’t that a lot like us? Covering our filth and our nakedness and our powerlessness with an exterior that tells the world that we’re cleaned up? We’ve got it figured out . . . that we know the way? Don’t we hate it when we’re naked in the dark – weak, powerless, trapped, filthy – unable to see the way out of our predicament, whatever it may be?
In the backdrop to today’s Gospel text (I took the liberty of adding the paragraph that comes just before today’s lectionary text), Jesus is hanging out by the treasury of the temple, watching how people give. Pretty unnerving, if you think about it. Watching how and where we give is like opening a window to our inner world. And of course we’re not just talking about money here. We’re talking about everything.
Temple, treasury, stones and gifts. “Ornaments” – Luke calls them (at least in some translations). Looks pretty good on the outside. Certainly easy to be captivated by such things. But then, as he loves to do, Jesus goes Jesus on them: as they gaze upon their coveted ornaments, Jesus nails a sign on the temple, naming all that captivates them as “condemned property.” It’s all goin’ down, He says.
And, as if on cue, just as this window is being opened to my inner world, a widow walks by. Seems that her two dollars, Jesus says, are more than everything given from my abundance and together-ness. With a reckless abandon, the widow gives everything she had – she gives out of her poverty. And what’s more, giving like this will keep her in her poverty.
The message is simple, but one we just don’t want to hear: This is how Christians give best – giving from the place where we feel most impoverished. Stripped of coolness and control; bankrupt, with nothing to offer. No words, no answers, no strategies. Yet this is where Jesus shines most. Jesus can’t fill a cup that’s full of itself. Jesus can’t shine through a clay pot with no cracks in it. James Houston, a dear soul and mentor from Regent College in Vancouver, once put it this way:
“Your Achilles heel will be the threshold of God’s grace in your life; but where you feel strong and confident, it is there you will be tempted towards atheism.”
And what’s the deal with all these other “signs” that Jesus talks about here? Is this passage talking about the “End Times”? Actually, I think what Luke is doing here is distinguishing the “end of all things” from particular historical events. The temple may have to come to an end, but it’s not the end. Peace will come to an end and be swallowed up by war, but war is not the way the world ends. Security will end – shaken in earthquakes, but fear and uncertainty are not the end either. People will try to mimic Jesus, but the world will not end with truth’s impersonators. “Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” may tempt you to play prophet yourself, reading the concealed meanings of mysterious clues, but knowing the end does not belong to you.
Theologically, Luke undoubtedly has an important point to make, but rhetorically, he’s frightening the crap out of his readers! Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues . . . and just when it seems it cannot possibly get any worse, it gets personal: You will be arrested, you will be persecuted, you will be thrown into prison, you will be betrayed even by family and friends, and some of you will even be put to death. And you will be hated by all.
And right when everything is at it’s darkest, when other christs and other ways seem so alluring and persuasive, when humanity’s warring seems endless, and your world shakes beneath your feet, it is then that you will have an opportunity to “testify”. But what is the nature of our testimony? In other words, how do our lives substantiate Christ when everything in and around us is falling apart?
Jesus says that our testimony can’t be canned. Our testimony will be given to us in the moment. It’s something you can’t fake or manufacture: it arises out of years of chiseling and shaping, forged through the fires of relationship. And “the rockier the relationship the better” is what Luke seems to be saying here. Jesus is not our boyfriend.
What kind of testimony of God’s “faithfulness” do we give in the face of confusion, ambivalence, death, and betrayal by loved ones? We’ve all heard the testimonies that praise God for blessings and healings, rescue and salvation . . . you know, when the test results come back negative. But what Jesus is saying here is something very different. He is telling us that when we experience destruction, betrayal, and loss, and we are brought to our wits’ end, perhaps it is then that our testimony most sounds like Jesus.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”
“Suffering always means pain, disruption, separation, and incompleteness,” writes Shawn Copeland. “It can render us powerless and mute, push us to the borders of hopelessness and despair.”
Great suffering changes some people and defeats others. But if we can somehow hang on to Jesus and endure, Luke says, it is there that our souls are gained. Maybe this is what Jesus is getting at when He says, if we save our lives we’ll lose it, but if we lose our lives, we’ll find it. We’ll find our souls.
I think what Luke’s gospel is saying is this: that suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed by it to tell of their hope. And this kind of hope begets hope in others. Kind of like what Jenny and Jennifer Knapp and others did yesterday at Highlands.
Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, once made this poignant observation on how he has seen suffering change people: “Into their relationships comes a vital generosity that opens the sealed doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.”
So in the midst of whatever doubts, confusion, death, and ambivalence you might be experiencing, Jesus says that it is here that you will be given an opportunity to testify. But our testimony can’t be canned. It can’t be of our own doing. Jesus relieves us of the anxiety we might be feeling to have it all together, for our powerlessness to speak may be our most essential qualification.
At first glance, it would be tempting here to default to the conventional wisdom that says, “Don’t worry – it’ll come to you” or “You’ll be fine – you’ll think of something in the moment.” But this kind of assurance is precisely what Jesus is NOT offering here. Instead, the only thing He promises is this: “I will give you the words.” It is Christ who embodies a wisdom our troubled world cannot calculate or comprehend. We do not have to create the words; they are received as a gift. And perhaps the “words” we are given are, in actuality, one word . . . The Word? “Christ in you, the hope of glory – the hope of substance” as St. Paul says in Colossians. And although this word has been rejected before, Christ will continue to speak the word of this alternative kingdom through the Church. And such words not only describe a kingdom, but actually create a habitable space – a place where we can lay our weary heads and rest in hope. Such words endure with power – even the power to gain your soul. To become a person of substance.
In a world lacking substance, where is our substance to be found? Here (point to the table). By taking in Jesus. By letting Christ come in through the holes, the wounds, the seemingly “weak” places in your life. By surrendering our feeble attempts at manufacturing our own testimony. Your Achilles heel is the threshold of God’s grace in your life. That sounds like foolishness. It sounds like a joke. And it is a joke. But the joke’s not on us. For if you go way back – to the beginning of our story, we are let in on the joke. In the emblematic story of humanity’s wounded-ness and weakness, when Adam and Eve were enticed by knowledge (of good and evil), giving up on the simple – yet more difficult - path of trust, God let Adam and Eve in on the joke. Remember what God said in the garden? To the serpent God said:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Do you see the picture there? The head of the serpent would be crushed by a heel that’s been bruised. What’s your Achille’s heel? Where have you been bruised by the world’s evils? Where do you struggle with doubt, and wrestle to maintain hope? This is the hope of the Gospel: It is that very place – your Achilles heel- where God will show up and crush the head of the serpent.
(sermon preached at HFASS November 14th, 2010 by Aram Haroutunian)