Sermon preached at St. Christopher's, November 14, 2010
Are we there yet?
Are we there yet? The backseat chorus hits the ears of cringing parents, driving faster than they would like to openly admit. Are we there yet? The laboring soon-to-be mother asks the panicking soon-to-be father, both of them hoping to remember the bag that they packed in the trunk some weeks ago in preparation for this expected, unexpected time. Are we there yet? The spouse puts her hand to her head and crunches the numbers one more time, both of them wondering if this is the month they finally reach their goal - that first down payment on the house they’ve longed to own for years now. Are we there yet? The child, again, asking the question, but this time with some fear and trembling, as her noticeably older father drives her to the freshman dorm of a campus far away. Are we there yet? Her earnest eyes searching for her nephew from across the hospital room. She isn't afraid of the end; her faith is as strong as her body is frail. She just wants to know if this is the time. Are we there yet?
And for the faithful Christian - for you - wandering the pilgrim road, walking the way of the cross, I wonder if you ever find yourself wondering with respect to the life of faith when, if ever, you'll get there - when you'll finally arrive.
Life can sometimes feel like one of those cheap movies in which the character runs toward the castle and the character runs toward the castle and the character runs toward the castle and for the life of you, you can't figure out why he hasn't yet reached the castle - the starting distance wasn't more than a hundred yards away and its been five minutes now of what is looking suspiciously more and more like the same repeated movie clip. When will we get there? Why aren't we there yet? Where are we going?
Where do you hope you are going? Not just heaven or hell, but how, for example, do you pray that the life of faith will shape you and your family? What is your hope for the person that God means for you to be? Who do you think God means you to be? How do you determine whether the last step taken has been a step toward or away from that goal? And how do you know when you’re there?
The election will try to convince you that we’ve finally arrived this time. Or that we’ve never been farther away. The advertising sequence on your television will try to convince you that you’re just this close - almost there - almost presentable, just a few, important purchases short. Lucky for you, there’s a limited-time offer. This week only. Did you hear the McRib sandwich is back? The cynic of our day will tell you that patience in our day has become another word for being sold a bill of goods. Because the end that is promised never quite fully arrives. Because we live in a world that’s always selling one more thing. Why aren’t we there yet?
In the gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that there will be an end. The stones in the temple will all be undone. The disciples, rightly suspect such an undoing to be a terrible sign that nonetheless speaks of God’s action, God’s judgment, and the beginning of all things being set right. The end they’ve all been waiting for. Their question is natural: when will this be? What sign will prepare us? Are we almost there yet?
Jesus’ answer seems to tease them: he readily admits that things will get crazy - that false leaders will be many, that wars and rumors of wars and famines and plagues will abound, BUT...
But these will not be the signs the disciples think they need, because what Jesus thinks should most concern them will have already happened.
Jesus says, “Before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you...you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.” Indeed, Jesus himself will be betrayed by friends and put to death.
The disciples are interested in the closing credits; Jesus means to make them mindful of what will be required of them in the meantime. Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for the suffering they will experience while they wait for the end.
One Christian theologian recently observed that the single, biggest threat to the Church today is not atheism, but sentimentality, and that sentimentality is the belief that my children should not suffer for my faith. That my faith will not prove costly.
Isn’t that the thrust behind the question, “Are we there yet?” It’s the desire for an end to the discomfort - even the pain - of the present. So we ask, “When will it get better?”
And Jesus doesn’t answer.
Instead, he gives them three things not to do in the meantime.
Now, one might think that it’s easier not to do things than to do things (like laundry, for example - easier not to do than to do), but, in fact, the things that Jesus gives the disciples not to do prove challenging. It’s hard not to do them. What are the three things we need not to do?
The first one comes in verse eight: Do not be led astray - do not chase false prophets. This is a challenge because prophets don’t generally come with labels - false and real. It takes patience and practice discerning the difference. This is a challenge because when the end is slow in coming, we get antsy, and we need to remember why we’re here and who called us here. This is a challenge because it requires that we cling to and embody the character of the one that we follow, the crucified and risen Jesus. Will be be faithful or will we finally give in - seeking to accomplish by violence and power what Christ accomplished in his service, forgiveness, and death? How much are we willing to learn from the one whose victory looked a lot like defeat?
The second thing not to do comes in verse nine: Do not be terrified. The angel’s message to Mary: Don’t be afraid. Easier said than done, especially if we take seriously Jesus’ first warning that there are more false hopes than true hopes running around. If the economists really don’t have all the answers - if the next purchase made will not bring me peace - if this war is not a necessary part of God’s bringing the Kingdom - if the success of my children will not heal my life - it would appear that there is much, indeed, to fear. Who’s in control, after all?
And yet, exactly because none of these false prophets parading around is true, we can finally put to rest the terrifying fear that we’re missing out on the one prophet we need. God has already given us the one prophet we need: his name is Jesus. The fact that we cannot save ourselves is bad news turned Good News the moment we realize that it’s not all up to us; when we realize that the true prophet has a gift in mind for us that we could never make, discover, invent, produce, or otherwise acquire for ourselves.
So don’t chase false prophets. Don’t be afraid. Neither are easy not to do in this world. And the third and last thing Jesus says not to do is perhaps the most perplexing of all. He tells the disciples that suffering and persecution will happen. The life of faith will hurt. Moreover, he tells them that suffering and persecution will give the followers of Jesus opportunities to witness to Jesus alive in their lives. So, Jesus says (and here’s the third ‘don’t): “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
In other words, be prepared by not being prepared. Don’t try to control this. Don’t hide your vulnerability - your weakness. Don’t try to do this by yourself. In truth, our very weakness is the witness to the strength, the space, making room for the glory of God. Don’t follow false prophets. Don’t be afraid. And don’t try to do this by yourself. Three hard things not to do.
Of course, for you and me in God’s Church, there is other work to do - praise God - there is good work to do! Alongside the three don’t’s of this morning, it’s important to remember the good work that God gives us: go forth into the world, proclaim the Good News, teach, make disciples, baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pray without ceasing, love one another, give alms to the poor, forgive, forgive, forgive. But today’s lesson grounds us and the work that we do in the work that God has already done. And so, because we do not work alone - because we do not work apart from the good work of God - Jesus reminds us as we go, proclaim, teach, baptize, love, give, and forgive: don’t chase the false prophets (that is, don’t be distracted - don’t forget the Lord you serve); do not be afraid; don’t try to do this by yourself.
Because no, we aren’t there yet. But lo, he is with us, even to the end of the age.
And these are words that change it all.