211114 Advent 2
November 14, 2021
Sermon: “Living into God’s Vision”
Rev. Kristian Wold
The temple was going to come down. Herod’s temple, the work of an entire nation and a generation of labourers, was to be destroyed by the Roman general Tacitus in 70 A.D.
Of course the temple is not just a temple. In scripture it is a symbol for the work of our own lives. It stands for the things we build with the stones of our commitments, passions, duties, and dreams. Out of these intangibles we build real things in the world: relationships, careers, literal houses, legacies, and monuments. And just like Herod’s temple, these buildings of ours can be swept away in time. As Jesus says, “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
And then he goes on to describe the suffering and hardship that will accompany the destruction. Wars. Insurrections. Conflict. Natural disasters. Betrayal by family and friends. Hatred. Persecution. Again these are not just signs of the end of Herod’s temple, or even only the End Times, but descriptions of the way our own worlds, and the buildings we create of our lives, can and do fall apart. And Jesus speaks of it all so matter-of-factly! How? Why?
When we face the destruction of any one of: our careers, homes, families, health dreams, ideals, trust — we tend to build up anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, or depression. But not Jesus. He only recognizes with crystal clarity the hardships and misfortunes of our world, yet somehow concludes: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Again, how? Why?
This is how. From the beginning to the end of his ministry and life, Jesus is grounded in the promises of God, especially as spoken by the prophet Isaiah. Do you remember the story of his first sermon back in his home town of Nazareth? He read these words from Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and sight to the blind.
God has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And then he said, “This is about me. God is doing this right now, through me.”
All of Jesus work, from that moment until this very moment now, is about recalling hearts and minds to God’s vision of a peaceful, just, and abundant world; and building that very world up—even while human buildings, institutions, and even lives fall to pieces. God is always doing a new thing. Jesus knows this. Jesus himself is this new thing: a perfect human life from which flows blessing, healing, and life — these gifts that rippled outward from him and continued through time down to our own day.
How can Jesus be so calm in the knowledge of the temple’s inevitable destruction and the suffering that will accompany it? Because he listened to the same promise from Isaiah that we heard this morning:
“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
And then the description of that new world follows, one filled with joy and delight. One where everyone lives to a ripe old age, healthy to the end. Where children don’t die before their parents. This is a world in which there is no food insecurity, crippling debt, or foreclosures on homes and mortgages. A place where everyone has meaningful and fulfilling work. In God’s coming world people will intimately experience God’s presence at every moment of their lives. It’s a place of peace, right down to the animals themselves.
In Jesus, and the way of forgiveness and reconciliation that he teaches, this world is already fulfilled. It already comes into being in him, who is the resurrection and the life.
Friends, the witness of scripture today is first that, in the words of the poet Yeats, things fall apart. In the present, things are continually falling apart. The centre of all our building, as human pride and ambition, never holds. It was true in Isaiah’s day, it was true in Jesus’ time, and it is true in ours. Present reality is always a story of things falling apart, and the end of the world happening. What’s really important—and this is scripture’s second witness—is what kind of future we’re going to choose to live in to. Are you going to live on the basis of everything being horrible and the only future you have is bleak? Are you going to make the assumption that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there’s nothing you can do anyways? Then you will be dominated by fear, despair, and anger. Or are you going to live on the basis of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ promise of the resurrection? (In other words, live by faith.) Then courage, endurance, resolution, hope, and compassion will open up to you.
There is a wonderful story told of Martin Luther. I know you’ve heard it before. As you know, in Luther’s day a lot of people thought the end of the world was upon them. All the signs the gospel mentions were present: wars, plague, the church breaking down. So it was that one day some students, filled with alarm and excitement, came to Luther and said, “Dr. Luther, what would you do if you knew the world was to end tomorrow?” To which he is said to have replied, “I would plant an apple tree.” In other words, he would not rush into an anxious flap of prayer and preparation, but he would trust in God’s providence and grace as he had always done, and carry on with his planned activity. Which, of course, is an act of faith and hope and love – planting a tree.
Do you know that there is no writing of Luther’s that mentions this story? There is also no writing about him from his time that mentions it. In fact, the first reference to the story of the apple tree comes from a German pastor of the resistance church in 1944. Can you imagine (or for some of you, remember) what Germany was like in 1944? Bombs from Britain were raining down. Armies were marching. Refugees were fleeing. If that wasn’t the End Times then I don’t know what would be. In that time the story about Luther and his apple tree began to circulate. In it was embedded an echo of Jesus’ own message to be strong and resolute and faithful and hopeful. Even in the ruins of our world God is doing a new thing.
So what will your choice be in the midst of the struggles and trials of our pandemic-plagued, environmentally-threatened, socially-toxic 21st century world? What apple will you plant?
May it be one of faith and hope and love as you cling tightly to the vision of God’s future and the promise of Jesus’ resurrection life.