When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “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.”They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 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. “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.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So 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. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:5-19
Does it feel like the end of the world to you? God’s people have certainly felt that way before. In Jesus’ time, wars, famines, even the destruction of the temple, which the people believed was the center of the world and would stand eternally, all felt like the end of the world to them, and within about 30 years, by the time Luke’s Gospel was written, the temple was, in fact, destroyed and the Jewish people almost entirely dispersed from their land. Apocalyptic language and writings were popular during these times, and Jesus’ followers must actually have been comforted by his words because they put the huge changes and peoples’ suffering and insecurity into a larger, cosmic context.
You read above the First Century version of the end of the world, now for the scientific version. Five years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three cosmologists for discovering that we live in what’s called an accelerating universe. Before their work, it was thought that the universe’s expansion outward from the big bang was slowing down and would eventually stabilize. But instead it is actually rapidly and mysteriously accelerating its outward expansion, leading to a fate where no discernible matter, let alone intelligent life, will be able to exist anymore; it will all burn up until it is gone. Sorry for that depressing thought, but in my defense, Jesus’ words aren’t so cheery either. But I’ll cut Jesus some slack, because when he gives this and other apocalyptic statements at the end of Luke’s Gospel, it’s right before he himself is going to be betrayed, arrested, and put to death, so it’s no wonder that his thoughts turns dark. Contemplating the end of his own life, he contemplates the world’s end, as well. Yet he maintains that despite the disturbing picture he paints, we should not be terrified. Jesus, present at the beginning of the universe according to John’s Gospel, presumably must know how it ends, and being the original cosmologist, tells us essentially the same thing science does, that there will be a cataclysmic end, helpfully adds that we’re going to die, too, just in case that wasn’t clear, then has the nerve to tell us we will gain our souls by endurance, as if that is supposed to be in some way inspiring.
But here’s where I do find inspiration in Jesus’ words just as his first listeners must have: it’s in the fact that Jesus is totally honest with us, he never sugarcoats anything. He doesn’t need to, because our God is the God of ultimate reality and wants followers who are willing to live inside that reality, which means living in the tension between the world as it is–including the physics of the material world, including this disheartening political season–and the hope for the world that will be. Jesus spells out that tension right here, that we don’t get to escape the human condition of pain and suffering just because we have hope, we still have to experience all the doubts and anxieties and dark thoughts that go along with our humanity just as Jesus himself willingly took on and struggled with them.
Soren Kierkegaard, the founder of the philosophy of existentialism, embraced this human condition of anxiety and fear as a cross we get to bear in solidarity with Jesus that leads us deeper into our faith. He said, “Where understanding despairs, faith is already present in order to make the despair properly decisive.” In other words, rather than having to choose between understanding, (meaning knowledge), and faith, it’s actually that the deeper we move into faith, the more insight we have into reality as it truly is, not just what we think we are able to see with our eyes or even measure with our science. We don’t need to look far in world events or even sometimes in our own lives to see these dreadful portents that Jesus mentions. But Jesus also says, “Do not be terrified.” God’s love for us is so powerful that he promised through the prophet Malachi that “all the arrogant and evildoers” will be destroyed and instead, we’ll see the sunrise of righteousness, “with healing in its wings.” (4:1-2a) And if you don’t believe that’s really possible, according to Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, it is already happening. He’s been researching this for decades and has proven that while nations do still rise against nations, we are nonetheless actually safer today than at any time in history. Rates of war and murder have dropped consistently and dramatically through the ages, and we are more than a hundred times less likely to be victims of violence than the people to whom Jesus was speaking. So God is already making good on his promise to root out evildoing from the human heart. And to say that is not being unduly optimistic, that is looking at statistics, scientific facts, and seeing through them the true reality of God’s promise of new creation being tangibly realized.
Just like Scripture, science can give us reasons for hope as well as despair; the difference is, Scripture tells us which one will win in the end. God does not lie, and the very fact that God is so honest with us about loss and grief and suffering means we can believe it when he tells us healing is coming. And God knows, we are a people in need of healing after this brutal election. We have been wounded and horrified by the things that have been said and the fact that fellow citizens have been seemingly blind to and even supportive of these hurtful things. But we still go to work and school and perhaps even to communion next to people who have stood for things that have hurt us so deeply, and we have the strength–the soul–to do that. Because God’s people have been through this and worse before, and God has promised us that healing is coming.
Kierkegaard said “Meet all the terrors of the future with this comfort: love abides; meet all the anxiety…of the present with this comfort; love abides.” That is not abstract philosophy for me. As one who suffers from anxiety–the sleeplessness, heart-pounding, the panic–I take comfort that a far greater mind than mine believed that through this very anxiety could come even deeper faith and hope, and bore witness to that.
The cosmologists I told you about reached their conclusions by measuring something called “dark energy,” which is an unknown force that makes up 70% of the universe. That’s in addition to the also unknowable “dark matter,” which had already been determined to make up 25% of the universe. So the press release from the Nobel Prize committee ends with these words: “therefore, the universe is 95% unknown to science. And everything is possible again.” Think of that: faced with this information about the fate of the universe, the Nobel committee’s reaction, rather than terror, was faith that “everything is possible.” Their optimism might seem strange to some, but as Christians, we already know that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, that the sun of righteousness shall rise.
Jesus, the only true cosmologist, the one who does know 100% of the universe says, “Do not be terrified.” And every week when we come to the table to receive communion, weak, feeble, insignificant humans that we are, we reach beyond the bounds of time and space to grasp in our hands our own little piece of cosmic mystery–the normal, human items of bread and wine transformed into the real presence of the eternal Christ. Let us go forth from the table heartened by the perseverance of God’s people through darker times even than these, and knowing through faith what some of the greatest minds in the world know through science–that everything is possible again.
Based on sermon given at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Inglewood, November 13, 2016