This is the message that was preached at the Crafton Heights Church on February 13, 2011. It is the fifth in a series of six sermons stemming from our congregation’s discussion of Max Lucado’s book Fearless. The scriptures for the morning were Psalm 37:1-7 and Luke 21:5-28
I was thinking this week about the scene of my earliest formal education – the elementary school in Ashbourne Hills in Claymont, DE. I wish I could say that I have all sorts of incredible memories of how my character was formed, or my intellect quickened, or my nature elevated in that place. However, this morning, the memories that come to mind all have to do with fear.
I remember getting the snot beat out of my by Rosene Whealton’s older brother, who caught us walking home from school holding hands in the third grade. When he climbed off me, he hit me one last time, saying that he’d do a lot worse if he found out I tried anything else with his sister. Fortunately, I was in the third grade. It was two years before I even knew that there were other things to try, and we had moved by then.
I remember Mary Curly and I sitting in the back row. In that building, each classroom had its own washrooms. Mary and I would sit and make faces and laugh when our classmates went into the bathroom and made, well, bathroom noises. And then, one day, I was IN the bathroom, and I was afraid that Mary was laughing at me. So from then on, I limited my fluid intake and just held it until I got home.
Students participating in "the drill" that was common during the cold war.
But mostly, when I remember Darley Road School, I remember at least once, if not twice a month, the siren would sound and we would all dive under our desks. We did this because the Russians had bombers and missiles, and who knew when the Red Menace would try to wipe us all out. So we hid under our desks, with our fingers carefully interlocked over our spinal cords, listening for the drone of the Soviet bombers that were no doubt eager to kill a generation of America’s brightest and best. My number one memory from elementary school is an indelible fear that at any given moment, the world would end. And so I was afraid. Very afraid.
Oh, relax, Dave. We don’t do that any more. That’s all behind us now. No reason to worry about that sort of thing now.
Really? I’m not sure. Every day, I get messages from a couple of friends. One, in particular, lives life in a state of unending fear. He’s convinced that the jets that fill our skies are secretly leeching mind-altering chemical vapors. The government is poisoning us by mandating fluoride in our drinking water. The government is killing us by not regulating genetically modified food. The TSA is only the vanguard of a police state. The riots in the Middle East are the beginnings of a world-wide revolution and anarchy. There’s a lot to be worried about.
And I don’t want to be flip – because there is cause for concern in our every day lives. We see the specter of terrorism more clearly now than we did a decade ago. There’s evidence that something weird is happening to the global weather patterns. The economy is awfully slow in turning around. So the old saying may be true: just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. There is cause for concern. We know catastrophe in our world.
Luke 21 speaks to this fear of catastrophe. Jesus, in fact, knew what the disciples could not know: that this day of teaching in the temple would be his last full day of freedom. The next day, his ministry path would be incredibly altered when he was betrayed and then arrested. So Jesus, understandably, has a lot on his mind.
A model of the Temple in Jerusalem from the time of Christ
Still, I wonder what the disciples were thinking in that moment. I mean, here they are, looking at the temple in awe. One of them makes an off-hand comment about how cool it is to be there, and how impressive the architecture is, and all of a sudden Jesus responds like a grumpy grumpmeister. “You think it’s nice now? Well, you won’t think that when it’s all destroyed, pal, I can tell you that. There won’t be anything left!” It must have seemed jarring to hear his words at that time.
I suppose that in the next couple of days, they might have thought about that saying a little more – because, in a sense, the world did change very radically for the disciples when Jesus was arrested, tortured, and killed.
My hunch is, though, that this teaching may have gone by the boards in the next couple of decades. I mean, after all, Jesus died, and then was raised, and then taught, and finally ascended to the Father. The church grew in Jerusalem; people came to faith, went about their business, and still the temple stood.
Nicolas Poussin, "The Destruction of the Temple" (c. 1640)
Jesus first gave this teaching in about 30 AD. Luke was writing his gospel a generation later, and things were different as he was recording it. Followers of Jesus had begun to experience increasingly intense persecution for their faith. Believers were dying – just as Jesus had. Whereas people had once been filled with hope for Jesus’ return, now they were experiencing some trouble. And then, sometime around 66 – 70 AD, the temple was destroyed by the Romans. At that point, I can imagine a lot of Christ-followers saying, “Wow, you know, I remember Jesus said something about this…” When Luke wrote about Jesus’ teaching, it must have had an incredible immediacy for his hearers.
The type of literature that Luke presents to us is called “apocalyptic” – meaning that it has to do with the end of the world. I hope you were paying attention – and if not, that you will go back and re-read this passage. As Luke writes about what may well be the ultimate end of the world, there is no expectation whatsoever that Christians will escape struggle or pain. That’s important to note, so I’ll say it again: there is no reason to think, after reading this, that Jesus believed that his followers would be exempt from suffering.
That’s not what we want to hear. In fact, the publishing phenomenon in the world of Christian books for the past decade has been the Left Behind series, with more than 65 million books sold. Listen to how preacher Fred Craddock has talked about this passage:
Disciples are not exempt from suffering… There are no scenes here of planes falling from the sky because believing pilots have been raptured or cars crashing on the highway because their drivers were believers and hence have been lifted to an indifferent bliss. According to our text, we are in a time of witnessing in the face of suffering and death, but ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’ (v. 19).
Jesus’ focus here is not so much “how do we get out of feeling uncomfortable” as it is “how can we look our fear in the eye?” How do we live in awareness of the fact that yes, as a matter of fact, it may be ‘the big one’?
For Jesus, apparently, it comes down to trust: do I believe in the promises of God? Or do I believe that there is something more powerful that can disrupt those promises?
In the days after Jesus’ death, the disciples would learn that Jesus’ crucifixion did not signify the end of the world. A generation later, they would learn that the fall of Jerusalem did not signify the end of the world. The church has learned, and re-learned the truth – that the death of those whom we love and the threats that are made against the people of God do not and cannot render God impotent.
Luke 21 is pretty clear about the fact that the people who follow Jesus can face danger. We will be in harm’s way. There is betrayal and pain and suffering on the plate. Yet what happens at the end? You will not perish. Jesus seems to be saying, “Be alert, but not afraid. Be aware, but not incapacitated. Be faithful. Hold on.”
That sounds great, Jesus, but how do we get there? How do we live like that? Scary stuff still happens. I’m afraid!
For Jesus, living that way meant holding onto the promises of God. Like most Jewish adults, Jesus would have memorized the Psalms – a collection of hymns and prayers that would tell the community who (and whose) they were.
Psalm 37, which you heard earlier, is an attempt to answer questions like, “How does a community of faith live in a world that seems so wrong so much of the time? The bad guys seem to come out on top, the good guys seem to be pushed down. Evil prevails. What can we do?”
The Psalm is what we call an “acrostic poem”. That is to say that every two verses begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Imagine writing a letter or a poem like this:
Always seek the love of God
Above all else, worship the Lord.
Beware of anything that would tempt you;
Before God there is nothing good.
Cry out to him when you are afraid,
Cultivate your trust so that you can know peace.
Why don’t we talk like that all the time? Because it’s hard, right? It took me twenty minutes to come up with those lines. But that’s how the Psalm is laid out in the Hebrew – verses 1 and 2 begin with aleph; 3 and 4 with beth; 5 and 6 with gimel, and so on. The words of the Psalm are a disciplined exploration of a faithful life, and I believe that the way in which they are written (adhering to a set pattern and scheme) is helpful in understanding the deeper meaning of the words themselves. There’s a sense in which the trust and the faith that are called for in the Psalm are a result of a conscious choice and a pattern of behavior and decisions.
I’m not usually one to argue with celebrated Bible scholars who have written great books. James L. Mays, Ph.D. is the Cyrus McCormick Professor of Hebrew and the Old Testament Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and when he wrote about this Psalm, he said, “The choice is between faith and no faith.” I beg to differ, Dr. Mays, but that’s wrong. It’s not a choice between faith and no faith. We all have faith. To be human is to believe in something or someone. The question is, who or what do you trust? Do you trust your self? Your weapons? The odds? Your good looks and devil-may-care personality? Or do you trust God?
Another way to ask the same questions (and to help me come through the terror of Darley Road School) is this: do we give ourselves over to worry and fear, and live lives that are based on reacting to the threat of evil in the world? Or, do we trust in the Creator who tells us who we are and how we are made – and do you remember how are we made? Fearfully and wonderfully (Psalm 139)! Do we trust in the savior who promises to go before us and to prepare a place for us, telling us not only where we have come from, but where we are going?
You see, the Psalm is not some sort of a carrot on a stick that says, “You know, if you believe in God and keep your nose clean and do all the right things, only good things will happen in your life. The promises in the Psalms are indicators of truth. For instance, verses 4 and 5 read, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart; commit your way to the Lord; trust him and he will do this.” If you commit your way to the Lord, you are saying that you are allowing God to shape your behavior and your action. If you seek to delight yourself in the Lord, you are saying that you want to live a life that looks like God’s best. And if you live your life in such a way so as to be pointing it in a God-ward direction, then of course you will discover things that God has to show to you.
The Psalm is not a promise that says, “If you are good, God will give you a treat!” Instead, it describes some consequences: if you seek to shape your life to look like God has designed it, you’ll find that you are satisfied with the way that God shows up in your life. If you commit to patterning your life along the lines that God has made you to live, then you will be more apt to sense God’s presence along the journey.
Make no mistake, my friends, the world is full of people who have bombs and planes and who wouldn’t think twice about killing me. The environment is, in many ways, a mess. Terrible things happen all the time. The world is imperfect.
But the creation has not slipped from the hands of the creator. On March 22, 1980, Father Luis Espinal, a priest and outspoken advocate for the poor, was murdered by paramilitary forces in La Paz, Bolivia. Shortly before he died, he wrote,
There are Christians who have hysterical reactions,
as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands.
They act violently as if they were risking everything. But we believe in history;
the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos.
A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…
with our bodies still in the breach
and our souls in tension,
we cry out our first “Hurrah!”
till eternity unfolds itself…We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality. Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word!
Friends, the truth is that I can’t control whether the Russians or anyone else is going to bomb me. Heck, I can’t keep my fish tank water from becoming too cloudy. But I refuse to live in fear or terror of a cataclysmic event. And so I will try to do what Jesus did: remember the promises, and live my life shaped by them. When I do a good job at that, then encourage me. When I appear to be forgetting them, then remind me.
Jesus, in teaching his disciples, time and time again returned to the old songbook of the Psalter – the songs that his parents taught him around the house as he grew up. You know, as scared as I was when I left the elementary school, I wasn’t traumatized. My mother had a terrible, terrible singing voice. But that didn’t stop her. And on more than one occasion, I came home from school to find the record player blaring, the vacuum running, and my mother belting out a truth that took away my fear:
This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.
 Interpretation Commentary on the Book of Luke (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 245
 Interpretation Bible commentary on the Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1984) p. 158.
 Quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983) p. 332