When I spent a year in Germany during my seminary days, I struggled in the first half of that year with feelings of being lost, without guidance, and without my usual supports in place. I was lonely: For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to rely on my parents, and I didn’t have my twin brother close by to share a life experience. I felt depressed, rudderless, cut off, a ship floating aimlessly in the stormy ocean.
I was reminded of this turbulent time in my life after reading the Gospel text (Luke 21:5-19) for today. Jesus points to those external ‘structures’ in the lives of his disciples, structures that they have come to depend on for guidance, for a sense of purpose and identity – and tells them basically that they will crumble, that they will have to learn to do without the usual dependencies, that they will have to ‘lose’ these. They will be no more.
First, it’s the massive and impressive temple that Herod was building, adorned with decorations; the temple presented a glorious architectural masterpiece to the world. At the end of the text, Jesus mentions family – even those closest to us will be cut off from the path we are on. There is a profound losing that imbues this scripture today, not unlike what the Israelites had to experience when they were exiled from their land, their homes, their precious Jerusalem temple, some five hundred years before Christ. It is a pattern that is repeating again.
The first part in the path of faith – of true spirituality – is one of letting go, of releasing, of surrendering. If anyone has experienced even a margin of what that means, it’s never easy. It’s hard, especially when for most of your life you’ve placed so much energy and invested your emotions and stability in a building, a place, a person, a family – and then you have lose it.
Luke wrote this story in the Gospel some forty years after the life of Jesus. Remember, all of what we read in the Bible was for the longest time first shared by word of mouth – stories told to the community and from generation to generation. In the latter half of the first century A.D. these told stories about Jesus began to be written down in the form we see them today.
It’s important for me to mention this because Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed actually happened. In about 70 A.D. the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem to try to subdue the radical Jewish insurrection who were rebelling against Roman occupation of their land. The victorious Romans eventually toppled the impressive stone walls of the temple, leaving only what we see today – the famous western wall, or the “Wailing Wall”.
All this is to say, that Luke wrote these words of Jesus at a time when the rebellion was reaching its peak: “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” These written words carried extra emotional weight, it would seem to me, to those who first received them in the late first century. Because it was actually happening.
Early Christians were encouraged to trust Jesus, because what Jesus says is true! What Jesus promises will come to pass. This truth is consistent with the tradition of earlier scriptures, first echoed in the poetry emerging from the exile – “The grass withers, the flower fades – but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8).
Though the path is full of suffering, one thing remains: the presence and purpose of God. This may give us a clue as to the meaning of Jesus’ closing words in the text: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Some translations have it, “by your patience”.
Since I opened with a personal story from my seminary days, I’ll bring here another story I heard from a seminary class studying ‘the end times’. For you to get this story, I need to remind you of how a liturgical church, such as ours, organizes our reading of the Bible. We follow a lectionary, which means that there are assigned readings not only for every Sunday of the year but for every day, even. You can find these assigned readings at the front of our worship books. The point is, after a three year cycle of following this ‘lectionary’, we will have basically read through the whole Bible.
So, these seminary students were engaged in a discussion of what Bible text they would choose if they had reason to believe that this was the Final Day. Some suggested John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Others suggested Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil …” Still others suggested the very last verses of the Bible from Revelation 22:20-21 – “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus (Maranatha). The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the Saints. Amen!’”
But, the winning suggestion was – “I would preach on whatever Bible lesson was appointed as the Gospel for the day.”
A homeowner hired a gardener to plant a certain kind of tree. “But that kind of tree takes many years to mature,” the gardener protested. “Then get started with the planting,” the homeowner replied. “You do not have a moment to lose.”
If the first difficult part of the path of faith is surrendering, letting go, not identifying any longer with those structures on which we have come to depend heavily, the second part is the motivation to endure in the regular, daily task. It is full of promise, and new life.
Because those endings and beginnings in Christ are not our doing. We do not control our destiny, contrary to what so much of our culture preaches. We are called only to be faithful in our daily service, doing that which is set before us this day. We don’t know exactly how things will turn out. But we can take the risk and take the first step because we have the true promise of God:
Being aware of God’s faithfulness to us, being assured in the Word that what Jesus promises is true, we can be buoyed by a vibrant hope on the stormy ocean of life. We live every day as if it were the last, doing all that we can, doing the right thing, in the moment. And we cling to the assurance that God will not only do the rest, but much, much more!
In the last few months of my year abroad in Germany, I finally found my stride. Maybe it was because I knew ‘the end’ was coming; my time in Germany was coming to an end, and soon and very soon I would be returning home. Being aware of and confident in my returning home coming closer with each passing day, I was able to enjoy and fully enter each moment: I travelled with my friends, visited my families in Poland and Germany, breathed the air deeply, and went about finishing the tasks set before me.
In engaging my life fully, doing what I was called to do there – even though it wasn’t always easy – I now remember that time as one of those crucial, pivotal and cherished learning moments of my life. For, a true letting go yielded a wondrous new beginning.