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When we woke up this morning, many of us stepped into a world of expectations. This was not a conscious decision; it's just where we live, in a land where life is so good we have the luxury of taking many things for granted. The air conditioning stayed on so we could awake to a comfortable room temperature; and if it was dark when we awoke, we reached for a light switch so the invisible dangers could be revealed. Then we walked into a room with running water inside the house, and now you're even listening to my voice over the radio you expected to work when you turned the switch.
So many things we expect in life we just take for granted until something doesn't work. The alarm doesn't go off. It's hot in the house. The light switch is non-responsive. We panic for a minute. We get frustrated. And then we think, "This is not how my day is supposed to be. My life is supposed to play out in such a way that I have all that I need to be comfortable. But this morning, somebody or some thing flipped the script. And now I have no power when I'm supposed to have power."
Most of the rest of our world plays out a very different script; a minor power outage is a non-event. Outside of our country or outside of our neighborhood there are problems and concerns many of us can't even begin to comprehend. There are illnesses that can't be treated, people dying in need of food, political and civil unrest, and overt exploitation and abuse of humanity and nature. A power outage in most of the world is a good day. Yet many of us see the discomfort and shock of power outages in this country, natural disasters like hurricanes and weather-pattern changes, wars in places where wars have been waged since the beginning of recorded history, and some of us interpret these events as "the sign of the times."
Turn on your television or the next time you're in the grocery store, check out the tabloids. There's an abundance of rhetoric about the last and evil days. There was the transition from 1999 to 2000, and many of us still have our stockpile of water. Throughout history, any number of disastrous events were to have come, and the predicted day of destruction passed. As the feared date would approach, tension would build, people would pray, people may even be a little nicer to each other. Then on the other side of doomsday, everything would go back to normal. Someone once said, "If you buy one of these Armageddon stories, make sure you get a money-back guarantee."
These stories of the end times have been generated throughout history. There is always someone who will step up and say God told them the next act in our lives. Our text, which is chronologically situated toward the end of Jesus' ministry, after the bulk of his work in Galilee was complete, finds Jesus in Jerusalem, the home of the "pure" Jews. It was the home of the religious and social elite, the "haves" of society. The scenes that precede our text speak of Jesus' work, about his teaching, about his cleansing of the temple, and about some words that were misunderstood or purposely misinterpreted as a warning of the destruction of the temple. Right before continuing on to the tragic scene of the capture, trial, and execution of Jesus, here drops this apocalyptic or last days text.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, a vision that grants its recipient a glimpse beyond what's going on to what's really going on. It speaks of what God is doing and what God will do. At first glance, our text looks like a warning of destruction. Is that really the case?
As Jesus and his disciples left the temple, one of the disciples expressed a sense of awe at the magnificence of the building. He was captivated by the type of masonry available to those with wealth. He did not have that kind of masonry in Galilee. We know how this can be. Following what the advertisements say are the measures of success--the cars, the flat screen TVs, the big homes, the trappings of success.
In our text, it's curious that right after his announcement of the destruction of the temple, Jesus is said to be on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple with four of the disciples. Notice Jesus wasn't in the temple; perhaps Jesus doesn't dwell in corrupt systems and institutions. The disciples wanted to know when the destruction would take place. Actually, they wanted a heads up, an advance notice of the last days, the end of existence as they knew it, which included the destruction of the temple. They wanted a preview of the finale.
Often we encounter persons, and maybe ourselves, who wants the inside scoop. They want to know in advance before everybody else knows. Why? What's the benefit? Does that kind of knowledge give some sort of power over others? Does it lead to some sense of ego inflation? We want to be the reporter, not the receiver.
But often what we think we receive is not the real thing. We know what we heard or what we see, but is our interpretation accurate? These disciples have been traveling with Jesus. They didn't see him preparing any weapon of mass destruction to ignite some end of existence as we know it, which would include the destruction of the temple. Could it be that their thoughts were distorted by the prevalent voices of the powerful, or were they blinded by the flashy trappings that they were surrounded by in Jerusalem? Have they internalized the hype of the spiritual, social, and political elite? Have you ever been to a play that had a very elaborate set design yet behind the scene is nothing? It's a façade; there is no real substance. Yet set design, smoke, and mirrors can create the image of reality. And those who create the images also act out the role of happiness, when often the image is also a façade that houses an empty spirit.
Even now, those of us who identify ourselves as children of God, as followers of the way of Jesus, can be seduced into believing that the elite must have the answers. But we hear Jesus saying, "Beware that no one leads you astray." Beware of those who come and say they are speaking authoritatively about what they alone know and we're supposed to believe because it's cloaked in a shiny package. We believe in the hype of advertising. Someone else knows what will satisfy us. So we go broke trying to get it or get depressed because we don't have the means to get it. Some of us have tried every diet in the book and will never be able to look like what's been promoted as beautiful. Actually, no one looks like the images towards which many of us aspire. We're focused on the ornate masonry of the temple, cookie cutter forms of beauty and worth. Yet behind the scene is emptiness, pain, and disappointment.
Listen to the messages of the end times and check the characters who are actually speaking that story line. It's the "haves," not the "have nots" who like to talk about the end times. People on the margins of society, those that the spiritually, politically, and socially elite have ignored, are not looking for end times. They're looking for equality, justice, and peace. They, we, are looking for the Good News of the Gospel, the real Gospel as Marcus Borg would suggest, the subversive Gospel of Compassion that Jesus espoused. That Gospel intimidates those who want to maintain power. The elite of society are always outnumbered by the multitudes, so for them, liberation and equality is threatening.
In his book Liberating News, Orlando Costras suggests, "When the multitudes are evangelized, everybody hears about it; the press, the government, the business community, the religious leadership, the army, the comfortable, and the secure individuals who usually stay aloof from the cry of the multitudes. Very often, such groups and institutions become irritated, threatened, joining forces as a sort of 'counter-multitude' to try to quench the hope and aspirations that arise among the harassed multitudes when they hear the Gospel and appropriate it by faith in Christ."
Opposition to equality happened to Jesus and it happens to us. Enemies often become allies when it serves their best interest. When the party line supports the maintenance of the status and lifestyle of the "haves," unlikely parties suddenly find harmony around a cause. Distribution of power and wealth is an almost impossible task for some who are used to being entitled. Even to capture Jesus, a religious coalition formed comprised of those who could not fathom the liberation of those in the margin. They didn't want to share their socio-religious status for fear of diluting their own level of privilege. Watch the alliances.
Instead of the liberating Good News of Jesus, many in our society have embraced the god of consumerism. Even some churches seem to be copies of the consumer society. It's difficult to differentiate them from sophisticated social clubs, cultural associations, and businesses that specialize in offering a variety of religiously oriented services. The poor, the outcast, the abused, the left-out, and the putout are ignored or further oppressed.
But Jesus knew that scene was not the only reality. He reminded the disciples not to believe those who come saying they know, that they know when the end time is coming, or that they know what's best for you, claiming to be your messiah. The main danger of this talk of the end times is that it's a call to maintain the status quo. It leads to isolated individual survival. "Shore up your own salvation." "Forget about community." "Make sure you follow the rules. And by the way, here are the rules for you to follow." In that mindset, when we hear or read news of a rise in homelessness, of babies being abused, the plight of the poor, we've been relieved of responsibility of the transformation of our communities. Rather than a call for radical change and action, we see the news as evidence of why we need to ignore destruction, violence, abuse, and pain. Close the doors and retreat to a safe space and work out your own soul's salvation rather than become engaged in the healing of our land and the birthing of a new reality.
Jesus told the disciples, "When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, don't be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famine." But then the text says, "This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
Jesus was saying this is not the end, but it's time to flip the script. It's time to switch to an entirely different plot. Tragedies are a call to be transformed as we work for the transformation of the systems that oppress. Jesus' conversation about the destruction of the temple was symbolic of the systems and institutions that oppress and exclude. He was talking about the end to the status quo and the birthing of justice, freedom, the redistribution, and/or redefinition of power and wealth. This is not the end. This is the beginning!
We got the call-back and now our role is, like Jesus told the disciples, to maintain our belief in and our commitment to the radical good news that God is still in control revealing a new way of life, love, justice, and peace. The old script of power to a few, who happen to be of financial means, and neglect of the poor has run its last performance. The realm of God and a radical new vision of justice, freedom, and love is coming to the stage. It's time to flip the script with our votes, with our voices, with our outreach, with our welcome. God's next scene is a reversal of fortune. God is ready to flip the script just as God has done throughout history. Hannah's monologue as recorded in 1 Samuel celebrates how God has and how God will continue to revise our story line:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
But the feeble gird on strength.
Those who are full have hired themselves out for bread,
Those who are hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
But she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
He lifts the needy from their ash heap,
To make them sit with princes
And inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S,
And on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:4-8)
Will you join me as we approach God in prayer?
Loving God, we thank you for these words and for the many times that you have flipped the script in our lives. When we were hopeless, you brought us hope, when we were sick, you brought us health, and when we were hurting, you brought us healing, you brought us company. Your company is all the company we really need, so we thank you for joining us as we flip the script of our lives and walk into a new reality of love, justice, and hope. Thank you for your presence. Thank you for your love. In the name of the Christ we pray. Amen.
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