Gospel Tornado Siren
In our Gospel today, Jesus is speaking of very real threats to his followers.
They are walking in the temple and admiring how beautiful it is, adorned with rich stones and ornamentations, and he has to bring them abruptly back to Earth with a wake-up call. While you are thinking about how beautiful these material things are, Jesus says, dangers are creeping up on you all around.
Jesus warns his followers of three types of danger.
The first is being led away by false teachers and false Messiahs.
The second is great external calamities like wars, earthquakes and famines.
And the third is losing faith because of betrayal by friends.
His original disciples were in danger of all these things happening to them literally.
How blessed we are that we as twenty-first century Americans are not in danger of famine or being put on trial and condemned to death for our faith.
Many of our brothers and sisters around the world are not so lucky.
For them the daily threats of starvation and persecution are all too real.
We all know that our first responsibility to live out the gospel lies in building a world in which these threats to God’s children are things of the past, in which the words of Isaiah in our lesson today come true, “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
No, the wars and famines and insurrections that we face today as twenty-first century Americans are far more subtle, but no less deadly to our souls.
How are we to hear Jesus’ warning and understand the threats to our own spiritual health?
They are not nearly as obvious as the Roman soldiers that threatened the first disciples.
Jesus warns first against false teachings and false Messiahs.
In those days, multiple people in Israel would literally come preaching to the towns and villages, claiming to be the Messiah sent from God to liberate Israel.
Jesus knew that his followers had had a life-changing experience with him when he was alive. They would be lonely and sad after he died, rose, and ascended, hungry for more miracles and teachings, and thus vulnerable to following someone else when the long, slow work of getting the church started began to drag on.
If someone walked in the door of our church or workplace today claiming to be the Messiah, we would not be in danger of believing them. But that is not how we are in danger of being lured in by false Messiahs.
Our false Messiahs today are things like weight-loss plans.
Self-help gurus like Oprah and Dr. Phil.
Credit cards and Black Friday sales.
Anti-aging creams and Monday Night Football.
None of these things is bad in and of themselves. In fact, many of them are good, especially Monday Night Football.
But we must remember that they are only to remain on the surface of our lives. When we find ourselves placing more energy and time and money and discipline into our exercise routine and reality show DVR list than we do our prayer life, we are falling into the trap of following a false Messiah.
The second danger Jesus warns of is the great external disasters like wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues. There may come a time when our town is hit by a tornado or a flood and we have to face these dangers literally, and some of us have friends or family serving the military who are daily exposed to the realities of war.
But for most of us, the earthquakes and hurricanes that uproot our lives are things like cancer.
Things like divorce.
Things like estranged family members.
Our lives come crashing down when our child dies in a car accident, when our parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, when we are laid off because of the bad economy.
Although the consequences for it may be different, the third danger we face is as real and present to us today as it was for Jesus’ first disciples.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends,” Jesus says, and who among us has not felt the backstabbing of a friend, being thrown under the bus by a co-worker, the infidelity of a spouse or partner?
The only pain worse than being betrayed is the knowledge that we have been the betrayer, and we have all done it.
Whether it was the impulse of an instant or the fruit of long years of resentment and bitterness, the shame and loss of betraying a loved one echo in the silence where a thriving relationship used to be.
These dangers that Jesus warns us of, false Messiahs, wars and earthquakes, and betrayal among friends, can destroy us if we continue to live life on the surface.
In order to survive them, we must be rooted deeper, built on the real and lasting foundation of Jesus Christ.
As Jesus looked around the Temple that day with his disciples admiring its strength and beauty, he knew it would be destroyed by the Romans in only a few short years. His disciples were going to face their own 9/11, made even harder by the fact that Jesus had ascended to heaven and they no longer had him physically with them.
He knew that he had to teach them to build their lives on something stronger that even the strongest stone and mortar, because all of the physical and external things that we build up to protect ourselves are really so vulnerable and fragile in the end.
We hope that our bank accounts and our cars and our jobs and our insurance policies will keep us safe from tragedy, but our health and our loved ones and our lives are not ours to protect.
We lack that power.
Instead Jesus promises that he will be the one to protect us, that not a hair of our heads will be harmed.
But Jesus’ way of protecting us may not be what we had in mind.
The things that we enjoy and love can and may be stripped away, and we demand to know why a loving God would not save us from illness and financial privation and the death of loved ones.
God never wills us to suffer.
It is not God’s will that we undergo the agonizing grief of the death of a child or the grinding pain of a chronic disease.
God does not test us with suffering to see if we are loyal enough.
The suffering that we undergo is a result of the external forces of evil and chance.
But God is always present with us in suffering, and God always provides the opportunity for us to grow spiritually in the midst of it.
Every war and famine and plague we undergo, those of mind, body, and spirit, is also a chance to root ourselves ever more deeply in Christ.
Sometimes in life we have nowhere else to go but the foot of the Cross, the only place we can find where someone is hurting as badly as we are.
But as we cling to the rough wood and look up into Jesus’ face, a small light of peace dawns within us knowing that he is there with us at every moment.
There is no darkness so deep or sin so heinous or pain so excruciating that he does not understand it and know it intimately, and when we are in those places, he will never, ever abandon us.
And Jesus Christ is the author and sustainer of our church community, our great solace in the here and now when we are besieged by life’s disasters. When one of us is going down for the third time under the weight of stress or grief or pain, another one of us is there to lean on, is there to keep the church moving forward, is there to point the way to the presence of God.
We are here for each other.
Instead of the bricks and mortar of this church being our strength, which we know like the stones of the ancient temple are all too vulnerable to age and crisis, we ourselves are the stones that build up this house of worship, living stones that support one another.
From the founding members with the deepest roots in this church to the members who just arrived last week for the first time, each individual here has a unique and vital contribution to make to this project that is our corner of the Kingdom of God.
The reason this church, our church, is a haven to us all in our own times of struggle and hardship, is because we call each other each day to remember that our foundation is Jesus Christ. We are built on the Rock of Salvation that can withstand any danger or threat or calamity that comes along.
And more than that, we are the delight of God because God sees the potential for service and worship and fellowship that vibrates through this church more with every passing week.
God speaks of us in our text from Isaiah today: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people.”
Answering the call to be rooted in Jesus Christ, let us build our church together in a way that is worthy of being God’s delight.