Don't Be Terrified... Testify: Luke 21:1-19
26th Sunday after Pentecost: November 13 ,2016
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 up 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.”
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Our gospel text today is what is known in seminary as “apocalyptic literature.” You may not have heard that terms before, but you can probably guess at what it means: apocalyptic, from Apocalypse…that is, stories about the cataclysmic end of the world. Even if you didn’t make that word association, you probably had a thought or two during the gospel reading, along the lines of “Wow! That imagery is kind of intense!” Because – it is! Basically, Jesus says:
“This temple that represents your religious security is going be destroyed, but that’s not even close to the worst things that is going to happen. There are going to be wars, and earthquakes, and famines and general chaotic destruction, and BEFORE the world even gets to that level of crazy, your life is going to implode, and you are going to get arrested, and persecuted, and maybe even killed, and while that’s happening, even the people you think you can always trust are going to betray you.”
Just the kind of passage every preacher loves to preach on, right?
Actually, that’s not why this has been an incredibly hard sermon to write. I HAD a descent sermon nearly completed on Tuesday – and maybe someday I will get to preach that sermon, but it is not the right sermon for this Sunday. That is because, as Pastor Dale Selover told me two days ago …
“for the first time in (her) many years of ministry, an apocalyptic text feels really relevant to what the church is facing right now.”
Many of you know Dale, and those that do, know that she is made of Son-shine. She doesn’t have an over-exaggerated tendency to see the worst in a situation. What she does have, is an intense capacity to empathize with others’ fear and pain. And there has been a lot of fear and pain clouding the air since Tuesday night.
Now, I am very aware that just by saying that last sentence, I will have put some of you on the defensive. And that is why this sermon has been so hard to write. Because I LOVE you. And I will be failing in my calling if you leave here today feeling like your church is not a safe space for you; or thinking that your vicar somehow puts politics over the care of your soul. So, if this sermon makes you feel like that, I beg you to come and talk to me – because that is not what I am proclaiming.
I am preaching this sermon because this moment in our country, and in the Christian church, holds within it the kind of fear to which apocalyptic literature speaks – and at the same time it also threatens the kind of divisiveness that apocalyptic literature can feed if we don’t read it really carefully… if we read it to help us draw the lines that make us feel safer, and to tell us who the evil ones are.
But this passage, and this sermon, is about laying bare what it means for our allegiance to NOT be to our politics, whatever they might be, to NOT be to the lines we draw to make ourselves feel safe. This passage is about allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Because whether your candidate won or lost this past week – that candidate is not the one to whom you owe ultimate allegiance, and their platform is not the source of your salvation.
So, what does this gospel reading say about how to serve the Kingdom of God in the middle of this moment of intense national anxiety and division?
There are two pivotal phrases in this text which anchor the call of the gospel today.
First, “do not be terrified.”
I have already alluded to the fear in the air over the last couple of days, so I want to be really clear about what this does not mean. It does not mean “be without all fear.”
Now, “do not be afraid” is a phrase the shows up all over the scriptures – at times like the angel appearing to Mary, or like Jesus’s exhortation to his disciples “do not be afraid, little flock”- times when, for the most part, there is actually nothing to fear.
This moment is different. The catastrophes in the text are genuinely scary… and for many in our communities, so are the possibilities of the next 4 years.
The possibilities of families split by deportation;
The possibilities of loss of access to life-saving medical treatment;
The possibilities of marriages invalidated for LGBT couples;
And the reality that is already occurring of an increase in hate speech, harassment, and bullying of minorities, women, Muslims, and LGBT people.
Whether or not you think these fears will come to fruition, it is neither reasonable, nor compassionate to respond to people feeling these fears with a blithe “God is in control, so don’t worry.” That is NOT what “do not be terrified” means.
The Greek word translated as be terrified is only used three other times in scripture and it refers to a fear so great as to cause one to fall down, or to fly away. In other words, it refers to a fear that incapacitates one to act. Jesus is essentially saying, in the face of things that may be genuinely terrifying, don’t let your fear steal your strength. Because, you have a job to do…
Which brings us to the SECOND pivotal statement from today’s reading: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
This statement immediately follows the prediction that the people to whom he is talking will be arrested, persecuted, and handed over to the religious and civil authorities because of their faith, and it precedes the promises of betrayal by loved ones and even death.
This is no joke. Jesus isn’t talking about drumming up the courage to invite a non-Christian friend to church. He is talking about testifying to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom no matter what the cost. So, it might be hard for us to hear this as an opportunity, unless we hear the promise that follows:
“I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Here again I need to say what this is not. This promise is not one of public vindication. It is after this promise that Jesus says some of this followers will be killed, so he is not promising a wisdom that will win them justification in the eyes of the world.
Rather, this is the promise of God’s Spirit that will never leave us.
God’s Spirit IS wisdom, and God’s Spirit it is who intercedes for us when we have no words (Romans 8:26). The promise of words and wisdom is a promise of God’s Holy Spirit who will never abandon us – not when our world seems to be falling apart, not when friends or family reject us, not when our country is deeply, painfully, aggressively divided.
God’s Spirit with us is no small thing, but it is also not promised exclusively for our comfort. God’s Spirit will give us words and wisdom for our testimony.
So to what are we to testify?
We are to testify to Jesus, and to the Kingdom he proclaimed: The Kingdom defined by Love of God, and Love of Neighbor
None of us really knows what will happen in the coming months and years.
We don’t know what campaign promises will be pushed forward, and which will be left undone.
We don’t know how the American populous will negotiate its divisions and acrimony.
We don’t know whether voices of hatred, bigotry, homophobia, and all the rest will be empowered, or whether American values of freedom, equity, and justice will prevail.
What we do know, is that we are not called to serve a political agenda, but rather to serve the Kingdom of God.
We are called to face whatever comes without being paralyzed by fear,
recognizing that we are empowered and emboldened by the God’s own Spirit
to testify to Jesus’s message of love for our neighbors… all our neighbors… and to seek their good, no matter what it costs us.
Do not be terrified…. This is an opportunity to testify.
Thanks Be To God. AMEN.
 As of 11/12/16, the Southern Poverty Law Center had documented more than 200 separate incidents of such incident that were directly linked to the election.
 πτοέω, transliterated: ptoe'ō