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Don't Get Ready

A sermon on Luke 21:5-19

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash.]

One of the delights of raising teenagers is when you start getting book recommendations from your children that you actually really enjoy reading (and not just because it’s a way to bond with your kid).

This week I got a text from my 15-year-old about a book he had checked out of the school library that he was absolutely loving and thought I would love as well.

The book is The Anthropocene Reviewed, by John Green (a title that is as adorably geeky as my eldest son), and it provides a vastly varied collection of “reviews” that look at topics of interest to human beings and then assesses not only the things under review, but the meanings that they have for the author… because it is our subjective interaction with any given thing that really measures its value in our lives.

Every day since Quinn sent me the text, he has read me one or more of these reviews that he finds thought-provoking or insightful. (This may have become my new favorite 10-minute activity).

I’m sharing this rather convoluted back-story because, on Thursday, Quinn read me the review for “Humanity’s Temporal Range,” by which John Green means humanity’s ability to understand ourselves as existing within time and history – looking back at what has come before… but also looking ahead to our potential end (not just as individuals, but as a species).

That awareness of a potential future end-point hangs in the air of every apocalyptic vision that has ever been voiced or written.

And that includes this vision from the final public teaching of Jesus reported in Luke’s gospel, before the events of Holy Week.

Jesus warns his followers that the Temple they find so impressive is only a temporary structure, and when they ask for a timeframe, he responds with the reminder that EVERYTHING is temporary: national borders, governments, the stability of the ground on which they stand… and their own safety.

As apocalyptic pronouncements go, it’s pretty standard fare. It hits the highpoints of military conflict, physical catastrophes, interpersonal betrayal, and personal peril. Nothing too out of the ordinary.

But it does raise the question of WHY Jesus decides to go apocalyptic in the first place.

John Green makes the argument that apocalyptic messages are ultimately a sales tool – the ultimate marketing maneuver. Claims of “only 3 items left” or “sale ending soon” are really just pale imitations of the driving sense of urgency under our temporal awareness.

As Green writes, “These commercial threats… are almost always fiction. But they’re effective, an echo of our apocalyptic visions: If we feel a sense of urgency about the human experiment, maybe we’ll actually get to work” (p. 16).

In other words, those who wield apocalyptic warnings are trying to leverage human instincts to take action in response to the threat.

And, I’ll admit, that’s the instinct that gets triggered for me when I read Luke 21! My urgent question in response to the catastrophic descriptions of what it coming is “so, what are we supposed to do to protect ourselves?!”

But when I actually examine Jesus’s words, it’s hard to miss how hard he is working to NOT answer that question.

He is raising the existential anxiety, to be sure, but all of his direct instructions in this warning are instructions about what NOT to do:

“Beware that you are NOT led astray” (vs. 8);

“Do NOT go after them” (vs. 8);

“Do NOT be terrified” (vs. 9);

And finally, “make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance.” (vs. 14)

This last prohibition is the one that really blows my mind.

I’m used to Jesus and God’s angelic messengers instructing people not to be afraid.

And – knowing that people are always scared anyway, and are usually desperate for someone who will make them feel “not afraid” – it makes sense to warn against false prophets who might capitalize on said fear.

But “don’t prepare” for the coming apocalypse? That just seems ridiculous!

So ridiculous, in fact, and I actually checked to see if this was a typo when I was reviewing the bulletin at the beginning of the week.

In my defense, it would be possible to change just one letter in the confounding phrase, and it not only works grammatically but makes the teaching so much more understandable:

Instead of instructing his followers, “Make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance.”

He could have said, “Make up your minds NOW to prepare your defense in advance.”

THAT would explain why Jesus is dropping all of these horrific warnings on his followers immediately before he is going to leave them… so that we can be prepared to carry on the work without him!

This is a pattern that my anxiety-coached brain can understand.

“I’m going to anticipate for you all of the awful stuff that could be coming so that you can start making your plans now. That way, when everything goes down, there won’t be any surprises, and you’ll know exactly what to do, and it won’t be as scary.”

Because, that would be fair, right?

If I sacrifice my peace-of-mind now to ruminate on future fears, and plan out contingency plans and defense strategies, there should be a pay-off, right? It should make things easier when the catastrophe comes.

Well… No. As my therapist sometimes has to remind me, that’s not actually how reality works.

Planning ahead for catastrophes does not actually make them less painful or frightening if they ever do arrive. It just steals joy in the good times.

So, maybe Jesus has a point in telling us, “Make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance.”

Obsessing about the trials and tribulations that might be coming in the future won’t actually help us.

But then, why does Jesus bring it up at all?

The comment from the disciples that elicits Jesus’s apocalyptic prediction is about the beautiful building where people come to worship God.

And even if Jesus DOES know (via divine omniscience) that in several decades the Temple will be destroyed by the Romans, he doesn’t HAVE to say that in this moment.

He COULD have gone in a totally different direction:

“You notice the beauty of the stones, but they should instead direct your attention to the beauty of God.”

Or, “the foundation of our faith is not built on massive stones, but on the steadfast love of the Lord.”


But no – Jesus chooses apocalypse.

He gets us super anxious about everything we think we can depend on falling apart… and then tells us NOT to do anything to prepare our defense.


Actually, I think there is a pretty clear answer to that question: Self-defense isn’t the work he is calling us to.

Just like the Temple is just the location for the truly important thing: the worship and knowledge of God;

So too the seemingly solid “knowns” of our lives (like nations, and solid ground, and food, and family relationships, and even the wholeness of our physical bodies) are just the location for the most essential thing: the development of the faith that will outlast all of the stuff in “humanity’s temporal range.”

Moreover, all of that seemingly essential, solid “stuff” is not actually what makes us safe, and so their destruction (whether through wars, or earthquakes, or famines, or betrayal, or persecution) cannot actually threaten us.

I think that is the meaning behind the confusing, consecutive predictions at the end of today’s reading that both, “They will put some of you to death,” and that, “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

It seems like an irreconcilable contradiction, but the promise of not “perishing” (in the original Greek)[1] isn’t about physical life. It’s a promise that no part of ourselves will be rendered useless, or permanently lost.

Physical life is not all there is, much less the stable, predictable life that feels so threatened in this text.

And if we really believe that, if we trust what Jesus is telling us under the surface of apocalyptic imagery, then it will change we way that we live now.

That kind of assurance, that kind of trust in the one who makes our preparation unnecessary because Jesus “will give us words and wisdom that none of our opponents will be able to withstand and contradict…”

That trust makes it possible actually to “not be terrified” – to not be yanked around by the insistent urgency that is constantly reaching out for us (whether from marketing campaigns, or the 24-hour new cycle, or the various apocalyptic voices in the world today).

Because we know it’s not on us to “prepare our defense in advance….”

Because we have a defender who is much more competent than we are: Jesus.

And he warns us about the instability of the things that we are tempted to put our faith in so that we won’t believe they are actually what we depend on.

And so that, when they fail us, it won’t be an apocalyptic crisis.

Jesus doesn’t hide the brokenness of the world from us. In fact, he makes a point of telling us just how bad it can get.

But he does so not to INCREASE our fear, but rather to rob the worst of its power over us.

By assuring us that we will never go through any crisis alone. He will always be there to defend us.

And, if this were a “review,” I’d give Jesus 5 out of 5… even when he’s talking apocalypse.

Thanks be to God.


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