Pentecost 25 November 14, 2010

Malachi 4:1-2a                                                                   

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13                                                    

Luke 21:5-19

In the news this week: gold hit an all-time high of fourteen hundred and something dollars an ounce. Actually, adjusted for inflation, it wasn’t an all-time high, but the fact remains that lots of people are apparently buying gold. People do that as a hedge against uncertainty, out of fear about what the future may bring: inflation, deflation, the fall of the dollar, the rise of China . . . whatever. Lots of uncertainty around us in the world today.

There’s biblical precedent for this flight to gold. In the Book of Exodus we learn that when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God and get the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel became anxious because he was gone so long. He’d led them out into the wilderness on this faith journey to some sort of promised land, but what if it didn’t work out? What if Moses abandoned them? What if this whole God of promise thing was an illusion? So they took all their jewelry and melted it down and made a golden calf to worship. A god they could get their hands around. A god who wouldn’t go away or ask them to journey on faith. Gold: the god of certainty. The Bible has another word for it: idolatry.

The readings we have today are all about uncertainty, anxiety, fear and flight to idolatry. We’re coming up on the end of the Christian Year, next Sunday when we celebrate Christ the King. In the voyage of liturgical time we’re coming to the edge of the known world, facing the future unknowns. In the gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples have at last reached Jerusalem, toward which they’ve been traveling all through Luke’s gospel. The disciples are excited and impressed by the temple there, the climax they think of their journey. What beautiful stones, what lovely adornments of gold and precious gems. Here is solidity, here is certainty, here is security. And Jesus says to them, “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.” He goes on to prophesy wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues; arrest and persecution, betrayal and death. There is no shelter in idolatry. Even the temple, symbol of the certainties of religion – even the temple will be pulled down.

“But,” Jesus concludes, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Faith, in other words, is not a matter of golden calves or great stone temples. It cannot be captured in gothic cathedrals, papal infallibility, inerrant Scriptures, a Book of Common Prayer, a beautiful worship space, a familiar pastor. Faith is about endurance, keeping on keeping on, searching, seeking, praying, trusting, hoping, loving. God goes before us on the faith journey. God will be with us in the uncertain future. By our endurance we will gain our souls.

As so often, St. Paul takes these grand truths and translates them into practical advice. Writing to the little community of Christians he’d founded in the Greek city of Thessalonika, he’s dealing with a situation the early Church faced in which everyone had expected Jesus to return to earth soon, but this wasn’t happening. This was a great crisis for the believers. The expectation of an immanent return had been a sort of idol: a way of bringing certainty about the future. But here the idol had let them down, as idols inevitably do.

So what Paul says is, everyone go about your business. Work hard, don’t be lazy, earn your own living, lead orderly lives, don’t become tired of doing good. I’m reminded about what a great man of prayer, Michael Ramsay, the one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury once said: the Christian life is a journey where we keep our eyes on the horizon but our feet on the ground. We need both: the faith and vision part, and the attention to order and duty and hard work part.

As the flight to gold testifies, we live in a time of enormous global uncertainty. Many of us also face great personal uncertainty: maybe financial, maybe about our health, maybe marital and family stresses and trials. One way of reading the recent election results is to see them as a reaction to these uncertainties. Candidates promise simple solutions – a form of idolatry. Voters panic. But the problems don’t go away. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai he brought not an idol, a certainty, an easy way out. He brought the Ten Commandments, guidelines for faithful living together without idolatry in relationship with a living God.

The original hearers of Luke’s gospel would have known that the temple in Jerusalem was in fact torn down in 70 C.E. by the Romans. But Luke reminded them that Jesus had referred to himself as the new temple, a temple that could also be put to death by the Romans but which would be raised again by God. Jesus became the temple of a new faith, our faith: always dying, always rising, always moving into a future that belongs to God, calling us to journey with him in faith and hope and love.

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