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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 21:5-19
“No Preparation?”
November 17, 2013 - Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

         This past Valentine’s Day, the Canadian Parliament spent several minutes discussing Canada’s preparations for a zombie apocalypse. You can watch that discussion on a YouTube video. As many viewers commented, sometimes you just gotta love Canada.

         There was a real issue behind the joking. Canadian emergency management officials had actually planned to simulate a zombie apocalypse to create an impossible situation so emergency responders would have to come up with solutions to problems they hadn’t foreseen. But critics thought training for an attack of the living dead was silly and wasteful. So they cancelled the zombie apocalypse and created a simulated flood emergency instead.

         How do you simulate the Apocalypse with a capital “A?” Jesus’ disciples had a question something like that in mind near the beginning of our text for this Sunday. Jesus prompted their question with His announcement at the temple, that “all will be thrown down.”

         Collapsing buildings are often part of a natural disaster, whether it’s a flood, an earthquake, or a typhoon like the one which swept over the Philippines. We expect small, poorly built structures to fall under stresses they were never designed for. As we in America know all too well, it’s much more devastating to see a large magnificent public building come tumbling down. That’s what Jesus said would happen in Jerusalem.

         The temple in Jesus’ time was the product of a massive reconstruction project begun by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. After the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians 550 years earlier, the returning exiles had rebuilt it. But it was smaller and inferior to Solomon’s temple. Herod set out to correct that. He began work that continued for over 80 years. The disciples were admiring a project that was happening before their eyes, in their lifetimes. They saw massive stones at least forty feet long and 12 feet high and sixteen feet deep. You can still see some of those blocks at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. When the disciples viewed them, they were freshly cut and a beautiful white color.

         There were also all sorts of tapestries, gold and bronze doors, and gold ornaments decorating Herod’s temple. Overall the massive white stonework and the ornamentation made a gleaming, magnificent spectacle. No wonder the disciples admired it. But Jesus accurately predicted what no one imagined then. In just forty years it would all be torn down. The Romans would come in 70 A.D. to crush a Jewish rebellion, just seven years after the project was complete, and they would level that gorgeous building to the ground.

         So they asked the natural question in verse 7, “When?” and “what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Behind those questions is the thought that if they knew when it was coming, they could get ready for it, could be prepared. But Jesus’ reply in verse 8 takes them well beyond the Roman invasion. He wanted to warn them that trying to be prepared for that disaster was as silly as preparing for a zombie apocalypse. The real disaster, the real crisis was something bigger, more challenging, and even less predictable. “When is this world going to end?” is the larger question they might have asked.

         However, it’s not perfectly clear here just what time Jesus is talking about. You can find interpreters who will tell you that everything Jesus has to say in our text and on through verse 24 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century. It’s about events that are over and done with. That is pretty clearly true about what comes right after our text, where Jesus is obviously talking about the Roman devastation in verses 20 to 24.

         It’s less clear in the verses we read that it’s only about Jerusalem and the Romans. Those signs in verse 10 of nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, famines, plagues, portents and great signs in heaven, seem like an overkill description of what happened to the little region of Palestine in 70 A.D. and just before. Jesus is blending a warning about a disaster that is near with something bigger, a warning about being ready for disaster and persecution that will extend beyond that local situation.

         It’s plain when you skip down to verse 27 in this chapter that Jesus is also trying to prepare His disciples for the time of His return, both to ready them for the trials which will precede it and to help them hold to the hope and redemption He will bring. Some interpreters just want to split this chapter up. Verses 5 to 24 are about the destruction of Jerusalem, while verses 25 to 36 are about the Second Coming. But it’s more complicated than that.

         Our text mixes the two apocalypses, the little one caused by the Romans and the big one that will happen when Jesus returns. It mixes them to help us see that spiritual work and preparation for those times is for all the times in between as well. It’s not just in the first century and the end times that there are natural disasters calling for courage and compassion. It’s not just the Romans back then and the anti-Christ someday who will persecute followers of Jesus. It’s happened for all the centuries in between and it is still happening.

         Look at the first actual bit of preparedness advice that Jesus gives us in verse 8. “Beware 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.” Beware the imposters. Maybe more importantly for us in our time and place, beware those claiming to know the time is near.

         I’ll venture the opinion that Christians have actually done pretty well lately with that last bit. For the past fifty years we’ve suffered any number of well-meaning but misguided folks and would-be Bible scholars who’ve told us the end was just a few years away. If you’re as old as I, then you remember Hal Lindsey. If you’re younger you may remember or still come across all the “Left Behind” books and movies and hoopla. But overall, most Christians have done pretty well in disregarding all that, not going after those false predictions of Jesus coming soon. Not too many of us have given away all our possessions and gone out to stand on a hill looking up into the sky. I think Jesus is pleased about that.

         The imposters still crop up now and then. There’s an Australian and a Russian and a Korean and a Brazilian all making some sort of claim or letting their followers claim that they are the second coming of Christ. But most Christians are listening to the real Jesus and ignoring those fakes. I say, well done!

         Verse 9 has more difficult counsel, “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.” That’s a good word for every century, every decade. It’s more important for those times and places where war and conflict is completely present, for places like Syria and Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. But we all need to remember it when violence rises up around us. “Do not be terrified.”

         It’s easy to mistake our little local apocalypses for the big one, to focus in on the wars and strife which touch our own lives. Jesus invites us into the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world, into how His kingdom will ultimately come and triumph over all the little bickering and warring governments of this planet. In that picture, Christians have no need to be terrified. Our leader, our King will not lose. Christians will not lose.

         The same thing is true for not only military conflicts but for all the natural disasters which come to us. None of it, not an earthquake, not a hurricane, not a typhoon nor a flood is the real end of the world. God is still with His people, watching over them, protecting them, guiding our history toward its real goal, toward His kingdom.

         We also don’t need to be terrified of other collapses. If a war or an earthquake is not the end of the world, neither is the failure of an economy or a health care system. Such things are real disasters, but they are not the end of the world for Christians. They ought not to terrify us.

         Let’s also remember and apply that “do not be terrified,” to all Christians around the world, not just to our own relatively safe and comfortable existence here in the United States. Kay shared with you how we encourage poor and hungry Indian Christians with our prayers and aid. There are thousands of Christians in Philippines waiting to see their brothers and sisters in Jesus pouring out His care and love.

         Ultimately, though, Jesus confronts us with the deepest challenge that comes to us as believers in any time. It’s not war. It’s not natural disaster. It’s not lack of medical care. It’s plain old human sin and resistance to the truth and goodness of God. It’s the persecution of Christians that we prayed together about last week.

         Times are blended again in verse 12. Arrest and persecution, betrayal and prison, and trials before government officials was the experience of the disciples, of the Christians of the first century. But it has been a Christian experience ever since. It will be until Jesus comes back.

         Verse 13 tells us the purpose of the persecution, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” God uses the trials and struggles of His people to show the world the truth of Jesus. That’s how Christianity began and that is how it continues today in Iran and in China and in Africa and everywhere else that faith is challenged. Over and over Christian martyrs have suffered and in the process witnessed for Christ. That’s what “martyr” means, a witness.

         The strange thing is that in verse 14 Jesus tells us to go into those times of trial and testimony without preparing a defense. You would think the whole point of being warned about these things is to prepare for them. Now He says not to prepare.

         Beth and Trudy could tell you about some Christian students who seem to have taken this verse to heart when it comes to exams. They think the Holy Spirit will inspire them with the right answers on the spot. No need to study. But Jesus was talking about something completely different.

         Remember our reading from II Thessalonians 3. Paul has no patience with Christians who think they don’t need to work because Jesus is coming back soon. Jesus didn’t teach us not to prepare for disasters or not to study for exams or not to save for a rainy day. Paul pictures a Christian community where everyone is working together, working hard to prepare and help one another and contribute to those in need in hard times.

         No, Jesus told us here not to prepare a defense. When faced with opposition to our faith in Jesus, we’re not to worry about how to escape punishment. Don’t work out some careful legal strategy. Instead, trust God to speak the words He wants spoken. Verse 15 promises that without any preparation those who testify for Jesus in persecution will receive “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

         An official Roman transcript tells of the trial of twelve African Christians in 180 A.D. The governor tried to get them to convert back to Roman religion. Their spokesman Speratus gave him simple and powerful answers. When asked to swear by the deity of the emperor, Speratus said, “The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve that God, whom no man has seen… I have committed no theft; but if I have bought anything I pay the tax; because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.”

         The governor asked them to quit being Christians. One after the other they each refused, finally agreeing with Speratus who simply said, “I am a Christian.” Then the governor wanted to give them time to think it over, to consider. Speratus said, “In a matter so straightforward, there is no considering.” The governor opened a satchel where he found writings of Paul. Then he asked them again to take thirty days and think over their beliefs. And Speratus just said again “I am a Christian” and they all agreed with him.

         So the governor ordered their executions and the six martyrs all just said, “Thanks be to God.” No defense, no escape plan, no brilliant argument for why they should be set free. Just quiet, simple statement of their faith and acceptance of the consequences. And their testimony has remained to be read for 1,800 years.

         Jesus said it would be like that. Christians would testify, would be given powerful words to state their faith. But then verse 16, 17 say here that they would still be betrayed and put to death, that they would be hated by everyone. There is no way to prepare a defense for that kind of opposition. All one can do, all that our Christian friends in North Korea and Egypt and Nigeria can do is rely on God and what God gives them to say when the time comes.

         This is all too easy to talk about for you and me. I am not really prepared to say anything wise or good about these things. My life is too comfortable, my faith is too untested to really offer much here. But I can read and hear and see how God has been faithful to Christians who went unprepared into persecution, how He is still being faithful to Muslims who begin to believe in Jesus in spite of their families, and to Chinese young people who follow Christ regardless of the consequences for their careers.

         That’s why I can say, though I know nothing about it firsthand, that verses 18 and 19 are also true. At first they seem like a total contradiction. Jesus just said, “and they will put some of you to death.” How can He turn around and add, “But not a hair of your head will perish?” He can only mean what we were talking about last week, that there will be a resurrection. When all these evil times are past, when all the wars and disasters and persecutions are over, He will come and raise us up and we will live and walk again, with hair on our heads and the new earth we heard Isaiah talk about underneath us.

         There is no defense to prepare so that resurrection will happen. Despite science fiction and techno-babble, you cannot freeze your brain or your body and plan on being raised up again someday by some super technology. No, the only plan is verse 19, “By your endurance you will gain your soul.” We might say, “hold onto your soul.”

         Lots of our disaster preparedness and general forethought is about holding onto things. We don’t want to lose our homes or our jobs or our health. We plan and prepare and put so much energy into holding on to all those things. Jesus invites to the simple endurance of faith so that we hold onto our souls. So when the time comes those souls will be reunited with bodies and we will stand up together again in His kingdom.

         As we come in just a couple weeks to Advent, a time of preparation, consider what you are getting ready for. Is it defense of all the stuff of this world, which could be taken away in some unforeseen disaster? Is it guarding your own physical life, which likewise could go in an unexpected moment? Or are you preparing for that new day in our Lord’s kingdom by patiently living out your faith? How are you preparing?


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated November 17, 2013