This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Luke 21:5-19.
It’s all falling apart, isn’t it? You know, our world, our nation. Our community. Our church. Even our bodies. It’s all falling apart. Of course, Jesus said it would.
Jesus stood outside the temple, the majestic, magnificent temple that was known throughout the ancient world as an architectural marvel. You see this beautiful temple, he said? Not one stone will be left upon another.
About forty years later, the temple fell. Destroyed by the Romans in response to an insurrection.
Jesus said that was coming too. There will be wars, he said. And insurrections. There will be earthquakes, and famines, and plagues. People will be arrested and betrayed and put to death. All these things happened in the first century, and indeed they have continued to happen, in every century. There is astonishing suffering in every generation. The Middle Ages had the Black Death, which killed two-thirds of the population of Europe. The nineteenth century had the US Civil War, one of the bloodiest wars in history, a war between brothers. The twentieth century was defined by two world wars, and a third Cold War, which had children learning how to duck and cover in school to protect them from a nuclear bomb that everyone expected would come eventually. And our young century began with the crashing of airplanes into buildings, and continues with an endless series of mass shootings, and of increasing anger and hatred between political parties, leading some people to wonder if the second Civil War is on the horizon.
It’s not new to think that everything’s falling apart. It’s fallen apart before. And it will again. Everything falls. Everything ends. Everything dies. One day, this building will crumble. One day, this congregation will cease to exist. One day, our nation will fall. One day, I will die. And so will you.
I wonder if that’s what you came here today to hear. Perhaps you came here to hear that things are actually good. Or perhaps you came here as an escape from all that. Or perhaps you came here looking for hope. Or perhaps, I don’t know why you came here today. Maybe you don’t either. But it probably wasn’t to hear about how bad things are. But it’s true. Things are bad. Things are falling apart. And not for the first time. And Jesus said this would happen.
So what good is Jesus? What good is coming to church? Here’s what’s good. Jesus also said, “Do not be terrified.”
“Do not be terrified.” Did you ever notice that whenever an angel appears in the Bible, the first thing that angel says is, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, because the message I bring for you is good news. And that’s exactly what Jesus does here. He says, “Do not be afraid.” I have good news.
The first bit of good news is this: Not a hair of your head will perish. No matter what happens to you, Jesus says, you will not be destroyed. You will not be defeated. You will not be abandoned. Now that does not mean that you won’t suffer. It does not mean that you won’t die. Living and dying the way we think of them are not signs of God’s favor or displeasure. Suffering is not something God gives us, either for punishment or for teaching. Bad things do not happen for a reason. Suffering just happens. And not always to those who deserve it. And if you are fortunate enough to avoid suffering, it’s not because God loves you more than others. The rain falls on the good and the wicked alike. Suffering just is.
But not a hair of your head will perish. What does that mean? It means that you are so much stronger than you think you are. It means that you are so much more alive than you think you are. It means that you have the power of God within you, which enables you to endure everything, everything, everything. And if you think I’m crazy for saying this, well, to be honest, I do too. I think I’m crazy for saying this! I can’t endure everything. I’m not strong. I’m not powerful. I’m a mess.
But Christ is not a mess. And Christ lives within me. And Christ lives within you. And that is where all strength comes from. All of it. Not a hair on your head will perish. Yes, the literal hairs on your literal head will perish, certainly. But not where it counts. Because where it counts, there is Christ.
That’s the good news. And so is this. Jesus said: In this midst of this suffering, you will be given an opportunity to testify. That’s right. Right in that moment when things seem darkest, right in that moment when people say to you, “Where is your God now?” Right in that moment when you might wonder the same thing. Might wonder, “Why is this happening to me?” Right in that very moment, that is the opportunity to testify to God’s faithfulness, to God’s love, to God’s grace. Sounds impossible, but do you know the story of Thomas Dorsey? Not Tommy Dorsey the big-band leader, but Thomas Dorsey, the African-American gospel singer.
Dorsey was born in Georgia in 1899, the son of a Baptist minister and a church organist. He grew up singing gospel music, and eventually became a composer, influenced by many blues and jazz artists. In 1932, he and his wife Nettie were living in Chicago and expecting their first child. Dorsey was invited to sing at a revival meeting in St. Louis, and while he was there, a telegram arrived that said, “Your wife just died.” He hurried home, and found she had died in childbirth, and that night his newborn son had also died. He was stricken by the most painful grief. Dorsey later wrote this:
[Days later, I was] alone in a room with a piano. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard or played before, and words came into my head – they just seemed to fall in place.
These were the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me standThomas A. Dorsey, 1938
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Jesus said, “You will have the opportunity to testify, and I will give you words and wisdom.” I don’t know how Christ does this. But he does. He did it for Thomas Dorsey. He also did it for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” right after his son died in the Civil War. That poem has since become a Christmas carol sung best, I think, by Harry Belafonte. And it’s not just creative geniuses. Christ did it for me. Sometimes I wonder how I’m even still alive. Right in the midst of the darkest depressions I’ve been in, not only have I somehow endured, but I have somehow spoken and written words of faith and hope. And Christ does it for you.
Jesus said that there would be suffering. He wasn’t promising that; I don’t think he was happy about it. He just knew how the world works; he was telling the truth. But he promised, he promised, that not a hair of your head would perish. You will endure, because of him. And by your endurance you will gain your souls. That is the good news. And it is so good.