Believe, strive, proclaim
One of the reasons that I like using a lectionary in studying the Bible is because it makes you look at Scripture that you might otherwise gloss over or try to avoid -- either because it's a hard text, or because it doesn't seem interesting.
Today's text, for me, is an example of one of those texts that makes you scratch you head and ask the Holy Spirit, (in the East Tennessee vernacular) "Do-what?"
A lot of people today doubt that hell exists. Friends and co-workers of mine balk at the idea that an "all-loving God" would "punish" people for their sins or wrong-belief.
"If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, he wouldn't send people to hell," they say, confidentialy folding their arms whilst closing their eyes and raising their chins. For them, the point is clear-cut.
The Bible though, especially here in today's text, seems to have something else in mind.
In Paul's day, too, people challenged the idea that God could be both Creator and Punisher. After all, if God created all of the people -- and supposedly loved them so much that he came to die for them -- wouldn't this God refrain from sending them to hell? Wouldn't have been easier, and more humane (a word, by the way, which always makes me laugh when applied to God -- humane? -- I don't want God to treat me humanely, I want God to love me divinely), to simply have not created those people?
In his letter, Paul picks up the simple response: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?"
Yikes. We've heard this response before, and it grates on all sorts of fun nerves that we, as fallen, sinful people, have exposed for all the world to see. It reminds us that we're not in control, it reminds us that, despite trying as hard as we can, we still don't know everything. It reminds us that we're subordinate to God -- and you know how much we hate remembering that sometimes (remember the Serpent's advice in the Garden? "You will not surely die -- you will be like the Most High").
This is the same sort of argument that God smacked Job down with in what many people consider the oldest book of the Bible (though, of course, the oral tradition found in the Torah is obviously much, much older).
Job, one of my favorite Biblical characters, was a righteous man who believed in God. He did his best to serve the Lord and love Him. Nonetheless, God allowed Satan to test job, in order that God would be glorified and Job's faith would increase. During the testing Job got, well, a little "testy."
When Job starts to whine to God, when earlier he had been faithful, God lays the "smackdown."
"Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind: 'Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements -- surely, you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? One what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?'"
When the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the Holy One whose "chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form," tells you to "gird up your loins," you'd better get ready -- it ain't gonna be pretty. God asks Job questions for two whole chapters. And then, He asks, "Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? ... Will you even put Me in the wrong? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?"
Job gets the picture. The Romans, it seems, didn't. And so Paul goes to work to set them -- and us -- straight.
Taking his cue from the Lord, Paul writes, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory -- including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"
Paul answers the argument that many make against a God whose authority actually means something, whose laws are actually enforced. Paul argues to the Romans, and to us, that God's patience is a demonstration of his great love for us. For surely, if He wanted to, God could force us to love him and save those that he picked and chose. Instead, to make known his glory, he created the nay-sayers and gave them a free choice to love him, as he has given to those who he knew would cling to him. God is a God of equal opportunity creation: everyone gets a chance to give God an "up or down vote."
After quoting examples of how God has used his power to entice and draw people to himself throughout his creation, Paul points out -- the way that the Lord did to Job -- that it is God's prorogative to set the conditions for salvation: "What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works."
According to human understanding, this wouldn't seem "fair." But God designed and created us, and he knows how we work. He knows -- and really, we can too, if we're honest with ourselves -- that human beings are unable, as Paul says, to "succeed in fulfilling [the] law," if we're simply doing it "based on works."
Instead, we must "strive for it on the basis of faith." Neither Jesus nor Paul ever said that we should just "eat, drink, and be merry," abandoning all pretenses of obedient living. Instead, Paul calls us to follow the example of the chief cornerstone: "They (the people who tried to fulfill the law on their own) have stumbled over the stumbling-stone, as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’"
Christ is our chief cornerstone -- but for those who try to live a "good life" on their own, Christ becomes the chief "stumbling-stone." For in our efforts to be obedient, we fail; Christ's obedience, then, belies any excuse that we might bring before God.
And so, it becomes our duty to "believe in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith."
• Matthew 24:1-14
Speaking of stones and cornerstones, isn't it funny to imagine the disciples running up to Jesus as they're walking out of the Temple and say, "Oooo, Jesus, look at these buildings. Aren't they pretty?"
In my mind's eye, I see Jesus smiling, sadly, and saying what he did: "You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
That probably wasn't the response that these particular disciples were looking for. Indeed, Jesus truly was a stumbling-stone for many people. He can't even admire the Temple's magnificent architecture! Instead, he has to go off and predict gloom and doom. It makes you wonder who the disciples were trying to put on a show for -- what did they want Jesus to say? Their attempt at subtle self-glorification -- after all, who's tithes and offerings made the glorious Temple, as enlarged by Herod, possible -- leads us to expect the second scene in today's Gospel lesson.
The disciples come back to Jesus, expecting like God did to Job, to rebuke the Lord over his negativity. "Tell us, when will this be?" They had been thinking about his words all day. They had missed an entire day's worth of Christ's teaching in order to worry about when the Temple would be dragged down.
Now I don't want to be too hard on the disciples. These were good men, who tried their best to be faithful, and who had been good Jews throughout their lives (generally, with several notable exceptions, like the author of today's lesson, Matthew the Tax Collector). They loved Yahweh, and they loved to worship Him in His Temple at Jerusalem. Hearing the Messiah prophesy the Temple's destruction would make you worry. But it is also a subtle reminder that the disciples -- and us -- tend to forget that God's kingdom is not stone and mortar on this earth.
If he wanted, God could speak and bring forth thousands of Temples much more costly and beautiful that Herod's. Arguing with Jesus about whether and when the Temple would come down is just like arguing with God over why he created people and then allows some to reject him. It's missing the point. The point about the Temple was the worship of God. And, if the disciples had consulted their Tanahk that they had lying around, they would have remembered that God does not need a Temple to be worshipped: indeed, Adam, Seth, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Zerrubbabel, Ezekiel, Esther, Daniel and many, many other faithful people served and worshipped God without the benefit of the Temple and its sacrificial system.
The problem, as Christ was subtly trying to show his disciples, is that we, humans, get so enthralled in the motions and traditions of worship, that we often fail to actually worship God. It is as Christ said already, "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him."
Jesus continues his admonitions, warning the disciples not to worry about the "how" of worship, but the "who." He tells them: "Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
Focusing on God is what matters, not "[being] ... alarmed" when we see people "saying, 'I am the Messiah!'" and hearing "rumours of wars." Our job as Christians, is to humbly abide in Jesus, "believ[ing] in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith."
Jesus doesn't promise us that believing and striving for Him are going to be rewarded on this Earth. He doesn't say that things will be easy. Even while he was on Earth, he warns his disciples: "[T]hey will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will stumble, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold."
It's a bleak picture that Christ paints. Even darker than imagining the Temple of God pulled down to the last stone. Of course, Christ doesn't leave us hanging. He doesn't send his disciples, or us, back down the Mount of Olives without hope. After all, he is in the business of changing lives through transforming love: "But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come."
The end will not come until "all the nations" have had a chance to hear and respond to what Jesus has done for each one of us. That's certainly "good news." But it's more than that. It's a marching order.
While we're "believ[ing] in him," "striv[ing] for [obedience] on the basis of faith," it's our job, as Christ also commands in the Great Commission, to "proclaim" "this good news of the kingdom" "throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations." If we truly mean what we say in the Lord's Pray, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we will take Christ's words to heart.
So let's get moving. "Believe in him," "strive for obedience on the basis of faith," and "proclaim" "this good news of the kingdom" "throughout the world."
Father in Heaven, we confess that we are quick to doubt, to question, and to place our opionions and understandings in the place of Yours. We give you glory, for only you could have laid the foundations of the earth; only you can wrap yourself in glory like a garment. Only you, O God, are all-knowing and all-loving. Help us, Lord, to believe in Jesus and to strive for obedience, not on the basis of our own strength, but on the basis of faith in the One whom you sent. Thank you for loving us, and thank you for promising to give each one of us a chance to respond to your redeeming, transforming love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.