The Rev. Preston B. Hannibal
As so often is the case, our readings this morning give us a brief glimpse into the life and ministry of Jesus. Sunday after Sunday the Gospel readings create a tableau of our Lord’s world. For us it is very easy to accept the stories without looking into what makes them so important for us to remember and learn what they have to teach us. These weekly word pictures of the life of Jesus and his friends should also raise the important questions of our faith.
For me there is one fundamental question that I keep wrestling with: Why did those closest to Jesus, his disciples, leave behind all that they possessed to follow him on a three-year odyssey, yet never seemed really to understand him or what he was saying? Today’s Gospel reading seems to me to continue that pattern. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and is teaching in the precincts of the Temple. Our Gospel this morning begins with some of the disciples commenting on the splendor and beauty of the Temple. For them it must have been something akin to the “Wow” moment that often occurs when anyone walks into a magnificent space.
This Cathedral gets plenty of “wow” moments everyday. But as striking as that first Temple experience must have been for the disciples, it came in a distant second to what had preceded it. The portion of Scripture that is not a part of this morning’s reading comes from the first four verses of Luke 21. As the disciples of Jesus are experiencing the sights and sounds of the Temple, our Lord looks around past the splendor of the space and concentrates on the comings and goings of the people as they stop to pray and give thanks. He sees the folk as they drop their spare change into the collection receptacles. As he watches, his eyes fix on a poor widow who drops her few cents into the box. I imagine that in such a cavernous place the sound of the copper coins dropping was distinctly different from the sound of heavy coins of those who had money to spare. Jesus looks, listens, and compares the scenes unfolding before him.
To me, this little story at the beginning of Luke 21 is less a commentary on wealth and more a commentary of perspective and devotion. The widow came to the Temple, not for its grandeur but to do what she was called to do: worship God.
Now to be fair, she may have had her “wow” moment when she first entered, but she never lost her perspective. She was there to worship and give back to God in thanksgiving for all that God had provided her. I imagine that is what Jesus saw and what the disciples missed. Quite often the simple acts of devotion that surround us daily are overlooked or ignored as we are seduced by the quest for the spectacular that seems ever present in our society.
As we pick up the story in today’s reading we hear some of the disciples talking about the beauty of the Temple and the adornments given to the glory of God. We weren’t there, but I imagine that the disciples were going on and on about how grand everything was. Jesus’ comment about the people, particularly the poor widow, seems to have been forgotten almost instantly as the magnificence of the Temple held their attention.
Again, those closest to Jesus seemed not to get it! For some reason they did not understand the importance of the selfless act of the poor widow. They seemed to have lost the perspective of their mission and ministry as they succumbed to the majesty of the place. Jesus’ words had little meaning for them so he brought them back to reality. “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.”
Jesus’ sobering talk of desolation and destruction must have brought his disciples back to their reality, but how are we to understand the words and wisdom of Jesus? As I have read and prayed about this passage over and over this week I have been drawn, not to the apocalyptic tone of the passage, but rather to the reassuring words of our Lord: “Do not be led astray; many will come and say, ‘I am he.’ Don’t listen! Don’t follow them!”
So the questions remain the same: How do I follow God? How I do I listen for God’s call in my life and know that it is the real thing? How do I make the decision of faith when the world calls me to a different choice?
We all wrestle with these questions and we all struggle with the choices we make. Yet the one thing that all Christians have in common is change. Some people might call it transformation; the exact words are not nearly so important as what the words represent. I truly believe that it matters not one iota to God if we are born again Christians or the cradle variety. The only thing that really matters to God is the notion that with the realization of Christ in our lives, we change.
It can be the sudden life-changing experience of God as with Saul of Tarsus, becoming Paul, the apostle of Christ, after his religious experience on the Damascus Road. Or it can be the equally valid, almost imperceptible yet ever-present reality of God in one’s life that always seems to make the difference. In the final analysis, the method of our encounter with God is of little importance. What is important, however, is what we do after we recognize the sustained and sustaining presence of God in our lives. And there we can learn directly from all those saints, past and present, who gave themselves willingly, totally to the will of God and purpose of Christ in their lives.
We can learn from the widow in the Temple who gave without reservation to thank God for all that she had received. It wasn’t much by our standards, but that is what made her gift so powerful. It was what she had. But the reality is that most of us do not have the passion or dedication of the poor widow. Most of us do not have the zeal of the saints we encounter daily, and we fail to notice them or what they do. The simple acts of kindness that we take so much for granted, and let others carry out, are going on all around us. It is easy to pass by the homeless or the hungry in our midst and think that there are nameless agencies to take care of them, so I don’t have to. That’s what my taxes are for! So I don’t stop, and I don’t often send a donation. I seem always to have an excuse.
Most of us see ourselves as respectable New Testament Christians trying to live Godly lives in the midst of the chaos that seems to be ever engulfing the world. We try to follow the example of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament. What more must we do? With all that is asked of us in our day-to-day lives, how can we take the time needed to dedicate ourselves to the service of God? How do we challenge a society that pays lip service to the God we worship? How do we challenge and support each other as we attempt to remain faithful to our Lord’s promise of salvation? How do we “stand firm and keep from being led astray”?
Weekly I talk with or read about people who say that they believe in God but don’t have time for religion or anything like that. These I fear are the silent majority who dismisses the Almighty until needed and then expect God immediately and almost magically to transform any number of personal or national calamities into personal or national triumphs.
When our assumptions and preconceived notions as to the nature of God fail to materialize we are hurt and offended that we as a sophisticated and respectable people would be silly enough actually to believe in something so irrational and finitely unbelievable as the reality of the triune God in our lives. It is at times like these that each and every one of us turns away from God and fails to confront our own apostasy, our own turning away from God. This turning away from God is not so much a loss of faith as it is the calling into question of our ability to worship and to proclaim the truth of God’s saving grace in all aspects of our lives. For want of a better term, we might call it the loss of the discipline of faith, that is, the discipline to focus on our duty as Christians to God and to those around us.
We seek the safety of a truth that is concrete in our reality. Yet our quest for respectability, for being respectable Christians does not lie in our concrete reality, nor does it lie in our ability to mouth the proper Christian platitudes, or to fool ourselves into believing that we are actually leading a Christian lifestyle. The discipline of faith that God calls us to, and Jesus shows us how to live, leads to a new awareness of God’s grace and mercy as the working principal of redemption in our lives as well as in the depths of a world in despair. As Christians, our response to the chaos that has engulfed our cities, this nation, and the world is the response of those who with prophetic zeal and stubborn determination proclaim and then work for the justice and righteousness of God to be an actuality in the lives of all people.
George Adam Smith once wrote, “The great causes of God and humanity are not defeated by the hot assaults of the devil, but by the slow, crushing, glacier like masses of thousands and thousands of indifferent nobodies. God’s causes are never destroyed by being blown up, but by being sat upon.” (The Book of the Twelve Prophets, ii, 1899, pg. 54). Most of us are not guilty of unbelief or apostasy. But we are guilty of being led astray. The assumptions that we have made and continue to make about our lives cause us in no way to be overwhelmed by belief. All of us at one time or another fail to keep the promises we have made to God and to each other. From daily prayer or Bible reading to our exercise routine it is much too easy to say God and God’s ways are much too obtuse for me. Give me the concrete reality of the world I see before me and let me make my own choices. But just like the disciples in the Temple with Jesus, we miss the meaning of faithfulness and devotion as we focus on the glitz and glamour of the transitory life that is so seductive.
The assumptions we make and the community that we find ourselves part of often dictates the preconceptions we have in regard to what it is to be called by God. We must guard against the tendency of our society to reduce all things to the lowest common denominator, our God included. Thinking that our individual contributions make little difference allows us to live in the illusion that we may remain faithful Christians without having to really put forth much effort. If we are truly honest with ourselves, and with our God, we must admit that our involvement in the world does affect what happens in our lives. We cannot separate ourselves from God’s love or from God’s creation. To understand that basic fact is to understand that our Lord’s involvement in the world, and in our lives, is not limited to our finite reality. Or the dictates of finite convention.
Today many people say that they accept the tenants of the Christian community because those tenants can be applied to any number of religious traditions and they are comfortable with such syncretism. They accept Christianity but they are not able to accept a Christian way of life. They see Jesus as a good, honorable man, maybe even a prophet. But to say he is the Son of God seems to get stuck somewhere between their beliefs and common sense. But it is equally true that common sense is not all that it is cracked up to be. Throughout the sordid history of our world people of faith have lived lives dedicated to continuing God’s creation for the benefit of all people. Yet we always seem to hear of the wars and rumors of wars in the name of some demagogue chosen to represent falsely the God of all creation.
In the final analysis, to link Christian respectability to the idiosyncratic norms of society is to be subject to the ebb and flow of societal expedience. It is to lose sight of the transcendence of God’s plan of salvation and our part in that plan. And it is to forsake that which is eternal for the purely finite: to work tirelessly for the involvement and understanding of all God’s humanity; to strive for union with the mind of Christ; and to acknowledge a full dependency on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is to accept a Christian way of life and a respectable way of living.
The third act of Graham Greene’s play, The Potting Shed, speaks to the issue of God in our lives as well as the assurance of God’s grace and mercy in a way that is very much different than what we might call our common experience. As the play winds down to its ultimate end we find two of the main characters pondering the life changing events that have caused such an uproar in their family. These events have pitted sibling against sibling, atheist against agnostic, seeker against stoic. One of the characters, James, asks, “Is everyone who believes in a God mad?”
His former wife, Sarah, responds, “Of course not. I suppose I believe in him—in a way—on Sundays if the music is good. But, James, I don’t know what I think.“
James responds, “I don’t understand either. But I couldn’t believe in a God so simple I could understand him.”
“Something happened to me, that’s all. Like a street accident. I don’t want God. I don’t love God, but God is there—it’s no good pretending—he’s in my lungs like air.”
James goes on to ask, “God is conditioned, isn’t he? If he’s all-powerful, he can’t weaken. If he knows everything, he can’t forget; if he’s love, he can’t hate. Perhaps if someone asks with enough love God has to give” (The Potting Shed, Act 3).
God calls each of us in a unique way. In the final analysis, accepting God’s call involves not only conversion but also commitment.
It is responding to God. Responding to God’s presence in and purpose for our lives.
It is not relegating God simply to this hour on Sunday morning.
It is being open to God’s direction and guidance in our home life, in our work place, in our leisure time.
It is listening to God and then acting in a manner consistent with what we confess as our faith.
To accept the God of our salvation in our lives is to say, “I believe in God,” and mean it, and then attempt to live life in a manner consistent with that sacred affirmation. It is only in our acceptance of God’s call to each of us that we gain the power to overcome the world and live with the confidence and trust in God that is our promise of salvation.
Jesus said, “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.”
Let us pray:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
love stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death;
victory is ours through him who loves us. (Desmond Tutu)