December 1, 2015

Wars and Rumors of Wars


Text: Hebrews 10:24-25: “...let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more  as you see the Day drawing near.”

The first Christians believed quite seriously that the end of time was coming, and coming soon. They were poor candidates for long-term life insurance or thirty-year mortgages. They spoke easily about a coming apocalypse. You could even say they were eagere for it. After all, they were mostly poor, mostly marginalized, and mostly powerless. For most of them, a cataclysmic end of time would have only been an improvement.

Their certainty about the imminence of the apocalypse was only strengthened by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the forces of the occupying powers of the Roman Empire, a little more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. In fact the text we now have as the Gospel of Mark, very likely the very first of the gospels, was probably written just after that violent event. Indeed one of the views held by scholars is that a primary reason the gospel authors began setting down their stories in written texts was exactly that the terrifying events surrounding the destruction of the holiest place known either to Jews or the first Christians created an urgency about the expectation that God’s judgment would surely and swiftly follow.

The Letter to the Hebrews, even though it comes after the gospels in your bible, was actually most likely written a few years before the Gospel of Mark. It was written as the tensions were rising, as relationships with Rome were breaking down, as the leaders of Jewish community were moving toward open rebellion, and as the tiny, vulnerable Christian community was simply trying to survive.

So the words of the Epistle we heard this morning were written to people living in terror of their lives. And this is what was written, and probably preached, to them:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

That is the attitude, these are the habits of the heart, that Christians are meant to live by in the midst of fear.

More than once we have had occasion to observe together how uncannily timely the readings on Sunday can be from time to time. The lectionary sets them down for us completely unaware of what news the world will surround us with on the Sundays we gather together. Always there is something to find in them; but sometimes we cannot help but feel that they are speaking directly to our circumstance.

Two months ago, when I drafted the first outline of this sermon, what I wanted to hold up for our consideration was the tension between the deep and visceral fear in which those first Christians lived day to day, the daily expectation of either terror from the Romans or the cataclysm of the end times, and the simultaneous discipline they were taught about supporting each other, caring about each other, looking after each other.

For them, these two things weren’t a contradiction to reconcile; on the contrary, one followed logically from the other. The God they confessed, whom they believed had redeemed them and saved them from the engulfing shadows of evil around them, was faithful. To be faithful disciples meant not giving in to despair, but keeping the covenant with God that God would surely and faithfully keep with them.

And at least part of what that meant was to regularly gather together, out of an acknowledgement that they could not do it alone. They could not keep pressing forward as disciples, the could not be brave enough to confess the faith of Jesus, they could not make their acts in the world the product of their faithful good intentions, unless they had each other. They needed the support of each other. And each one of them needed the accountability of the community to live up to.

Those words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews are not as simple and sweet as they might seem. For those first Christians, simply gathering together as a community of faith placed them in danger. The Jewish authorities regarded them as heretics, or, worse, blasphemers. The Romans regarded them as potential revolutionaries. Either way, their routine was great and overshadowing danger. They lived in constant fear, and they sensed that worse was coming.

•  •  •

We cannot help but hear the readings this morning through the noise of gunshots and grenade blasts in the streets of Paris on Friday night. It is not wrong that we should do so. We live in a time of wars and rumors of wars, and both of those things have seemed to gain a keener edge in the past forty-eight hours.

It’s too easy, and too easily misleading, to make a parallel between our situation and the circumstances of that tiny gathering of the first Christians in Jerusalem. But is not misleading to make a parallel between the condition of those first Christians in Jerusalem and the terrifying circumstances in which Christians in the Holy Land find themselves living, and dying, today.

And it is too easy, and just plain wrong, to compare the calamities they sensed were coming with the dread that we sense after events like the killings in Paris, the horrific scenes of bloodshed coming to us from Syria, the crimes of violence around the world being perversely claimed the name of a God all religions name the God of Peace.

But it is not wrong—indeed, it is urgently necessary—that we should hear with our own ears, and in our own circumstances, the words of instruction and guidance offered to that church long ago. Because the God they confessed is the God we confess; the covenant they knew is the covenant we have inherited; their baptism is our baptism; and the hope they had is the hope we hold.

We stand in dumbfounded horror as these attacks occur, and we feel powerless, and even frightened, at what they might portend. We confess the law of love and the redemptive power of Christ crucified, but all around us a cult of death seems to be gathering strength, and goodness is, as it always has been, fragile.

Too often, faced by these things, our dread tempts us to despair. But that, more than anything else, is evidence that the devil is still at work in the world—when good people of faith are drawn toward hopelessness. It has been said many times, but that does not make it any the less true; the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is despair.

What we are supposed to do in the face of this is the opposite of that temptation. We must never despair. Despairing people are isolated people. Despairing people are all too ready go chasing after false prophets.

So when we might be tempted to isolate ourselves, we must discipline ourselves to gather together.

When we might be tempted to hide in the back of our caves, we have to make occasions to gather in order to encourage each other, to provoke each other to acts of love and service and forgiveness and reconciliation.

When we might get swept up in the clamor of the next prophet, the next hero, the next politician, the next pop star who comes along to claim that they’re the one worth devoting our attention to, we need each other to remind us that our worship belongs only to God, because we belong to God.

The world will have no hope whatsoever unless it has our witness to the claim that God’s transforming love surpasses the power even of human hatred and violence. And we will never be able offer that witness effectively working alone. We can only do it by meeting together, encouraging each other, bring the best out of each other, against that approaching Day. Amen.