“Not A Stone Will Be Left On Stone”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 14, 2015
Daniel 12:1-3 & Mark 13:1-8
I sat down last night after dinner, as I do every Saturday night, to make final tweaks and edits to today’s sermon. It was a strange week for me this past week because by the end of the day Thursday, the sermon was done. That never happens. I try, but something always comes up that grabs my attention. This was one of those rare weeks where I was blessed with quiet time to put my thoughts together for today. I had been studying the Scripture lessons all week, and I was going to begin today by talking about apocalyptic literature as a genre that dots the pages of the Bible. I was going to talk with you about how Christians have interpreted these passages over the centuries, how they have come to terms with Biblical material that on one hand can be scary, and on the other hand, comforting. I was going to invite you to consider how we approach these kinds of texts—do we read them literally? Do we read them as metaphors? Are they predictions or allegories or fiction? Could they be the wild rantings of strange first-century religious folk? What meaning can we take away from apocalyptic texts, texts of the Bible that literally ‘uncover’ the coming reign of God.
So I sat down last night after dinner to polish the manuscript of the work I had been doing all week, and I sat there staring at the computer screen, feeling completely unresponsive. And the reason is simple: no finely prepared Biblical scholarship, no innovative way to read ancient texts, no creative wordplay or illustrative anecdote can come close to touching the heartbreak and pain and tragedy that has touched the world in the past few days. All the work I did last week was fine and good, but in the end I highlighted every word on the page and hit the delete button. Today we don’t need to hear about history or theology or cute stories: we need to hear the good news of the Gospel. We don’t need to debate politics or assign blame or huddle in the corner until the storm passes over: we need to join our voices together in song and prayer in a move that tells evil to go back to where it belongs. We need to search our hearts and minds, confess our sins, and hear that God’s forgiveness and grace covers all and makes everything new. We need to be in the company of one another, in the company of saints in the great cloud of witnesses that is all around. This is what we need today.
When I read the news alert on Friday of what had happened in Paris, I didn’t think much of it. That in and of it self speaks volumes about how the prevalence of violence in the world quickly makes us ambivalent toward it. Then that night I dug through the news cycle and Paris was not the only broken place on the globe—bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, claimed the lives of over 200 people; an explosion was set off at a funeral in Baghdad, killing several; refugees from Syria are being turned away in droves, simply for seeking shelter from terrorism; and, here in the civilized United States, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram blew up this week because a pastor with a loud voice declared that Starbucks is trying to take Christ out of Christmas because their Christmas coffee cups this year are just plain red. And that is just this week, in just the past few days. It is beyond overwhelming to try to take in just how many things are out of whack in the world, how many things are broken, overcome by darkness, in desperate need of God’s saving hand. I can understand and sympathize with people who choose lives of solitude and withdrawal; a life without television or news, a life without any view of the outside world, is a whole lot easier.
So what is the good news of the Gospel waiting to be heard today? What can we hold on to today and take with us as we step out of these sacred walls and in to a complex world?
The first piece of good news from the Gospel is that the way things are right now is not the way they should be. That sounds simple and almost trite, but think about this with me for a minute.
Every generation of the human family has lived in a world not as it should be, but how it is. We can see this in our ancestors of faith, starting with Adam and Eve. The world as it should be was shattered for them when both thought they new better than God; the result of their rebellion and disobedience was a life outside of Eden, pained by the labors of childbirth and soil that would not yield. The world as it should be was not what Abraham and Sarah experienced. Sarah was barren and Abraham had no land, no place to call home, no children to carry the family legacy. Moses and the Israelites lived in bondage in Egypt—definitely not how the world should be. Ruth and Naomi were refugees from a land that had no food—definitely not how the world should be. Jesus and the disciples came toe to toe with religious and civil authorities over and over again because of church and state methods of gaining wealth and prominence on the backs of the poor—definitely not how the world should be. The early church faced persecution at the hands of Rome; the Church called for the Crusades and the heads of countless non-Christians; WWI and WWII forced the world into rethinking empire and pluralism and evil; wars, famines, genocides, refugee crises—definitely not how the world should be.
This is how the world is, how it has been, and perhaps how it will be long after we are gone. And yet, this is the world in which the human family, the arts and sciences and wisdom, and faith in God, has flourished; it is in this world that God continues to dig in with divine hands to work goodness and transformation. Every generation has had to face its own Paris, its own 9/11, its own World War, and it is easy to imagine that our generation’s trials will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It looks like the world right now is on the point of breaking. But God is still God and until the world is as it should be, God is not going anywhere. Until the world is as it should be, God doesn’t want us going anywhere either.
Our faith and the Scriptures teach us that every person who came before us has struggled, been injured, and suffered pain at the hands of their times. Our faith and the Scriptures also teach us that the God of creation desires something radically different and is willing to do the work required to bring about that radical difference. Abraham and Sarah were given children and a family that numbered more than the stars of the sky. Moses and Israelites marched on dry ground to the Promised Land. Ruth and Naomi were fed and sheltered by the godly and generous Boaz. The early church was given the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire it and keep it alive during persecution. God raised up leaders and pastors and thinkers that moved humanity through the scourges of war at the start of the 20th century, and today the call is still on the church, on us, to keep kneading goodness into daily life so the world can be as it should be.
It seems that one Christian soul, one church, one nation is hardly enough to do anything about the mess we’re in. But we have a God on our side who came face to face with the ultimate manifestation of evil and walked out of an empty tomb in triumph. This means that each one of us, you and me and so many others, have the power to bring about change. The power of God that was given to us in baptism and sealed by the Holy Spirit. We have power in prayer to storm the throne of God and remain there relentlessly until God hears and answers. We have the power in corporate worship to fight off the temptations of isolation and partisanship, because here we are all equal, all human, all valued in God’s sight. We have the power in our small acts of service to reverse what keeps so many people down: hunger, homelessness, insufficient education, lack of hope. We have power in our daily living to witness to Christ by how we live, how we speak, how we do business, how we model the kingdom of God in the something as small as doing the laundry. One Christian soul, one church, one nation with this power, with God and God’s power, can bring about a world that is as it should be. This is the good news of the Gospel.
Another piece of good news from the Gospel is that Jesus is still in power and will never abandon his people to the power of evil.
The final words of our Savior in the gospel of Matthew be ascending into heaven are these: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. We hear in these words the most precious truth of our faith: the One we worship is not distant or uninterested, but close and deeply interested in the life of the world. This Jesus who we acknowledge as Lord and Savior not only came and lived among us, he is still living and among us today. We just have to open our eyes to see him.
I saw him yesterday when the sun came up on Paris and Beirut and Baghdad, the same sun that came up on Oklahoma and blessed us with a beautiful day. I saw him this week in the little Presbyterian church up the road Tonkawa. I made a triennial visit to their pastor and Session—on most Sundays there are about 15 people in the pews, but the total impact of their congregation, in way or another, reaches every person in their community. I saw Jesus this week working in our young people, forging relationships between generations that will last a lifetime. I saw Jesus this week in the good work of the Junior Welfare League, in how hard they worked to turn this church into their cookbook market to benefit many important causes in our community. I saw Jesus yesterday as Katie and I read through the cards we received on our wedding day, and in the pictures from that day that now hang on the walls of our home. I saw Jesus, I see Jesus, and he is still in power, he has not left us or abandoned us. This is the good news of the Gospel.
And so closely linked to this is the most profoundly good news of the Gospel: there is hope, and there is plenty to go around. The hope of all Christians is born from the promise of Jesus that one day he will return to the earth and set everything that is wrong right.
“Do you see these great buildings?’ Jesus asks the disciples while pointing to the temple in Jerusalem. “Not a stone will be left on stone…all will be thrown down.” At first this is scary, more than a little similar to what we see happening on the news each night. But for Jesus and his followers, this was a message of hope. It was a message of hope because the Jerusalem temple, the place Jesus points to when he says these things, was the epitome of corrupt and dangerous religion. To Jesus and his followers, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was the first step in resurrecting something good and pure and holy. Remember last week how Jesus put the mighty widow and the temple authorities in contrast with each other? The widow represented all that is good and right with religion, the temple authorities everything but. When the temple is destroyed, so too will be the wickedness of sectarian, extreme religion and how it dismantles the unity and sacredness of those it claims to serve. Not a stone will be left on stone when Jesus returns and this is good; with a clean slate, God can build something wonderful. From this death, resurrection springs forth.
We don’t know when it will happen, how it will happen, or what the absolute result will be. All we have is the promise that it will happen and it will bring about a unimaginable restoration to us and all creation. Until that time, we must cling to hope. We must cling to the hope that the trials and the sufferings of the world are not ignored by God, but felt deeply within God’s own heart. We must cling to hope that even in the darkest and most painful of times, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. We must cling to the hope that if God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, God will do the same for us who are worth so much more than birds and flowers. We must cling to the hope that the scarred hands and feet of Christ are still flooding the world with forgiveness and grace for every sin and failure. We must cling to the hope that in every death there is the potential for resurrection, that in order for some things to spring up, some things must pass away. We must cling to this hope because what the world needs, what we need, is not more extremism, not more hatred, not more isolation, not more violence, and certainly not more fear of those we don’t know. The world needs hope. We need hope. And we have it, and there is plenty to go around.
Mr. Rogers wrote once, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in the world.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, as numbing and terrifying as the events of our world may be, hear the good news today that they will never have the last word. Where there is tragedy, there will be helpers. Where there is evil, there will be justice. Where there is pain, there will be healing. Where there is hunger and thirst, there will be satisfaction. Where there is hatred, there will be love. Where there is violence, there will be peace. Where there is corruption and deception, all will be made clear. Where there is hopelessness, hope will grow. Where there is darkness, the light will shine even brighter. This is the good news of our faith, the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Be changed by this good news today, be comforted by it. And take it with you into the world and be the messengers of God’s peace that you are called to be. Amen.