The podcast of An Opportunity To Testify, based on Luke 21:5-19, is the sermon I preached last Sunday, November 18, 2007. The scripture is from the revised common lectionary Year C. The text of the sermon is here.
An Opportunity To Testify
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that 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.
9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words* and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Our Fascination with the Future
Jesus is in the Temple during this time, probably from the opening of chapter 20 in the gospel of Luke. In the first part of this chapter (21:1-4), Jesus is watching people — rich people — put their money in the collection vessels in the Temple. These collection vessels were 13 chests shaped like inverted trumpets where rich and poor, male and female deposited their offerings as they came for Temple worship and ceremony. This is the occasion for the story of the widow’ mite — the poor widow who put in two small copper coins. Jesus said that she put in more than all of the rich people because they gave out of their abundance, but she gave all she had to live on.
That’s the scene in the Temple in Jerusalem as Jesus and the disciples and others were standing and watching all the activity in the Temple compound. But to get an idea of the splendor of the Temple, you need to walk with me away from the Court of the Women the smallest eastern court. We will walk down a bank of 22 marble steps, down into the Court of the Gentiles. If we look back over our shoulders as we leave the Court of the Women, we will read the signs that warn non-Jews not to venture any further into the Temple or face death. They were serious about preserving the ceremonial purity of the Temple building.
As we descend into the Court of the Gentiles, we have our choice of gates from which we can exit. We cross through the Royal Porch with its 4-rows deep of pure white marble Corinthian columns, each 40′ feet tall — 162 columns in all in this porch alone. We come to Solomon’s Colonade, the eastern porch, and we head for the gate, which is really a massive entrance. We choose the eastern gate, the gate that faces the rising sun. This is the gate through which the Messiah will come when he comes to save Israel. This gate is called Beautiful and it is just that. Plates of solid gold face the eastern gate, so that when the sun rises in the east, the light of the sun is brilliantly reflected back into the Kidron Valley below, making it appear that the sun is rising in the west at the same time. Travelers approaching Jerusalem see the Temple from a distance and mistake it for a snow-covered mountain, it is so dazzlingly bright and massive.
It is this Temple Jesus and the disciples are standing in. This temple built by Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet king who began the restoration and expansion of the Temple in 19 AD, and would not live to see it’s completion in 64 AD. Six years after the magnificent structure is finished, with its tons of gold, its massive entrances, its wide porticos, and its immense cost, the Temple will be torn down to its foundations by the legions of Rome. No stone left standing, sacked of sacred treasure and leveled to the ground. Today all that is left of Herod’s Temple is the western retaining wall, known as the Wailing Wall. As precious as the Wailing Wall is, the Temple was a thousand times more glorious.
To get some idea of the magnitude of loss, it would be as if the United States Capitol were completely destroyed, leaving only the retaining wall around the base. Or if the White House were leveled to the ground, leaving only the foundation. The loss of the Temple was incalculable, and the thought of its loss was unspeakable in the first century.
So, in verse 6 when Jesus says, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” — those who hear Jesus press in around him in horror and ask, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ They wanted to know what the future will hold.
Our curious concern is not much different now. The popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, with over 10-million sold is 21st century evidence that we are as concerned and as curious about what the future will hold as those in Jesus’ day. If you can remember our horror at the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, and the deaths of over 3,000 of our fellow citizens, you can imagine the concern for the future of first century Jerusalem.
What We Can Know About The Future
The destruction of the Temple, in Jewish thought, would herald the beginning of the end. Jews in the first century understood time in two eras — this age and the age to come. Many then felt, as many do today, that this age is hopelessly bad and unredeemable. God is surely going to destroy this world, they thought. That destruction will usher in the age to come or what we would now call the Kingdom of God. But, in between this age and the age to come, was the day of the Lord. Jews understood the day of the Lord to be a time of judgment, of refining through fire, of purification of this world. Non-Jews, those not God’s people would be judged and destroyed. Unrighteous Jews would be judged and punished; only righteous Jews would survive this terrible appearing of God.
In that context, Jesus tells those gathered around him what they can know about the future.
- Other voices will call to us. Jesus warned them that these other voices would be bold in claiming authority for themselves, saying “I am here” and “the time is now.” Jesus said, don’t go after them.
- Conflict will sweep the globe. Wars and rumors of wars is how Jesus puts it. Nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom. The end is not yet.
- Natural disasters will overtake us. Earthquakes, famine, plague, signs and portents in the heavens — all of these things will indicate something eschatological is taking place. The combination of all these events will signify God at work.
- God is not in the Temple, God is present in Jesus. Jesus also mentions in another gospel that the Temple will be destroyed and in 3-days he will rebuild it. An incredible claim considering that the Temple he and the disciples are looking at isn’t finished and this is now 24-years after Herod has begun his expansive renovation.
Sounds very modern, very today, doesn’t it. It only takes a casual observer to see that global crises, and the competing voices of pluralisitic, post-Christendom socieity are swirling around us today. But before you quit your job, sell everything you have, and move to a mountain top to await the coming of the Lord, keep listening.
Before The End Comes, The Opportunity to Witness
Verse 12 is very important — ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.’
So it’s not just false prophets, war, and disaster. We the followers of Jesus will be persecuted. Now this is the part not many books are written about. This is not the attractive part of the day of the Lord. This is not what we want to hear and it was certainly not what Jesus’ followers wanted to hear either. That’s why the disciples were in keeping a low profile in a room in Jerusalem before Pentecost.
Luke who wrote this gospel also wrote the book of Acts. Luke opens Acts chapter 4 with the account of Peter and John’s arrest. And so it begins. Christians arrested, persecuted, handed over to religious leaders, brought before kings and governors. Jesus goes on to say that we will be betrayed by relatives, friends, parents and siblings, and some will be put to death.
Oh, wait. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, ridiculed, tried by religious leaders, brought before the governor. Killed by the government of Rome. So now the term “follower of Jesus” takes on new meaning. We are following him — through persecution, accusation, ridicule, and death.
But, then Jesus says something very odd, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
To what are we testifying? The apostles in the book of Acts would testify to what they had seen. John, in I John1 says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”
The New Testament Greek word for witness — one who testifies — is martys. It is the same word from which we get the English word, martyr. So, a witness is someone who tells what he or she knows. A witness for Christ is someone who tells what he or she knows about Christ even if it means their life. And for many it did. The martyrs of the early church were those who refused to worship the emperor, or renounce Jesus, or give up their faith. And so they died because of what they had seen and told.
But then Jesus says something really strange —
“So make up your minds NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
We are not on our own in the face of persecution. Jesus is still with us. And he gives us words-and-wisdom so overwhelming that no rebuttal is possible. Which doesn’t mean they won’t kill us, but it does mean that they will do so knowing the truth. Knowing the irrefutable truth of God. Acting out their hate, their arrogance, their own will in spite of knowing and hearing and seeing the truth of God standing before them. But they did that to Jesus, too. And Pilate could only ask Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate knew he was face-to-face with the truth. Pilate knew that what he heard was true. Pilate realized that Jesus was not a criminal. Pilate had the opportunity to embrace the truth, to respond to Jesus, to love God. But in the face of overwhelming words-and-wisdom, Pilate could only resort to a weak question, “What is truth?”
But here is our assurance. Jesus says not a hair of your head will perish. Now usually we think that phrase means a person will survive, live, come through. But Jesus has just said that many will be put to death. So what does he mean here? Well verse 19 holds the clue — “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Not your lives as some translations have it, but your souls. In other words, you will die to this life, but you will not perish in the life to come.
Which to us is not much comfort. Our lives are lives of ease. Our faith costs us nothing. But to millions of followers of Jesus, this promise has real meaning. It had great meaning to those a few years later under the persecution of the Emperor Domitian. John writes about them in Revelation. Listen to Revelation the seventh chapter —
1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3″Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
Then verse 9 continues —
9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
— Revelation 7, NIV
The future, whatever it holds, will be our opportunity to testify. To be a witness to what our eyes have seen, our ears have heard, and our hands have touched — that we proclaim.
In the ancient Celtic Christian world, there were three types of martyrs. Because Christianity came to Ireland without bloodshed there were no red martyrs — those who gave their lives for Christ — at least initially. The Irish Christians designated other acts as acts of witness or martyrdom. The green martyrs were those who gave up friends, family, and their community to live in the hills or caves as hermits. The white martyrs were those who left friends, family, community, and their country, setting sail in tiny boats called coracles. Sailing into the white morning light, these martyrs left everything familiar for their witness. St. Columba, who founded the abbey at Iona, was a white martyr. Later, the red martyrs would also be added to the list, as those who gave their very lives for the cause of Christ.
Our Witness Now
Jesus said the events of the future will be our opportunity to testify. But what about now? What about here? What do we have to tell or need to tell? And are we so dependent upon the presence of Christ in our lives that we are confident that Jesus himself will give us the words-and-wisdom that cannot be refuted.
We, like the martyrs of the first century Roman empire of whom John writes in Revelation, have something to tell that is at odds with this world and its system. That is why many will hate us, persecute us, arrest us, ridicule us, turn against us, and even kill us. There are systems of power and greed and corruption and consumerism in this world that are at odds with the world to come — the kingdom of God. While it is not our intention to create enemies, cause conflict, arouse suspicion, or incite reaction, simply by living Kingdom lives — following Jesus — we will do so. We will not have to wait for the future, because the future is now. Before all the signs of the eschatological work of God, Jesus said we would face persecution. If we’re not facing it now, we might want to examine how much of our lives are lived in contrast to this world and in harmony with the world to come.
Three Stories Of Witness
Our opportunity to witness now lies in the way we align ourselves with the values and actions of the age to come — the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And living kingdom values is often in direct opposition to the values of this world.
John Wesley prayed that when he died, he would die penniless and he did. Wesley could have accumulated a vast amount of money as the Methodist movement spread. Just on his writing alone, Wesley could have made a fortune even by our standards today. But Wesley’s values were not of this age, but of the age to come.
The story is told that John Wesley had a meager amount of money one day and used it to buy a couple of small paintings to brighten up the room in which he lived. Later that day, Wesley encountered a woman who needed food and, realizing that he had spent the only cash he had on decoration, he vowed never to do that again. When I told Debbie this story, she said, “He should have bought more art.” So, obviously everyone is not called to live the spartan existence of John Wesley. But Wesley was living Kingdom values as he understood them, rejecting the call of consumerism that existed even in the 1700s.
The second story reminds us that living by kingdom values now often places us at odds with the rest of society. White pastors like Paul Turner who supported the rights of African-Americans during the civil rights movement were often fired, ridiculed, or both. Turner believed that all people, regardless of race, were God’s children. And so he took the hands of little black children and walked with them into the school building in Clinton, Tennessee. Then, after moving to Nashville, did the same thing as pastor of Brookhollow Baptist Church. For that Paul Turner was beaten, ridiculed, harassed, belittled, and criticized. Kingdom values stir up both passionate support and violent opposition. This is the kind of persecution that Jesus was speaking of. This is living the values of the age to come, not of this present age.
Taking the cause of the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized is often difficult but always God’s work. Until Rick Warren, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, submitted to an HIV test, the whole subject of HIV-AIDS was not on the agenda of the evangelical church. Warren has been criticized, not by the world, but by fellow Christians for coming to the aid of those with AIDS. This is the kind of ridicule is that of which Jesus spoke.
The third story brings this conflict between this age and the age to come even closer. It’s a story about bananas. Chiquita, the banana people, entered a guilty plea in federal court in September to paying right-wing paramilitary groups in Columbia for “protection” of their banana plantations. Chiquita was fined $25-million by the Justice Department, for this illegal act. While Chiquita was paying the paramilitaries, over 4,000 people in that region of Columbia were killed, and 173 deaths were directly attributed to the AUC, the group Chiquita gave over $1-million to. USA Today reported Chiquita’s guilty plea, and you can visit the Chiquita website where they acknowledge their misdeeds and fine.
I wrote an article about this, and a friend of mine replied,
We’re being hit from all sides. Shocking injustice lives in my sock drawer and in the crisper in the fridge. Who’d have thunk it? My old value was frugality – finding a good price. Now I’m having to embrace a new value – seeking to use my money in ways that foster justice.
But isn’t it cool that so many people are getting this all at the same time.
So, at our house, at least for a while, we’re buying brands other than Chiquita. These stories are examples of this age versus the age to come.
So, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we do go looking for places where Jesus is at work. And we join him there. In the process, we find ourselves with Christ — in ridicule, in persecution, in criticism, and in death. But, this is our opportunity to witness to the work of God in this world, and it comes with a price and a reward.
I just posted my sermon for this Sunday, November 18, 2007 — An Opportunity To Testify, based on Luke 21:5-19. This is a first draft, as I am running late this week, so check back later on Friday for some revisions. Have a great Sunday!
Friday, Nov 18 — Made some minor revisions, but still a work in progress. Any thoughts?