Signs and Wonders

The gospel news we hear today is that no matter what horror, disappointment, or tragedy takes place in our life or in the life of the world, Jesus assures us that our bodies and souls will be preserved by God forever.

In the fall of 2001, I was a student at Appalachian State University. On the morning of September 11, I drove from the house I rented with some buddies to pick up a girl I was dating at the time to give her a ride to campus on my way to class. She came out to the car and sat down next to me, looked over and said, “Two planes just hit both towers of the World Trade Center in New York.”

I couldn’t immediately process what I had heard and I don’t remember anything about the car ride, but I do remember that the building where I was to meet my English class was sparse with people and that students and teachers were wondering through the halls in a daze.

Someone had set up TVs in some of the rooms and we gathered around in silence, watching the replay of the planes crashing into the tall silver buildings, the explosions of fire, the billow of smoke, and ultimately the collapse of glass and steel and debris.

If you’re old enough to have lived through it and to remember it, you know where you were when you heard the news. If you had family or friends in New York you held your breath and waited. I remember wondering what else might happen. I remember wondering if our entire country would collapse. I remember wondering how life would go on.

Collectively, as a nation, we all wondered these things without being able to put our feelings into words. Only later could we say that we were in crisis – on a national, social, and personal level. On every level.

I think for many people who lived through the event, it was the most scared we’ve ever been, because for people like us who live surrounded by illusions to the contrary, what we all saw on the TV that day was a sign that this world is temporary.

For the Hebrews in the first century, the destruction of the Temple, which we hear Jesus speak about in his “Little Apocalypse” from today’s gospel was 9-11.

The Temple and its home in Jerusalem were not only the national, social, and economic center of the world, but they were the religious, ecological, and cosmic center of existence. This was the one house for the One God who had chosen for himself one people, the Hebrews.

And for every Hebrew, the dream and driving desire, no matter how far away they lived from Jerusalem, no matter how poor they may have been, was to scrape together enough denarii out of the dust of their poverty to travel to the Holy City to see this enormous, beautiful structure imagined by King David, built by his son Solomon, and designated as the holiest place on the face of the earth where God himself resided, and to witness with her or his own eyes the first rays of the new day’s sun striking the gold covered stones and glinting off in a blaze of heavenly light from God.

The psalmist articulated in a song written for the people to sing in worship:

“One thing I ask the Lord and that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all they days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

This one thing desired above everything else was to worship in the temple and so when Jesus predicts that this Temple will be torn down, and that along with this crisis there will be wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues, but that before all this, his disciples will be arrested, persecuted, jailed, and betrayed, and some of them will be put to death, it’s hard to imagine worse news.

“But,” Jesus says, and this small word turns all this on its head. This small word changes everything. “But,” Jesus says, this will all serve as an opportunity for them to testify and witness to the hope they have in Jesus and his promise that not a hair of their heads will perish.

Clearly Jesus’ promise is a promise of ultimate things and eternal things. No matter what evil is present in this world now, God will redeem this whole world and all life, his whole creation, and the humankind God has made in his image and loves with a jealous heart will be healed and made whole.

God promises us that no matter what the testimony of the impeachment proceedings turns up, no matter who’s our president, no matter how many school shootings there may be, no matter what buildings or nations come tumbling down, God promises to preserve and protect us for eternity.

And yet, all these things around us are signs not only of the uncertainty with which we live but our absolute dependence on God.

What you and I need to know about these words from Jesus and the genre of Biblical apocalyptic literature in general is that they are aimed at giving comfort and assurance to people who are suffering more intensely than you and I will probably ever be able to imagine.

We live in privilege.

We throw away so much food we can’t imagine hunger.

We have so many clothes we have to think through where we’re going to store the seasonal clothes that won’t fit in our closet.

We’re so entertained by streaming content from Netflix to Disney plus that we might sometimes want to be cryogenically frozen like Walt himself and come back and live forever just to watch it all. We are privileged. But there is a kind of suffering on this earth that is so grave, news of the end of this world and God’s redemption comes as relief and salvation.

The first followers of Jesus lived under the constant threat of persecution – not someone seeing you pray in a restaurant and telling you not to do it publicly – but being thrown to the lions and burned at the stake and having your eyes gouged out by an empire that was willing to do anything to retain its power.

And in this period of persecution, against the odds, the church grew by leaps and bounds. In fact, the first Christians came to claim the adage: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

You see people outside of the church saw the first Christians go to the lions and the funeral pyre with confident hymns of praise to God on their lips and they had to know more. They had to find out what the story was behind this strange witness.

People had to know about this prophet Jesus, who not only was able to predict the destruction of the temple, but whose followers really were given words and wisdom in the moments of their suffering and trials and were able to speak of the hope of God in such a way, according to Luke’s follow up book the Acts of the Apostles, that thousands joined in a given afternoon.

This message of the cross, spoken by people persecuted in the same way as the One they pointed to touched lives, grew the church, and spread across the world, all the way to this very morning and to you and me, and through our congregation and congregations like it, it is spreading on and out and further still.

You may have noticed the pattern: Every other Sunday we say the Apostles Creed in worship as a sign of our faith. Most of us have most likely memorized these words that recall who God is and what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for the life of the world. And it could be that it becomes rote and that we could say the creed slipping in and out of being attentive to it.

This was more or less the case made by our speaker last month at the Virginia Synod Ministerium. All the Lutheran pastors serving in Virginia attend this conference in the fall in Virginia Beach each year and this year’s theme was on church vitality.

It is, of course, a timely topic, and our speaker had lots of helpful thoughts that I am still chewing on. For me, one particularly provocative thing he suggested is that we should never say the Apostles Creed in worship.

His take is that because the verb tenses in the creed are mostly in the past tense, we send the message to visitors and internalize the narrative ourselves that our Christian faith is something that is more tied to the past than what’s going on now.

We say we believe Jesus was conceived back then, was born, suffered, was crucified, died, was buried, rose, descended – all past tense verbs – and finally, we say, he is seated (a present tense verb), and will come again (a future tense verb)
And perhaps that is something to think about.

And I think there are ways the church could confess a creed that speaks of our conviction that God is still acting in many and various ways today:

We could use Luther’s explanation of the creed:

I believe God has made me and all his creatures. God has given me my body and still takes care of me. He also gives me clothing, richly and daily provides for me, defends me, and protects me, for this it is my duty: to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Or we could say:

We believe in God the Father from whom every family on earth comes and is named. And we believe in the Son of God, crucified and risen who lives in our hearts and fill us with his love. And we believe in God the Holy Spirit who strengthens us with power from on high.

But I will say that we ought to remember when we say the Apostles Creed that hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children have died for the content of faith expressed in these particular words and something special happens when God gives us the gift of faith and we express it on our still-warm and wet lips:

And that is that we are connected to the life and the witness and words and discipleship of those who carried this gospel to one possible logical conclusion that comes when you fix your eyes on a cross and the love that died there, and we are reminded that this possible logical conclusion of death for our faith is always a possibility; a possibility that we pray doesn’t come to us, but which we ask God for the strength to accept if it should.

Jesus promises that because he lives we won’t always suffer, and he promises that all this world that we can see and touch and taste is temporary and preparatory.

But while we are here, in the gift of this moment, we point to what is to come.

You are the signs and the wonders of God.

You are a living creed that tells of the faith God gives.

I see it when I go to the hospital to visit someone whose surgery has been postponed and two women of the church are already there with a prayer shawl, knitted with care and in prayer, to lay over their friend as a constant reminder of God’s promise that not a hair of our heads will perish.

I see it.

And you see it.

You see it when you see teenagers assemble Advent baskets for our shut-ins so that even though they may sometimes be plagued by the nagging feeling of loneliness that comes with having their mobility limited and being shut off from parts of the world, they can count down with us to the celebration of Christ’s coming in the manger and his promise to come again in glory to heal the whole creation.

You can see that.

You can see it in the hands that cut red and greed construction paper stars for our Christmas Giving Tree, in hands that assemble Thanksgiving Baskets, in hands the put cans on the shelves of our food pantry and hand them out to friends in the community, in hands that hold one another in prayer.

You can see it in the ones who are helping.

The Richmond Marathon was yesterday, which some of you ran in or watched. I don’t get involved in such things other than to be stuck in traffic. But you may have heard that about a month ago the world record was set for the fastest time in a marathon ever.

Eliud Kipchoge ran the 26+ miles in 1:59:60. Many say this is the greatest feat in running history and maybe the greatest feat in any athletics. No one thought this was possible! But the record won’t stand and it can’t count because he had help. He had a team of pacesetters, encouragers, and re-fuelers.

We do what we may think is possible. In a world of troubles and suffering, God enables us to witness together to Jesus. And it counts! It counts in the loves of those who hear the good news!

The cross is God’s testimony that he has not, does not, and will not desert us or cower and hide from the ongoing crisis, the falling of buildings, the destruction of natural forces, or the terror of war but that God stands firm with us and that he will preserve our bodies and souls forever, and by the endurance he gives us we can stand and sing and shout and serve and say and be his witnesses.

May God bless you with words and a witness.

May God bless us to be signs and wonders.

May God grant us endurance in our every effort.

And may the gospel news that not a hair of our heads will perish be our hope, now and forever.

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