One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, “All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.” They asked him, “Teacher, when is this going to happen? What clue will we get that it’s about to take place?” He said, “Watch out for the doomsday deceivers. Many leaders are going to show up with forged identities claiming, ‘I’m the One,’ or, ‘The end is near.’ Don’t fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.”
He went on, “Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge
earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You’ll think at times that the very sky is falling. “But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, hunt you down, and drag you to court and jail. It will go from bad to worse, dog-eat-dog, everyone at your throat because you carry my name. You’ll end up on the witness stand, called to testify. Make up your mind right now not to worry about it. I’ll give you the words and wisdom that will reduce all your accusers to stammers and stutters.
“You’ll even be turned in by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. Some of you will be killed. There’s no telling who will hate you because of me. Even so, every detail of your body and soul—even the hairs of your head!—is in my care; nothing of you will be lost. Staying with it—that’s what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry; you’ll be saved."
If the definition of the gospel is a scripture reading or artwork or song or conversation that shows us the character of God and how God meets us in our very human need, it is very difficult to see this passage as gospel. By narrower definition, it is in Luke- one of the four gospels, the others being Matthew, Mark, and John- but everything in the gospel writings is not necessarily good news. When the gospel according to Luke and its companion, Acts, are written around 85 A.D./C.E., the temple has been destroyed by Rome and Jesus's followers are scattered, not only around Jerusalem, but also truly into Judea, Samaria, and across the world.
So Luke is writing about Jesus predicting a thing that his readers have already experienced. Did you get that? Luke is writing about Jesus predicting a thing that his readers have already experienced. It was probably hard to hear then and it's hard to hear now. Wars. Rumors of wars. Destruction. Violence. Division in families. Hunger. Poverty. Imprisonment.
The hardest thing for me to hear is actually this:
"So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance" Luke 21:14 (NRSV)
Make up your mind not to prepare your defense in advance? What does that mean? The passage goes on to say that the words will be provided to you. This is some consolation, but not much when it notes that the followers of Christ are likely to be imprisoned anyway... if they're not killed outright. (Keep in mind that when Luke is writing, Peter and Paul have already been killed.)
I rarely ever do deeper Greek word study beyond reading the scripture, but I went in further for this word. Do not prepare in advance. It turns out that in a more strict translation, the verse would read "So make up your minds not to premeditate to defend yourselves."
Premeditation is a word that has different connotations and connections... time thinking. Possibly time worrying. Time planning. Time getting things in order. Time spent rehearsing.
In the long run, when the realities of this passage come, they will not be things for which any of the disciples had rehearsed. There will not have been a drill. There will not have been cards in the seat back pocket. There will be no note cards, no tele-prompters, no practice sessions.
That's pretty much how this week felt for me. I did not have any practice in beforehand in going down to Mad Myrna's on election night because I was called to listen to grieving and fearful LGBTQ people and their allies.
I did not have any practice in consoling a friend who felt outside in her evangelical church and wasn't sure where she belonged.
I didn't rehearse what to say when someone mean-spiritedly asked me what Jesus has to do with an election.
I did not prepare for what it would mean to listen to many stories of fear, pain, and exhaustion.
I did not get ready to wake up at 3 am for four days in a row to talk to people who were stressed, afraid, or confused.
Since I didn't prepare for all those things, you can bet that I didn't have a lot of time to premeditate what to say to you, to us, a congregation that espouses and practices a deep welcome and inclusion, but is very divided politically.
What happens when you are not prepared?
If you don't prepare for a race, you get blisters, muscle tears, deep physical pain, and discouraged.
If you don't prepare for a diet, it is easy to cheat, to lose track, to be hard on yourself for failing and you get discouraged.
If you don't prepare for a test at school, it is easy to miss answers, feel overwhelmed, fall behind, and feel discouraged.
If you don't prepare for weather events, it is easy to run out of staples, to be disconnected, to be scared and discouraged.
If you aren't prepared for death, it is to be overwhelmed, terrified, and discouraged.
If you are not prepared to talk about what your faith means to you in election years and non-election years, in the stores and at work, with your family and your friends, in letters, emails, and texts, when it's scary and when there is no pressure... if you are not prepared to talk about your faith, you can be silent when it matters, you may not see critical connections between faithfulness and living, you may get discouraged.
Jesus warns against premeditation because thinking about what you would say if you were arrested for your faith takes away from your time and energy to actually be doing the thing that might get you arrested.
The way of following Jesus Christ is a way of doing, then believing. Doing always comes first. We baptize first. We feed first. We welcome first. We house first. We listen first. We clothe first. We visit first. We heal first. We hold first. In our doing- even when we are discouraged, we come to a better, deeper, broader understanding of who Christ is because we have been imitating him in our actions first. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the Father. If we have imitated Christ, we have imitated God.
In this imitation, in this doing, we cannot help but come to a different understanding of welcome, inclusion, grace, and mercy. Imitating Christ, imitating the Father, being led by the Holy Spirit in that imitation... that will shape our belief. It will shape how we see the world and what we will say about it. The words we have to describe our fellow human beings, the realities of land and water, the powers and principalities... these words will be shaped by what we have learned in imitating Christ, in being Christian in our deeds first.
The truth, the gospel truth, is that we cannot prepare for what it means to be on trial or persecuted for our faith. And, let's be real, most of us have not experienced that before. We are not afraid of being here in a church. Even if discouraged, we are not afraid of wearing cross necklaces or having a Christmas tree in our window or praying in a restaurant or making the sign of the cross when an ambulance goes by. We have not premeditated a defense for those actions because they come naturally to us and because if we were asked, we would reply, "It is because I follow Jesus."
The reality of today's reading and this week's events and the nature of the world is that standing up for injustice, speaking out against hatred, calling out racist or anti-Semitic or anti-LGBTQ words or actions, fighting for the marginalized- be they poor or addicted or underemployed or uninsured or unhoused or of uncertain immigration status, standing with neighbors of all religions and no religion... all of these things must become as smooth in our way of being imitators of Christ, as connected to "It is because I follow Jesus", as knowing the words to Amazing Grace, being able to finish the sentence "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall [not want]", or folding your hands for prayer.
We practice for persecution by doing the right thing when it is safe. Then our muscles get ready. Our faithfulness becomes rooted in our whole heart and mind and body, regardless of our emotional reactions to any event. And no one is waiting on us to get our defense right... through premeditation... because we have put the doing first, where it belongs in the life of faith.
The temple fell. King Herod had even decorated it with golden eagles- Roman symbols- to make nice with the occupying force, but occupying forces don't care about niceties when they want to destroy and cow the people of the land. We know from the book of Acts the kinds of persecutions that the followers and imitators of Christ faced, but they persevered. And how do we know that?
Because we are here. We are a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit in them and through them. Not their buildings. Very few of their letters. Not their words. But we are a testament to their deeds- to their sharing of their resources, healing the sick, remembering the marginalized, inclusion of racial and sexual minorities (see Acts 8), feeding and housing one another and visitors, and daring to speak the truth to power. The church of Christ remains today because of that work and nothing else. They didn't take time to premeditate a defense. They went to work.
And we... we who have received grace in Christ Jesus, we who are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we who have eaten at this table- once or a thousand times, we who have the written word in our own language, we who are united by faith, hope, and love, we who wish to imitate Christ and to be on his side... we can do no less. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we don't premeditate our defense... we get to work.