Two gas company servicemen, a senior training supervisor and a young trainee, were out checking meters in a suburban neighborhood. They parked their truck at the end of the alley and worked their way to the other end. At the last house a woman looking out her kitchen window watched the two men as they checked her gas meter.

After they finished checking the meter, the senior supervisor challenged his younger co-worker to a foot race down the alley back to the truck to prove that an older guy could outrun a younger one.  As they came running up to the truck, they realized the lady from that last house was huffing and puffing right behind them. They stopped and asked her what was wrong.
Gasping for breath, she replied, “When I see two gas men running as hard as you two were, I figured I’d better run too!”

This little story and the passage we heard from Luke 21:5-19 are examples of the old adage that things are not always what they seem to be. When the disciples saw Herod’s temple, they saw its external beauty, but they failed to see what really behind it-spiritual bankruptcy, hypocrisy, oppression, rejection of Christ and the Gospel, and Christ’s impending death at the hands of the religious authorities.

That’s why Jesus warned the disciples to beware of the false teachers who would come and proclaim that they were the promised Messiah. He knew that just like the temple’s beauty hid its ugly secrets, the false teachers with their appearances, methods and teachings would hide their true motives. False teachers exist in our society today. This can best be explained with another story. It is a comedy routine that I heard several years ago. In this routine, comedian Steve Martin is doing his imitation of a preacher. Part of the routine goes like this:

“The other day I talked to God, and he promised me that he would not talk to any other TV preachers. So if you hear any of those other TV preachers saying that they talked to God, do not send them the $1.50 for their polyester prayer handkerchief”

It is somewhat ironic though that on the Vision TV channel here in Canada you can actually see on Sunday afternoon an evangelist who actually DOES send people a Prosperity Prayer handkerchief. He claims that he personally blesses each handkerchief, and that if you call and ask for one of these handkerchiefs, you will be blessed financially, health-wise, etc. This particular evangelist along with other evangelists such as Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen promotes what is known as the Prosperity Gospel. It is the belief that God intends his followers to prosper in a materialistic way. Instead of talking about mansions in heaven, they talk about mansions here on earth. They do not tell their followers that Christ expects them to take up their cross and follow him, and their religion bears little resemblance to Jesus and his teachings, especially his teachings about being persecuted for following him.

Not all false prophets are religious. Some of them promote get-rich-quick schemes and preach a gospel of stocks, bonds and real estate. Some of you might have heard of the Bernie Madoff saga. He was the mastermind of a scheme that defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of schemers out there, especially schemers who will prey on the elderly and the less fortunate in society.

Jesus does not promise us a rose garden here on earth. In fact, he makes it quite clear to us and his disciples that people will hate them and persecute them. He doesn’t tell the disciples that they will escape pain, and he doesn’t tell us that either. He promises that the persecutions that his followers will face will give them opportunities to witness to the Gospel.

Those who do Christ’s work in the world can expect to face persecution. For example, in the Third World Christians regularly face imprisonment, threats, harassment, beatings and even death for their faith. We here in the developed world do not face these extremes, but we still face the prospect of rejection, job loss or discrimination for our faith. Thankfully, in the times of trial, we can turn to God for strength, hope and support. He will give us the strength to face adversity and persecution. He will tell us what to do, say and even think, just like he promised the disciples that he will tell them what to do, say and think.

For example, Peter and John will be arrested and use the occasion to witness to the council. This is mentioned in Acts 4:1-22. The council will be amazed at their testimony and will order them not to speak of Jesus further, but fear of the people will keep them from meting out more severe punishment. Stephen will preach a long and powerful sermon to the council in Acts 7, and it will lead to his martyrdom. Paul and Silas will be arrested and flogged, but they will sing songs of praise in prison. An earthquake will free them, but they will stay in their cells and eventually convert the jailer and his family. When the authorities try to release them, they will assert their Roman citizenship and protest their wrongful arrest, forcing the authorities to apologize. This is mentioned in Acts 16:16-40.

When Rome destroyed the temple in 70 AD, the Jews were scattered to the four winds. They were without a homeland until the United Nations created the state of Israel in 1947. They survived and grew stronger and more resilient-just like they did during persecutions such as the Holocaust. They survived because Yahweh/God gave them strength. They were forced to take responsibility for worship wherever they happened to be. We are the same. When faced with adversity, we have a choice. We can let it beat us, or we can beat it. God will give us the strength to beat it, and in the process, we will become stronger and better Christians because of our experience.

Some of you might have heard of an actress named Renee Russo. She is one of the most glamorous women in Hollywood and has acted in movies with stars such as Kevin Costner, John Travolta and Mel Gibson. These things are external signs of success, but for years she did not feel successful on the inside. After she dropped out of school in her teens, she was discovered by an agent and moved to New York to model. She thought that getting jobs and recognition would make her happy, but they didn’t. They were not enough. Her low self-esteem made her feel like no amount of success was enough. She kept thinking that business success or people around her could fill the void and make her happy, but nothing did.

So she dropped out of the business and began taking classes in theology. For four years she studied theology, and slowly she began to realize that her lack of self-esteem was caused by a lack of faith. She had been going through life without any purpose, no reason for doing the things she did. She was not aware of her gifts, and she had no set goals for her life. As she learned more about faith, she understood that every life has a purpose, and that every person has something special to contribute. Now that she has a new outlook on life, she is much better able to handle her success. She is now married and the mother of a young daughter. All these things might have been out of her reach if she had never taken the time to learn about her faith.

Renee Russo was fortunate to discover that her feelings of misery and insecurity could be used in a positive way to help her find God. That is true of every experience in life. There is a meaning to life. There is a purpose. Even more importantly, behind life there is a divine intelligence that can help us turn negatives into positives, tragedies into triumphs, heartaches into hallelujahs.

Luke’s Gospel reading is one that fundamentalist, Bible-thumping preachers would love because it speaks of the “hell, fire and brimstone” that will occur before Christ returns. Are we in the end times today? Maybe yes, maybe no. Although Christ mentions the signs of his return, and many of these signs are around us today, many of these signs also appeared in the past.

We often want to know what the future looks like. That’s why some people resort to seeing false prophets or teachers such as psychics and fortune-tellers. We have the only true psychic and fortune teller, and his name is Jesus. In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us and the disciples what the future will be like, and he does not pull any punches. The future will not be easy for his followers as they do his work in our world. We must make our brothers and sisters in Christ (as well as the lost) feel the real need to be a part of the worshipping community. If we are persecuted for our work, we can take comfort in the knowledge that in the end God will fashion eternity.

The work will not be easy. We will get tired. It’s hard to put others’ needs ahead of our own. It’s hard to volunteer to work at the local food bank or help with the local Christmas Cheer campaign or teach a Bible study and to keep on doing it week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s even tough for us to do the right thing in our lives when it is often easier to take shortcuts. It is at times like these when we need that vision of Christ’s return to sustain us. We get that hope and keep it alive through prayer and worship. They fill our spiritual gas tank and give us the energy to continue.

The cost of discipleship is obedience to God and imbedded in that cost is the gift of freedom. We know that the cost of work is service to us, long hours, tired bodies, weary minds. And it is all for the glory of God. And the gift imbedded in that strenuous activity is joy in the Lord. The good news is that we are all followers, not pioneers, and God holds us all close throughout all our life’s journey. We are indeed beloved and blessed.

Bibliography

  1. Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, New American Standard Version
  2. Exegesis for Luke 21:5-19. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
  3. Dr. Philip W. McLarty, “Out of the Rubble”. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
  4. The Rev. Dr. Margaret Neill, “The Joy of Struggle”. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
  5. Abingdon Commentary, Luke 21:5-19. Retrieved from www.esermons.com
  6. ESV Study Bible. Part of Wordsearch Bible software package
  7. Matthew Henry Concise Commentary. Part of Wordsearch Bible software package
  8. King Duncan, “Bracing for the Rough”. Retrieved from www.esermons.com
  9. John Wayne Clarke, “The End of Time”. Retrieved from www.esermons.com
  10. David Lenninger, “Of Rubble and Trouble”. Retrieved from www.esermons.com
  11. Larry R. Kalajainen, “Not Yet Quitting Time”. Retrieved from www.esermons.com
  12. Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 33rd Sunday, Year C”. Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org

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