21 Nov Looking Ahead
Setting the Scene
The Sitz im leben is a German term that roughly translates into Setting in Life. It questions why an object or story has been created, and how it functioned or how it was received, it’s purpose…in that time…in its original context. We have a Sitz im leben here today. It’s Commitment Sunday here at Good Shepherd. We’ve been living in the midst of an arctic deep freeze for several weeks. The assembly gathered here today is unique & will never be exactly the same. And we’re approaching the end of our church year which culminates in Christ the King Sunday next week. And everyone knows to truly get into the holiday spirit there is nothing better than a good old-fashioned apocalypse! Nation rising against nation! Plagues, famines, betrayal. Sounds like Black Friday to me.
So, if you’re ever looking for material to support your view that God uses wars & famines & disasters to smite the unholy remember to earmark Luke 21 today. And Jesus isn’t very creative in describing these events, it’s classic apocalyptic literature as we’ve seen before in Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezra, Isaiah & Ezekiel. But this is how our church year ends each and every year, With a reading that focuses on the end of times. And Jesus is definitely aware of his Sitz im leben here today,sitting in the great temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. The outer courtyard of the temple held up to 400k people. Adorned with gold and jewels and great gifts to God. It was the center of the Jewish religious universe in the year 30 A.D. The literal house of God.
But the reality was it was wrought with controversy as well. The reason it was so grand and so ornate was because King Herod had poured a fortune into making it that way. He wanted something to rival the pagan temples of the surrounding kingdoms. And it was a monstrosity.
And you know I remember, as a 6-year-old boy, back in the mid 1970’s, While in Louisiana to visit my Aunt, we took a tour of the brand spanking newly opened Superdome in New Orleans. I still can remember it exactly to this day. It was the biggest, shiniest, most incredible thing I had ever seen. I struggled to wrap my little mind around how something like this was possible. And I can only imagine the disciples felt something similar sitting in the temple. These simple fishermen, called by God, part of Jesus’ posse. It had to seem like a fairy tale… And happy ending wouldn’t begin to describe what they surely felt lied ahead. But what’s Jesus’ point, talking about the end of times in that setting, at that time. And if we’re talking Sitz im leben we must look at the author of Luke as well. This gospel was written nearly 15 years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem… sometime around 85 A.D. For a first century reader this story would have been a call for reflection as opposed to an apocalyptic prediction.
A Call for Reflection
And Luke very carefully places this story in a very specific order. Jesus has entered Jerusalem where he wept for the city. Evoking images of Jeremiah lamenting the city who did not recognize it’s visitation from God. And up until this point in Luke’s gospel the temple has been shown in a very positive light, Simeon was guided to the temple by the Holy Spirit to find the baby Jesus. The temple is described as a place of fasting and prayer. Mary finds the boy Jesus in the temple learning; He calls it his Father’s house! A few chapters ago he drove the money changers out and from that point on… Until his arrest in the garden, He is continually teaching in the temple. In Chapter 20 of Luke the Chief Priests & Scribes & Sadducees continually question Jesus’ authority. They send spies to try and trap him, but Jesus silences them all.
And immediately before our reading today Jesus, in Chapter 21 of Luke as he moves from a very public to a more private setting, where he is just speaking to his disciples. Amidst the glory and grandeur of his Father’s house. Jesus lifts up the tiny offering of one impoverished widow as a true act of faith. What is Luke’s point in telling the story this way, of arranging these parables, Many of them unique to Luke’s gospel, arranging them in this way. And what’s the point for us today, what’s the lesson, what are we to hear what are we to do in this Sitz im leben? The last time we read this passage in worship was 3 years ago, November of 2016. A few days prior, our nation had just elected a new President.
In November of 1985 Pastor Clem Peterson stepped into this pulpit to give his final sermon after 30 years of service. And on that day, he said, and I quote:
For the 2nd time in the life of this congregation I would like to begin with approximately the same words. I’d like to quote this morning first of all words spoken to approximately 50 people on a Sunday in November the year of our Lord 1956. At that time these words, this is a historic occasion in the life of the church being established in this community. A church which shall come to be known as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. For today we begin to look ahead. Surely, we are looking for the glorious tomorrow of this congregation and the church to be established here. But more than that we are looking for the glorious tomorrow when the church here in this community shall have been an important witness in preparing lives for eternity, so that as we worship and as we grow, our faith in Christ may continue to be perfected. It is my prayer that many of those words have become reality as we have worked together in the life of this congregation. I’m never one who likes to look backwards, dwelling on the past. I prefer looking ahead to see new challenges of faith. And I believe that should be true in our lives as individuals and certainly as our life as a congregation. A look backward should only be long enough to say thank you. We are all a part of the work that God is doing. So reflections should be short. Anticipations should be great. Thanks be to God.
What is it about the end of times that fascinates us? You know since the beginning; apocalyptic literature has used unsettling language & imagery as a tool to encourage the faithful to trust in God Even in the most troubling times. And Luke makes a statement through these chapters about the impermanence of human achievement. The dangers that lie in becoming too fixated on human institutions. And Jesus shifts the attention away from signs & distractions in our world to focus on our own journey of faith as individuals & as community amidst the chaos & noise of our Sitz im leben. In classic apocalyptic form he tells us “Do not be afraid.” “I’ll give you the words, this will give you the opportunity to testify.” Because every age has its catastrophes, And its physical and emotional earthquakes… reality is, as we all know far too well, that bad things happen in our world.
Don’t Fear the Future
And when they do Jesus reminds us that we should not be terrified. Luke says instead, trust in the love of Christ that remains ever present in our lives. The assurance of the Holy Spirit, to be with us, our advocate, our protector… That’s the point, the lesson, that’s what Luke wants us to hear loud and clear. And honestly, in our Sitz im leben… here today… I don’t think Clem or Jesus’ words to us could be more relevant. Because we are surrounded by temples in our world. In fact we are one church, two temples!
But we know that it’s not about the places or locations…our faith, our congregation, is about the people. And we don’t make commitments out of fear today… We commit out of love, we commit out of faith, we commit out of our trust in the God of our future.
We don’t linger in the past or in the moment we are at…as God’s children we live faithfully, with the courage to look Beyond. And I’ve had so many people comment to me about this article in the paper several weeks ago that said: As church attendance falls nationwide, local church goes big! God’s not done with us yet, God’s not done with you yet. Commitment Sunday ends today with a comma not a period.
And at the risk of plagiarizing Clem I will end in the same way he began in 1956 and in 1985. For today we begin to look ahead to the glorious tomorrow of this congregation. It’s my prayer that many of Clem’s words have become reality as we have worked together in the life of this congregation. I’m never one who likes to look backwards, dwelling on the past. I prefer looking ahead to see new challenges of faith. And I believe that should be true in our lives as individuals and certainly as our life as a congregation. A look backward should only be long enough to say thank you. Because we are all a part of the work that God is doing here and now. So, our reflections should be short. And our anticipations for our future should be great. So thanks be to Clem, & all of you, & all the Saints who came before us… And thanks be to God.