Monday, November 15, 2010

Settling into Life's Second Half

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “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.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And 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. 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.”
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

The college I attended had an excellent, but demanding engineering program. On the first day of the first class of the freshman year, with all the engineering hopefuls gathered in one large classroom, the head of the department asked the students to look at the person on their right and the person on their left. After a dramatic pause he said, “This time next year, one of the three of you will be a business major, another will be in accounting. Only a third of you will graduate with an engineering degree.” It was a hard, sobering message to hear. It effectively communicated that the road ahead was going to be marked by challenge, anxiety, fear, and failure. No one was going to skate on through. Only a few would survive.

It is the same message given to med students as they begin their residency, law students as they prepare to sit for the bar, and young men and women as they begin basic training:

This is going to be hard.
This is going to demand your best.
This is going to push you past the breaking point.
Some of you are not going to make it.

It is not a new message about a current challenge. It is at least as ancient as the teachings of Jesus. Whenever you read the bible or listen to it being read in public worship, never forget that all of it – its various parts from different eras and settings – emerged during a time of terror. The gospels, for instance, were compiled in and around the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This led to the complete destruction of the Temple; an event so cataclysmic that it decimated not only the religious center of the people, but most of its governance and culture as well.

For those original readers of Luke’s Gospel, today’s passage was not a prediction of 21st century events – as some ‘bible-believing’ folks would have us think – but teachings by Jesus regarding events unfolding in their own day and the traumatic realities they lived with as a constant companion. Jesus says to them:

Following Me in the faith is going to be hard.
Being a disciple will demand the best you have.
You will be pushed past the breaking point.
Some of you are not going to make it.

But He also says something more:

You are not going to go through this alone.
I will be with you to see you through.
Make up your mind now (or other versions translate it as “settle it in your mind” or even “settle it in your heart”) that these things are going to happen.
As you endure, you gain your soul.

The tense of the verb to settle coveys the idea of a present action which has future implications. The idea is that as you tend to your spiritual life today, you are better prepared to face the challenges of the future. The more fully we know God’s love today, the more comforted we will be by it in the dark times to come.

You may find it interesting to know that the only other place in the New Testament where this usage of the verb to settle is found is in Peter’s first letter:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, strengthen, and settle you. (5:10)

Did you hear the connection between suffering and settling? Did you catch the order of the verbs: restore, establish, strengthen, and finally settle? It is almost as if something that has been broken has been repaired.

The verb to settle is found only one place in the Old Testament and it deals with the rebuilding of the Temple in the 4th century before Christ. There it speaks of the walls and even the altar itself, once restored and established, as being settled. It is a very powerful image that suggests as God loves and cares for the Temple so God loves and cares for us. The Temple, so broken that not one stone was left on another, becomes settled. We, who throughout our lives are broken, are restored, established, strengthened, and settled by God’s power working in us.

I keep a file of my sermons, organized by the readings for the 3-year Lectionary cycle. Fifteen years ago this Sunday I preached for the first time after my younger daughter’s birth. In that sermon I related my four-year-old daughter’s concerns: “Dad, we’re a family right? You and me and mom and Abbey and Maggie (our dog) and the gerbils. We’re a family right? And we’ll always be together! Right?” “Yes, dear, we’re a family and we’ll always be together,” I told her, knowing that some day it would not be so, but in my lying I was thinking primarily about the gerbils.

Looking back now, I can say with complete confidence that I never could have anticipated all that has happened in my life and if you would have told me about it ahead of time, I would not have been able to bear the thought. And yet here I am on the other side. I am not sure I would described myself as being restored, established, strengthened, and settled, because it feels more like an on-going process than something that has been completed. But here I am.

The speaker at our clergy conference last week talked about the two phases of life. In the first phase we act as if we get from life what we put into it. If we work hard and do the right things we believe everything will be fine. But at some point there comes a crisis so deep there is nothing (and I mean nothing) we can do to work our way out of it. It may be a mess of our own making. It may be something well beyond anything we did or deserve. But whatever it is it brings us to our knees. There, helpless, unable to lift ourselves on our own, God’s grace comes to us and – over time and through many, many tears – that grace sees us through. This is when the second phase of life begins… a phase when we realize that all of life is about grace: undeserved, unearned, unseen, but unmistakable grace.

This is the time when today’s final words of Jesus become our reality: as you endure you gain your soul. I sense what has changed in me over the last 15 years, emerging from the ashes of one crisis after another. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say I am learning more and more how to live and move and have my being in God’s grace. I see it in many of you as well, you who have been born by grace through crisis and reborn into the second half of life.

Some five centuries before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah spoken poetically of our great hope in God. During the time of Judah’s exile and ruin, he envisioned a day when infants would not die young and people of many years would be plenteous; a day when you could build a house and count of living in it, plant a crop and know with certainty you would harvest it; a day when the wolf and the lamb will feed side by side, when lions will not prey on oxen, but eat straw with them. It is a vision only possible for a person who has looked at the student on the left and on the right and made it through – perhaps as a business major. It is a hope only proclaimed by a person who has endured crisis and been reborn into the second half of life. It is a message proclaimed by a one who has been restored, established, strengthened, and settled who believes that what God has done for him God will do for all. His message to us, which we proclaimed in our reading: Surely it is God who saves me.