A Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: St. Luke 21:5-19
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, the coming King. The whole creation trembles at his approach. Amen.
There was a time when the Roman Empire covered the entire Mediterranean world and beyond – from Spain across the Straight of Gibraltar to the North African coast down to the Sahara, skirting north of the Arabian desert to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, rebuilding the ruined settlements of the Greek world, north over the Alps to the forests of Germany, and even up through France and across Britain into what is today Scotland. This expanse brought with it a sense of hubris: Romans described theirs even before the reign of Julius Caesar as “an empire without end” and their capital as “the eternal city.”
Even still today, tourists can enjoy pasta carbonara while looking out at the Coliseum, stop for gelato on their way to the ancient forum, or even worship in the temple to all the gods, the Pantheon, which still stands to this day as a Christian church. Aqueducts tower over cities in France. The outer limits of the empire still mark antiquarian borders in northern England and through Germany.
Walking through Jerusalem, a city under Roman control, and as those around him marveled at the magnificent grandeur of the Temple, Christ told his disciples that not a stone would be left on stone. And sure enough, about forty years after Christ ascended, the Romans leveled the Temple and much of the city. The Jewish residents who survived were forced to ask the question: if Rome could destroy God’s earthly dwelling place, were the Romans stronger than God? How mighty are the powers and principalities, how powerful is the ruler of this age?
Things fall apart. That is the nature of this world. Leaves fall from the tree and are trampled under foot, returning to dust. Storms and fires ravage cities. Even the mountains will crumble as water tears away at their pinnacles and even their very foundations.
Today, much of the that ancient Roman “empire without end” is all but vanished. The limes in the German forests are mere mounds and ditches, easily surmounted by tourists. All of their defensive walls have crumbled, now buried beneath the cities of new nations. Even the Eternal City sits in ruins, sacked by invaders, torn down to be repurposed or else worn away by the ravages of time. Yes, the Coliseum may still stand, but only in part. The Forum is little more than a collection of foundations and stubborn columns, its magnificent temples and courts long since recycled for spare stone.
There was a time, during the late nineteenth century, when many Christians were convinced not that the world was about to end in some fiery apocalypse but quite the opposite: that the Church could establish the Kingdom of God through missionary zeal, charitable organizations, and shaping public policy. Christ would return, the thinking went, after the Church had fully prepared the world. This most extreme version of the Social Gospel did holy work: fighting against sweat shops and child labor, bringing about early environmental efforts and cleaning up slums, fighting for women’s rights and racial equality. And these mighty deeds brought with them a fair amount of hubris: who needs the Resurrection of the Body if we can bring about the Kingdom of God here and now? But then, in 1914, nation rose up against nation once more, and hope for the Kingdom was dashed by the horror of war on an industrial scale. And the destruction forced those Christians to ask the question: if war can destroy this vision of the Kingdom, is death stronger than God? How mighty are the powers and principalities, how powerful is the ruler of this age?
It is in our nature that everything we do is impermanent; our greatest cities and loftiest accomplishments will all crumble, like imperial Rome before us, and the US will surely fall at some point in the future. No amount of military might, no social safety net, no border wall can prevent such inevitability. There will come a time when Beijing and DC look like Athens and Rome – defined as much by what has toppled as what remains.
You’ve heard me say that we are an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, the hands and feet of Christ’s body sent in service to the world. God has sent us out in service to a world in need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the stranger and the refugee, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. This is holy work. This is most certainly true.
But it is also certainly true that our ever attempt will ultimately fall short. The world is fallen beyond our repair. The powers and principalities will continue to reign, the ruler of this age will prowl like a lion, and death will maintain its stranglehold upon us, mortal as we are. Wars will rage, earthquakes will shake the foundations of the world, famine and plague will have their way with us, and stone will continue to tumble from stone.
The Church may be a foretaste of the Kingdom, but it is not the Kingdom. Our lovely sanctuaries will topple, our spires will crumble in every land like those Roman structures before them. Even this building, lovingly tended to by faithful stewards over the decades, will one day pass away to ruin. Even our good works will be hated: there will always be those who want us to turn away “undesirable” elements because their presence is unsettling. Neighbors may complain about the guests who visit us on Monday; politicians may rage as the Church gives sanctuary to the resident alien; even some in the pews may grumble that such faithful ministry is a threat interferes with “the way we used to do things.”
These final few readings during the end of the year go to great lengths as they drive this point home: doom and gloom, crumbling cities and trembling mountains, fire and fury, wars and rumors of wars, thieves in the night. Despite what the 19th century Social Gospel preachers taught, this world is fallen beyond our saving.
In the midst of this dreary reality, though, we have the sure confidence that something else is coming. As we turn toward the Feast of Christ our King and the season of Advent, these lections build in us the anticipation that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We look east in eager anticipation that our Lord shall come again in glory as a righteous judge and that his reign will have no end. The world may be fallen beyond our saving, but it is never too far gone for Christ to restore it to perfection.
Stone may tumble from stone, our great cities may go to ruin, the earth may shake, and our own hands will surely be insufficient, but the Day of the Lord is coming! We are not the ones we have been waiting for; we are not the only hands of Christ in this world. Come what may, war or plague or famine, Christ will win the day for our Risen Lord has already defeated sin, the devil, and death.
When Christ returns, the satanic ruler of this age shall be overthrown, the lofty will be cast down from their thrones, and the powers and principalities will be put in their proper place.
On that day, that glorious day, all of world will tremble as it gives way to the restored creation. The new Jerusalem will emerge, and from Zion, that truly eternal city, Christ our Lord will reign over the peaceable Kingdom. This Kingdom shall have no end, and its citizens will be given life eternal. Tears will be wiped away, and weeping shall turn to laughter and joyous song. Injustice will be set to right. The hungry will be seated at places of honor in the great Heavenly Banquet, the naked will be clothed in finest garments, the weary will be given rest, the homeless will be welcomed into a mansion with many rooms, the wounded and the sick will be made whole, the blind will see the splendor of creation as it was meant to be, the deaf will hear the music of angels, the captive will be set free. The saints throughout all the ages will join together in everlasting life. Oh what a day it shall be!
This Kingdom is beyond our understanding; now we see it only in part, and we cannot bring it about fully, no matter how hard we strive or how patiently we endure. But on the last day, in the twinkling of an eye, Christ shall return in his full, divine majesty, and at his word, that perfect, joyous, merciful eternal Kingdom will be established.
Go, beloved, and be an inbreaking of the Kingdom, knowing that Christ will make our work complete. You, Body of Christ, will not perish for have been set free from slavery to sin and death, and you have been liberated for this purpose: that you will point others to the true freedom that our Lord will bring on that wondrous day. Go, for Christ has sent you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn, and to love neighbor and enemy as yourself, and even as you do this holy work, may these words be on your lips: “Come, Lord Jesus.” Because Christ is King, you can endure the trials of this world secure in the knowledge that on the last day, Christ our King will come in glory to reign over all things.