November 13, 2016 Sermon

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016, Lectionary C – Proper 28

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector                                              Scripture: Luke 21:5-19

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

 

Do the stuff

 

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit so that we might palpably know His presence right here and now this morning through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

In today’s gospel we hear apocalyptic, doomsday stuff.  While Jesus’ disciples are awed by the Jerusalem temple with its beautiful stones, He tells them, “Guess what fellows.  It is all coming down.”  These are sobering words.  Was Jesus kidding, having a bad day, or merely being negative? Sadly, Jesus was speaking the truth—a truth that would come to fruition around 70 AD some forty years after His death, resurrection, and ascension.  The Roman occupiers tired of the endless Jewish insurrections and noise-making, went to the very heart of their identity, the temple, and tore it down.  All that remains today is the West Wall.

 

Emily and I have prayed there.  The temple was no feeble structure, but a considerable one, as well built as any comparable structure today.  In fact, the temple may have been the strongest building in Jerusalem.  Its destruction surely sunk the hearts and hopes of the Jews living there.  If the temple could not withstand the Romans, then what could?

Jesus’ disciples were understandably dumbfounded and wanted to know when this cataclysmic event would occur. Would God, would YHWH, really allow His temple to be destroyed again?  Was this judgment on the Jewish people?  It would not be the first time the temple had been destroyed.  The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BC brought about the downfall of Jerusalem, including Solomon’s version of the temple.  God’s judgment against His apostate, rebellious people had begun.  Exile to Babylon followed.

 

Jesus disciples were not only dumbfounded but frightened.  When was this terrible thing going to happen?  “What will be the sign that this about to take place,” they asked.   We might imagine being in their shoes or sandals.  Indeed, most of us have seen massive destruction of one sort or another during our lifetimes.  Singular are the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Who would have thought that the World Trade Towers would so easily be dropped to the ground, killing so many people?  It is a short step from that kind of massive destruction to wondering if the end of the world is near.  This is where we find the minds of Jesus’ disciples.  He told 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.”

 

That’s not all Jesus’ disciples could expect, however. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “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,” Jesus told them.

 

None of that sounds like much fun (far worse than some temple being destroyed).  Certainly, earthquakes, famines and plagues have a more devastating reach than the collapse of a building.  All this horror, though, is not without purpose.  Jesus told the disciples, tells us.  What did He say? “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  What me, testify?  I haven’t studied.  I haven’t written any speech.  How am I supposed to know what to say under such circumstances?  Should I prepare a short outline in case I should suddenly find myself before kings and governors?

 

Jesus, though, told the disciples, tells us, “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  What is He talking about here?  Will Jesus suddenly text us the words to say?  What does He mean?  From where will these words and wisdom come?

One of my favorite people is a man I have mention before—John Wimber, a founder of the Vineyard denomination.  John is now deceased.  He began his autobiography by recounting the time when he used to perform with the musical group, the Righteous Brothers.  (If you look on page 47 of the song booklet, you will find a song written by Wimber, entitled Spirit Song.)  At that time of his performing with the Righteous Brothers, Wimber was in Reno, Nevada, burning the candle at both ends, so to speak.  He had received a phone call from his wife at their home in California.  She told him that she thought she wanted a divorce.  They hardly saw one another anymore.  Crestfallen about his failing marriage, John found himself later that night standing in the middle of the Nevada desert.  Though not a believer, he looked up at the starlight sky and cried out “God, if you are there, “help.”

 

John subsequently drove to see his wife in California, not knowing what to expect.  To his surprise, she had reconsidered and wanted to give their marriage another try.  John wondered, “Had his prayer been answered.”  Maybe, he should check out this God business.  Though he returned to Reno, he knew that somehow he would have to move back home if he wanted his marriage to work.

 

When John was a boy, neither his parents nor he went to church.  Though, he was totally ignorant of anything having to do with God, he had heard that there was a book called the Bible; where he could learn about God. Where, though, was one of these Bibles to be found and what did it look like?  It was a question he ended up asking one of the bartenders at a Reno hotel.  The bartender told him that the Bible was a big black book with the words Holy Bible printed in gold letters on the front of it.  “Where could he find this book,” John asked.  “Just go to the bookstore down the street.”  So, he did.

 

He asked the clerk where he might find a copy of the Bible.  The clerk directed him to a certain section.  Moments later John returned, saying that there was no Bible there.  “Sure there is,” replied the clerk, as he escorted John to the very spot where the Bible was to be found. “Here,” said the clerk.  John was confused.  “A Bible is supposed to be black,” he quipped.  The one the clerk gave him was green.

 

This was just the beginning of John’s education.  He began reading his Bible but found that he had difficulty understanding it.  This led him to once a week Bible study.  Not only did he begin to learn about the Bible, but the teacher told John that he had to become a Christian, that he had to accept Jesus as his Lord and Saviour.  That day eventually came.

 

John was no casual student of the Bible.  He digged deeper and deeper into the Bible, asking hard questions.  Finally, one day he asked his teacher, “When do we get to do the stuff?”  “What stuff,” his teacher asked.  “You know,” said John, “the miracles, the healings—that stuff.”  “Oh no!” replied the teacher, no one does that kind of stuff today.”  “Really,” thought John.  “What then was the point?”

 

John’s diligence in Bible study and his growing faith, eventually would lead to his becoming a pastor and Bible teacher himself.  Still, the question of “doing the stuff” (the healings, the miracles) hung over him. Do they really no longer happen?  Was that then, but this is now?

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my doctoral thesis. Baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I was active in the choir, youth functions, and Christian Education until I went to a private boys’ school in my early teens.  From then on I rarely attended church except on special occasions–Christmas, Easter, weddings, funerals, and baptisms.  As far as I was concerned, “church” had little or nothing to offer me.  In my early 30’s I experienced a number of challenges in my life, financially and relationally.  Those challenges along with the encouragement of a friend brought me to a place of inviting Jesus into my life.

 

Around this same time various opportunities for deepening my faith became available.  I participated in a Faith Alive Weekend, a weekend designed to open congregational life to sharing and listening to the story of God working in peoples’ lives.  I attended Cursillo, a worldwide Roman Catholic renewal movement, also used in the Episcopal Church.  As powerful as both these experiences were, I was still left with the nagging feeling that something was missing in my faith.  That something challenged its very credibility (Christianity’s credibility).  Can you relate?

 

John Wimber and his church determined that the healings and miracles of scripture surely did not just belong to a bygone day—the first century church.  They diligently studied how Jesus prayed and began being intentional in praying for healing for church members who were sick and hurting.  Did not Jesus send the Holy Spirit after his ascension?   (Jesus) replied, [. . .] but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8).

 

Wimber and his crew prayed.  They prayed and they prayed and they prayed. The results, however, were not what they had hoped.  Ironically, the people who were praying were getting sick from the sick people for whom they were praying—colds, the flu—not very encouraging.  What was wrong?  Was it all in vain?  Did God no longer do what He used to do in the early church?  It looked pretty hopeless and John was about ready to give up.

 

As would happen, he received a phone call one morning from one of his church leaders.  “John,” he said, my wife is sick in bed.  I must go to work today, but I cannot leave her alone and ill.  Please come pray for her to be healed.”  Reluctantly, John went right over with no expectation of his praying having any effect.  Prayer had never helped before.  Why should that now change?

 

John arrived at the home of this church leader, who immediately led him to the bedroom where his wife was in bed.  She was sick alright.  She looked terrible. John tried to avoid praying, instead talking with her husband.  Finally, the husband said to him, “Well, aren’t you going to pray for her?” Again reluctant, John turned toward her, offered a quick prayer, and then turned back to chat with her husband.  After a few minutes, though, John happened to look over his shoulder at the wife.  She had gotten up, was dressed, and no longer looked ill at all.  She had been healed.

 

The husband thanked John.  As he climbed back into his car, he looked up.  To his amazement he saw in the sky what appeared to be a great honeycomb, dripping, pouring honey down on the people below.   Some welcomed the honey; others ran from it.  “What is it,” John asked the Lord.  “John,” the Lord said, “that is my grace.  Don’t ever beg me for healing again. There is more than enough to go around for everyone.”

 

As I was saying earlier, I had come to a point where I had this nagging feeling that something was missing in my faith. For me the absence of that something challenged the very credibility of the Christian faith.  At that time, our interim rector invited a Roman Catholic priest, who had a ministry in Christian healing, to give a teaching mission at our parish.  Never before had I experienced someone ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit as did this priest.  The Spirit’s presence was palpable.  You might even say this is where I first met the Holy Spirit and began to learn what it felt like when He was around.

 

This Roman priest’s teaching and ministry contained an authority and power that were striking.  Those attending the mission suddenly became gifted to speak and sing in tongues; some rested in the Spirit; and others received prayer for healing.  Here was someone ministering in a way that surely mirrored Jesus’ own ministry while on earth.  Remembering the words of St. Paul, I found this Catholic priest’s “speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2.4-5).

Suddenly, the “nagging feeling that something was missing in my faith” dissipated.  I had found that (the Holy Spirit) which made my faith as well as scripture come alive.  The gifts of the Spirit (“doing the stuff” of which John Wimber spoke) no longer belonged to some bygone day in Christian history.  They were and are just as viable now as two thousand years ago.

I began today’s sermon with a question suggested by the gospel reading:  From where will these words of wisdom come to us of which Jesus spoke that our opponents will not be able to withstand of contradict?  I then spoke of John Wimber’s question, when do we get to do the stuff (miracles, healings), and lastly I shared that I had a nagging feeling that something was missing in my faith.  The answer to the origin of the words of wisdom, doing the stuff, and no longer having that nagging feeling, all have the same source. They come from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does and will give us words of wisdom; the Holy Spirit makes it possible even today for us to do miracles and healings.  The Holy Spirit is He whom Jesus promised, He who fills us, eliminating that nagging feeling that something is missing.  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth. [. . .] I will not leave you as orphans” Jesus tells usJohn 14:16-18.

 

I want you to know that there is a level of awareness of God’s presence that is more than metaphor, more than music, more than the liturgy.  It is a level of awareness that fills you up, calming doubt, overcoming despair. It is our angel wings while here on earth that gives us eyes to see and hearts to love. It is a place where you know who you truly are, whom God made you to be and to do.  This is no flight of fancy or vivid imagination.  It is God’s gift to us now.  It is eternity in the very present.

The only way we will change our culture, lives, or ourselves is through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit goes behind the scene and unties those things by which we have bound ourselves.  God the Spirit made the world (see Genesis); the Spirit changes the world.

 

I am always awed by the majesty and mystery of the universe–the planets, the solar systems, and the constellations.  They are unlimited.  God the Spirit made them—the same Spirit we are privileged to have indwell us and empower us through Jesus’ shed blood.  It is this Spirit whom I want us to get to know. Jesus died so that we might have this Spirit, the Holy Spirit.  It is, then, my intention over the next weeks, perhaps months, to preach and teach about Him, so that we not only feel something is not missing, but so that we might also “do the stuff.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.