This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.
There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:
All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.
Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.
Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:
All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.
But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?
Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?
“HOW could all things be well?”
The disciples were about to ask that question.
What about the disciples?
But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).
The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.
And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!
They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “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.”
It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.
The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
Jesus gives four:
ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”
TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “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 then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).
And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).
The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.
One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”
The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.
What about us?
And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.
Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.
But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.
So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”
It can get worse. Probably will.
It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.
And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”
This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.
Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”
Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.
Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.
But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.
No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.
Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)
Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?
When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.
What do you carry with you into all that?
However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.
Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.
I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”
That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?
Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.
And then, she got a response. She writes:
And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.
This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.
Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.
I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.
The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:
And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.