Duck and Cover

a sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost

The great temple of Jerusalem was the architectural jewel of the middle east, an everlasting monument to Herod’s power and wealth.  But as Jesus walked through the temple, predicting its inevitable destruction, the people around him thought he was crazy.

The other night, I was watching a movie called Thirteen Days. It is the story about the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1962 that we know as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, I wasn’t very aware of the geopolitical implications of having missiles only 90 miles off the coast of the United States. After all, I was only in the second grade, but I did my part for the cold war effort. We used to have these canvas bags that our mothers made for us, filled with all the essentials we needed in case of a nuclear war: a set of dog tags, a jug of water mixed with a teaspoon of bleach, some canned foods with a can opener, one change of clothes, and of course a roll of toilet paper. We also learned that in case of a nuclear attack, they would sound an alarm and we were supposed to “duck and cover,” sliding under our desks and covering our heads to protect ourselves from an atomic bomb. Of course, our school was just across across the river from a naval base in Jacksonville, Florida. Nobody bothered to tell us that we were probably ground-zero in the event of any real attack. That was an innocent time, a time when we had confidence in the integrity of our government, the strength of our military and the faithfulness of God. We thought that nothing could ever challenge the security of our country.

Almost 40 years later, Rindy and I took our girls to New York City for vacation. We saw all of the amazing sights of the city: Wall Street, the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan, The World Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was an incredible trip – we even have a picture of the girls with the Twin Towers in the background. Then, of course, six weeks later, everything came crashing down.

The setting for today’s Gospel is the great temple of Jerusalem. It was built by King Herod and was an architectural jewel in the middle east – a vast temple with incredible mosaics on the gleaming white walls, a large marketplace for buying and selling, a worship space and an inner sanctuary where the Holy of Holies resided. Although the temple was dedicated to the Jewish people, it was intended to be an everlasting monument to Herod’s power and wealth. As Jesus walked through the temple, predicting its inevitable destruction, the people around him must have thought he was crazy.

Lately, we’ve had to get used to the idea that nothing lasts forever. From the destruction of the World Trade Center, to the Fukushima nuclear plant, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, flooding and devastation by hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it sure sounds like the end times that Jesus predicted – wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues.

At the same time, all of us have experienced times when our own personal lives have come crashing down – things that we depended on as if they were set in stone falling apart. Our public and personal relationships are under more strain than ever. Our national leaders are so uncivil they can’t pass laws. And, as we move into the holidays, families struggle against debt, unemployment, or sickness as we try to hold their lives together. Sometimes we feel like it simply comes in waves, one thing right after another. We throw up our hands and say, “when will this end, Lord?”

This is when we take a breath and remember Jesus’ words, “don’t be afraid.” He uses the language of the ancient prophets, “do not be afraid, for God is with you.” No matter how many wars and storms, how much trauma and broken relationships, how many times we quarrel and fight with the people we love, God remains faithful. “Not a hair of our heads will perish. By our endurance we will gain your souls,” he promises us.

There’s a saying that goes, “when you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!” No matter how much we prepare, how many times we practice our “duck and cover” drills,” sometimes bad things happen. These are the times when we are given the opportunity to testify, “God is with us. God will always be with us. Come, Emmanuel. Let thy kingdom come.”

Most of us will never fight in a war, or experience the terror of a class 5 hurricane, or watch our homes be swallowed by an earthquake. But each of us probably will experience some kind of personal trauma in our lives – a bad medical report, a broken promise, the loss of a job, or a home, or a loved one. And it will happen when we least expect it.

This is when we need only listen for the words that God will give us. These are words that don’t come from ourselves; they come to us from the heart of Christ. They are words that come to us when we are quiet, when we pray, when we turn in hope to the word made flesh, Christ Jesus.

The temple crumbled 70 years after Jesus walked through it, in spite of Herod’s power. The World Trade Center fell in spite of our nation’s might. There will be wars, and earthquakes, and disasters yet to come. There will be illnesses and death of the people we love. And yet through it all, Christ will be with us every step of the way. Christ will be with us to the very end of the age. Christ will be with us, because he is “God-in-us”, Emmanuel, the one whose words endure long after buildings crumble, words that will last for ever and ever.

“Do not be afraid.”

Thanks be to God.

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