We have an old travel poster from the 30s. It’s an image of Berlin showing that city’s main shopping district, the Kurfürstendamm, looking toward the Kaiser Wilhelm’s Memorial Church. That church was constructed in the 1890s as a memorial to the first ruler of a united Germany, Wilhelm I. The image that appears on my travel poster no longer exists. Largely destroyed during WWII the original church’s tower remains, surrounded by a new church built in the style of modern architecture. Now the church stands as a memorial to all of the victims of WWII and also as a warning of the cost of war. When I was studying and travelling in Germany as a college student in 1979, one could still see visible signs of the destruction of World War II in many places. Occasionally, as with the Gedächtniskirche, the ruins remained as memorial and caution. But in many places, especially in the East, the rubble remained because of the lack of funds to rebuild and the uncertainty of what might replace the old.
The image of that half-ruined church tower is an especially jarring and unsettling site in the midst of the glitz and glamour of 21st-century Berlin. While those who remember the dark days of WWII and the long years of recovery afterward are dying off, the tower still stands as a reminder of those times, a reminder too of the evil human beings can do to each other.
The gospel of Luke was written around the end of the first century of the common era, some seventy years after the events of Jesus’ life that it records. Much more recent was the Jewish revolt of the late 60s that culminated in the defeat of Jewish hopes for freedom, and in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Luke is writing while the wounds from that conflict are still fresh, while the Jewish community is still trying to come to terms with the reality that the Temple, the dwelling place of God, the center of its worship, has been destroyed.
And what a temple it was! Although Herod the Great was an unpopular ruler, and his decision to renovate and expand the temple was met with derision, after 46 years under construction, it was as is reported in the gospel, a magnificent building. Its outer courtyard could accommodate up to 400,000 people, the crowds that came from all over the Mediterranean world for the cycle of Jewish festivals. Its walls gleamed white. It was truly a wonder. And by the time Luke was writing, it was rubble. Jesus’ words are as much a description of what happened in the decades after his death as they were a prediction of what would happen. The story Luke tells in Acts is a story of the spread of the gospel but also of the persecution of Jesus’ followers. They were stoned and killed, and they did testify before Roman rulers and governors.
We hear them and it’s hard not to let a little fear and foreboding enter our hearts, especially when we’ve been conditioned to imagine a cataclysmic end to the world. We wonder whether those words might not apply to us, or should apply to us, when we hear about the suffering and persecution of Christians around the world. We look into the future and see uncertainty with worries about climate change, environmental degradation, and dwindling resources, and we wonder what the future holds for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren. Fear seems a rational response to all of that.
Fear might also seem an appropriate response in the life of our congregation. We have been talking about much-needed renovations, developed a master plan to guide us, and we are now about to embark on a feasibility study for a capital campaign. How can we be contemplating something like that when we have such a hard time balancing our operating budget?
Fear seems to make sense, too, in light of our culture that seems to be losing its connection with Christianity, where the non-religious, the “nones” are growing while those who identify themselves as Christian are shrinking in numbers. The marathon last Sunday was a perfect reminder of our reduced role.
Fear also might make sense as we think about the conversation we’ll be having tomorrow night about the liturgies for same-sex blessings. For some, to contemplate such a change to doctrine and practice might seem like we are abandoning our faith, while to others, the fact that we cannot bless same-sex relationships seems to go against human rights and fairness.
There is so much to be fearful of, so much that might lead us to hunker down, close our doors, hide behind the high walls of our houses and churches, trying to keep the evil world from encroaching on us and threatening our safety.
But in spite of Jesus’ words in Luke, our task is not to wait for the second coming, to interpret the signs and portents around us as evidence of his imminent return. Our faith calls us out into the world, into the city. Our faith calls us to follow Jesus through the streets of our cities and to offer words of consolation and hope in the midst of the storms that surround us. Our faith calls us forward into an uncertain and scary future. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God, a present and future in which the hungry are fed, the lame healed, the blind given sight, and the good news is proclaimed to all.
The Romans may have destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, but no Roman army nor Roman occupation was able to destroy the faith and hope of the Jewish people. Nor was Roman persecution able to keep Christianity from thriving. Out of the destruction of WWII, a new prosperous and democratic Germany emerged.
In our uncertain and fearful present, the vision of God’s reign stands before us. God invites us into that future; God invites us to live in faith and hope for a just world. God invites us to await and expect resurrection, new life, to come in the midst of death and destruction.