Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Study In Contradictions

This sermon was preached at the Mount Pleasant Reformed United Church on December 24, 2016. The audio can be heard here.

Contradictions really confuse, and if I am honest, rather upset me. Telling me to do one thing, and then expecting the complete opposite, aggravates me. Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you – if you want to see Guy Johnson get riled up, give him contradictory instructions or tell him contradictory facts. This is, friends and family, why I am a little aggravated with myself this evening.

You see, I know that when we come to church on Christmas Eve, we want the service to be happy and celebratory. We want to ooh and ah over the birth of the Savior, Jesus. You know the story – wrapped in swaddling clothing, lying in a manger. Born in Bethlehem.

           However, let’s be honest for just a minute. The birth of Jesus was, for the people involved, I’m sure, less than a happy event. While it’s not in Luke’s birth narrative, we must remember that according to Matthew, had Joseph not gotten a visit from an angel telling him that it was ok for him to marry Mary, a very young, pregnant woman, a virgin she claims Had the angel not intervened, Mary would not have been his fiancĂ©, nor would she have been in Bethlehem that night.

Let’s stop there for a minute: how can one be a virgin and pregnant at the same time? How can that be? Yes, we believe that the Holy Spirit came over her and caused her to be pregnant, but we know that’s a contradiction in scientific and biological facts. I ask this question often: would you believe your very young daughter or sister if she came to you with the contradictory statement “I’m a pregnant virgin?” I wouldn’t!

And think about this: this possibly was not a happy birth, because, let’s be honest – who wants to travel during their 9th month of pregnancy? Who wants to travel with someone during the 9th month of pregnancy? I can speak from experience – my good friend, Charlotte Davis, was 9 months pregnant while we worked side by side, and I told her that if she went into labor while at work, I jokingly declared I would crawl under the desk, pee on myself, and cry. She told me she would kill me.

Who wants to have their first, or any, child in a barn? Remember that they were in a barn, because there was no room in the inn. Not only was there no room in the inn, but there were no clothes for this baby – Mary wrapped him in bands of cloth – not swaddling clothes, but rags. That’s not something to celebrate. That’s a contradiction!

Christmas itself is a contradiction. We claim that the holiday is about the birth of the Christ-child while pretty much relegating the baby to our manger scenes and carols. At the same time, while claiming that we are striving for "peace on earth, and good will to all men", we participate in rampant consumerism, and talk of wars and rumors of wars.

In this country, the one that we claim is a Christian nation, you know the one – America, the city shining on a hill, America, the one that God has shed his grace on, that crown’s its good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea – has leaders who act in ways contradictory to this whole “Christian nation” talk.

What are you talking about, Guy? I am so glad you asked.

You can’t talk about bombing the crap out of other nations for oil if you claim to be a follower of Christ and want to lead a Christian nation. You can’t talk about “outmatching” rivals in a nuclear arms race if you claim to be a follower of Christ and want to lead a Christian nation. You can’t cut health insurance to the sick, food benefits to the hungry, and propose policies that will push people, minorities in particular, into the “Primary School to Prison” pipeline and claim that this is a Christian nation. You can’t hate your neighbor, whether they are black or white, Baptist or Methodist, Muslim or Athiest, gay or straight, cis-gender or transgender, and claim to be a follower of Christ. Those are contradictions!

We go into debt for things we lose interest in three days after we get them, we eat too much and throw away an amazing amount of food, yet demean people who don't do the same. We claim to love this little baby, yet act in ways that are completely opposite of who and what he represents. Even worse, we perpetuate the very behaviors we tell people not to participate in!

The child’s identity is a contradictory in nature too. You have the prophet Isaiah's words that claim, "a child has been born for us, a son has been given to us". While those words are true – a son has been born, Isaiah's words tell us that he will be named "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace", but his birthplace was nothing wonderful, the people who showed up were not mighty in any way. Had Herod had his way, the baby's life would have never approached everlasting, and this same Herod had declared war on all the babies under the age of two, in an effort to cancel the "threat" this new prince represented.

Isaiah says that this baby, the one born in a barn, will have his authority grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “endless peace”, I anticipate there being some kind of peace, and honestly, there is no peace in the world, and there is definitely none in the region where David’s throne is based. They are an occupied people. Did you miss that? The reason Mary and Joseph are traveling while she is 9 months pregnant is because King Herod, a Roman king, has declared that all people must go back to their hometowns to be counted. That’s not peaceful, because if you don’t obey the royal order, there would be rather unpleasant consequences.

The Isaiah text tells us that He will establish this throne  and uphold it with justice and with righteousness form this time forevermore. We know that there is injustice in the world and righteousness no longer exists in places of power.

You would think that the “Prince of Peace” would have royal visitors. I mean, he is the son of the KING, the ultimate King, yet the only people who come to the barn to visit are shepherds who have the worst job in the pasture – living out in the fields and watching their flocks overnight, and in some other accounts, some wise men who are wise enough not to tell Herod where the baby is. This is not how a king is supposed to be born. This is not how this is supposed to happen.

Or is it?

What if, what if…the birth of this baby happened exactly the way it was supposed to? What if the birth was supposed to upend everything we believe or expect? I mean, Isaiah tells us that this baby will be called Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace! What if these circumstances are to show us that God can use less than perfect circumstances to show us that God can make something amazing happen, in spite of, and maybe even because of, contradictions. What we are supposed to realize and learn that, in spite of the contradictions, we have one duty: worship the newborn king.

Yes, there are contradictions in the story. This baby is born in less than perfect circumstances, born to a teenaged mother and an unknown father, and a stepfather who steps in. This baby is born in poverty in a barn, with animals as attendants. This baby only had strangers to come welcome him to the world. This baby had a bounty on his head from the day he was born. This baby was not supposed to make it.

And that’s what makes the birth so amazing – that one born with all of these factors against him – one born in the midst of all of these contradictions - becomes a king.

So my friends: come, let us worship Christ the newborn king.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Wasted Lie

One of the things I love most about this calling is the chance to help people discover their better selves. One of the things I like least about this calling is when my own words are used against me. Dang it!

I have an amazing village, and one of the most important members of the village is a man named Ray. He is the father of my retirement plan, and if I am truly honest, he is the big brother I always wanted. When I have questions about employment, or computers, or good bourbon, I call him. He's the photographer who took the profile picture for this blog. Knowledgeable about jazz, passionate about football, and an overall good dude and great dad, he is almost perfect. 

Until this.

See, he is helping work on my resume, and he told me to change the way it was done. I deferred to him, because, well, he has a job and his resume obviously got his foot in the door. He told me to change a couple of other things, and I was cool. Then I got this email:

I’m going to challenge you here…

Is your resume and LinkedIn to get you a clergy position? Or a “normal” job?

So I responded:

It’s to get a normal job. The clergy job is taken care of through the UCC Profile System (Linked In for the denomination). But I’m in a bit of a bind - I haven’t stayed anywhere long enough to really make an impact. 

That sounds whiny.

I’m just tired, cranky, and frustrated with this whole “looking for a job” process. When I was a secretary, it was not an issue. Now, people have told….still sounding whiny.

I’m going to Trader Joe’s.

Remember I said he’s almost fits the bill as the perfect big brother? Here’s why:

I assumed. But I have to ask as right now your materials read like your looking for a clergy job. That’s why telling your story of planning and getting things done is important.  So some things to expand on that:
                Change the default headline on LinkedIn. By default it lists your current position.
                Draft a personal mission statement that highlights what you want to achieve, give back and your values. Use that as the first thing people see.
                Write your job descriptions in terms of things you can do for employers and what you can solve for them.
We can talk through this more over break or I can work comments and such into the next round of your resume.

Dang. He caught me. I realized after I sent my response that I was not quite truthful about who I was and what I really wanted.

So, me being me, I responded:

I just realized I lied. 

My desired job is pastoring. That's what makes me get up in the morning. That's what makes my heart beat. The secondary external job is a necessity. I am a pastor. Changing the world through social justice is done through my church work, not in lieu of it. 

So let me apologize for lying to you and myself. That's a wasted lie, I might need it on my deathbed. 

I realized that by telling the lie that I really want an external job, I was selling myself short, and once again, sabotaging my own success. Yeah, I NEED an external job, but do I really WANT one?

Absolutely not.

My calling is to serve God’s people. I know that, and like I said, that’s what gets me up in the morning. I love doing the work of the church, and thinking about doing anything else full time fills me with dread. The pay sucks (like teaching, who goes into ministry to make a boatload of money?), the hours are crappy, but the rewards are immeasurable.

So, today, I encourage you to tell yourself the truth and do the thing that makes you wake up in the morning. Do the thing that makes your blood flow and your heart beat. Stop wasting lies.

Do the thing that makes you YOU.

So, he really IS almost perfect. Except for that Pittsburgh Steelers thing…

Be blessed, but more importantly, be a blessing!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving 2016

I love the Psalms. I do. I remember how surprised I was that David did not write all 150 of them (Bible Interpretation 101 with Dr. Valerie J. Bridgeman and Hebrew Bible with Julia O’Brien blessed my life, so I am thankful for that). I consider them Ancient Israel’s Hymnal, and I love the way they’re classified – lament, royal enthronement, wisdom and torah, entrance, prophetic exhortation, mixed form. Today, however, I want to talk about psalms of thanksgiving.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in America (I can’t call our country the United States, because we are not  “united”). I like this day, because it causes me to take a step back and reflect on my blessings and, like the name indicates, to truly give thanks to God for all that God has blessed me with.
This year, I am grateful for:
·      The four churches where I am licensed to pastor.  Because of them, I am able to actually do the work God called me to do, and they make it easy to be their pastor/associate pastor/clayperson:
o   Keysville Grace UCC
o   Mt. Pleasant Reformed UCC
o   Veritas UCC
o   Grace Reformed UCC
·      Dr. Minh Ta, my primary care physician. Because of his dogged determination to get my blood pressure under control, he discovered another problem that needed to be addressed immediately. He’s also a funny and nice dude. And I am REALLY thankful for the Affordable Care Act, because I am able to go to the doctor and manage my health effectively.
·      Landmark Global. I work for them, for as long as I want to. And while it is not my dream job, it DOES provide income to pay some bills, and like I said earlier last week, take Bob out to dinner every now and then. This job also helps me move more, which helps me manage my health more effectively.
·      Rev. Dr. Rob Apgar-Taylor. When I was looking for a church post-seminary, I remembered meeting him right before I graduated. I still say he was in the corner looking sad, and nobody puts baby in a corner! I’m thankful that my first choice was not the BEST choice. *(Note: I am especially thankful THIS year for him, as he had a horrible car accident the Monday before Thanksgiving, and walked away virtually unscathed. My Bapticostal side went into a Baptist Fit when he said he was ok.)
·      Friends. I have the best, and most loyal, friends on earth.
·      Family. Some of my friends have become family, and let me also tell you, I have the best blood/chosen/blended family ever. This has been a mixed year for me, and through the peaks and valleys, they have been there, no questions asked. My siblings, both by blood and by The Blood (Bapticostals, that’s your shout cue) listened to my joys and concerns, all while encouraging or admonishing me to be the best me I could be. Y’all rock.
·      Poppins Johnson Davis. On August 13, 2016, God blessed our family with the most perfect dog ever. Watching him adapt to us and our home, and us to him, is a sitcom in the making. Unconditional love, this fur ball gives. I tell people all of the time – we were a family, but now we’re complete. And yes, he’s spoiled rotten.
·      Robert Davis. 11 years later, and you still make me so very happy. I’m so glad you came into my life. You support me, even in my madness, and I can say that you’re the one for me. Thank you for all that you do to make our house a home, and for being an AMAZING parent to the 20 pounds of hair that sheds all over our house.
Make sure to show some love to the folks you love. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Fix some broken relationships.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


            12) I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13) I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12-13)

            22) The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23) they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24)“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)

            I was walking Poppins last week, and reflecting on my current level of under-employment. A seminary colleague of mine was announcing her new job, the third one since her graduation, and if I am honest, I got mad with God and started expressing my frustration. I started talking out loud to the wind.

“God,” I said, “I did what you called me to do. I followed your call into the wilderness and I am worse off than I was before I went to seminary. I have creditors calling me, and I can’t pay them. I can’t pay these student loans that I took out to do the work you called me to do. I can’t even take Bob out to dinner and worry about whether I can pay the bill. I need yet another car repair, and I cannot afford to have it done. God, I make too much to get government assistance, so what am I supposed to do? This is not right. I just cannot take much more. I need a job. Any job you arrange for me to get, I will do it with joy. But for real God, I need a job.”

And then I stopped, because I ‘d started crying out of frustration. And then the wind started talking back. It simply said, “I am everything you need.”

And I said, “But you don’t get it!”

And the voice said, as clear as day, “You have the man of dreams, with the dog of your dreams, in the house of your dreams. You get to go and do things you never thought you would be able to do. You have friends you never thought you would have. You are walking in your calling, and you have two, TWO congregations to serve. No, you don’t have the money you think you need, But I am everything you need.”

And I let it go, because I had to write a eulogy for one of my members.

A little later, I remembered a story about Darlene Love: “Unable to secure gigs of her own, since promoters wouldn't often believe her ("They said, 'Well, you're not a Crystal, you're not a Ronette and nobody knows you did these songs'"), Love crashed. She stored her belongings in her Mercedes, moved from one relative's home to another and took a job cleaning houses for $100 a day in ritzy L.A. neighborhoods. Darlene Love, one of the greatest background singers of all time, cleaned houses to make ends meet.

And the voice spoke again – “Are you willing to clean houses if you have to?”

And I said the following: “God, any job you send to me, I’ll do it.” And I let it go.

I start working this morning, in a job that dropped into my lap. It’s a long-term temporary assignment, which gives me the flexibility to do my calling while still working full time. And I am grateful.

So, let me encourage you this morning – God is faithful, and will provide all of your needs. All.

Be blessed, but more importantly, be a blessing.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Shepherd's Story

Originally preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016, at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ, Keymar, MD. Audio can be heard here.

Agricultural work is difficult. There is special calling for those who work the land, but more importantly, those who work with livestock. There is a special calling for those who work with livestock, and in particular, there is a really special calling for those who work with sheep. Let me go on and confess to you this morning, I would not want to be a shepherd. Mentioned more than 500 times, sheep, along with goats, were the most important domestic animals in the biblical world, so taking care of them was more than a notion.
I would not want to be a sheepherder, because, let me tell you, it is exhausting, thankless work. If you don’t believe me, listen to this job description as written by Dr. Gerald Mattingly from Johnson University of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Shepherds are responsible for the safety of the sheep. Yes, this is a simple concept, but there is more to it than just keeping the sheep safe. Keeping sheep safe involves vigilance, for it is monotonous work. They require constant care, since they are practically defenseless. Shepherds had to locate food and water for their flocks, and they often ranged far from home and went through numerous hardships. It was not easy being a shepherd.
Shepherds had to constantly guard against thieves, but more importantly, the greatest threat to sheep safety came from animals such as wolves, lions, and bears. It was not easy being a shepherd.
Sheep are naturally gregarious animals, and the shepherds had to watch for strays and count the animals as they returned to the fold at night. You see, sheep had a habit of just wandering off, and the shepherd was responsible for finding any lost sheep. It was not easy being a shepherd.
         A prime example of how defenseless sheep, for me, comes from, of all places, a Looney Toons. There were a series of cartoons based on two characters: Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog. I’m going somewhere with this. The series is built around the idea that both Ralph and Sam are just doing their jobs. Most of the cartoons begin at the beginning of the workday, in which they both arrive at a sheep-grazing meadow, exchange pleasant chitchat, and punch into the same time clock. Work having officially begun, Ralph repeatedly tries very hard to abduct the helpless sheep and invariably fails, either through his own ineptitude or the minimal efforts of Sam (he is frequently seen sleeping), who always brutally punishes Ralph for the attempt. In many instances there are also multiple copies of Ralph and particularly Sam.
At the end-of-the-day whistle, Ralph and Sam punch out their time cards, again chat amiably, and leave, presumably only to come back the next day and do it all again. I would not want to be a shepherd, because it is monotonous, thankless work. You are responsible for the safety of the sheep, who cannot say thank you, and many times, are just off blissfully being sheep.
And don’t sheep sound like people? We are gregarious creatures, gathering among ourselves. We are often defenseless, and are off blissfully and peacefully being people. And that leads me to our Old Testament reading this morning. As we close the end of the liturgical year, I must tell you that I both love and fear this morning’s text from Jeremiah. Yes, I both love and fear them at the same time, because they hold leaders, especially political leaders in ancient Judah, accountable for their actions. It’s nice to see biblical passages that hold leaders accountable.
On the other hand, this text terrifies me because, by extension, it holds religious leaders, both in ancient Judah and today, accountable for their actions regarding God’s people. It’s not so nice to see biblical passages that hold religious leaders, including me, accountable.
Yes, there is a call for accountability on this Christ The King Sunday. God, through Jeremiah, issues a warning to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture. Sheep were important to the nomads and agricultural life of the Hebrews and similar peoples. Secondly, sheep are used throughout the Bible to symbolically refer to God's people. Now, while sheep are important, more important are the shepherds, for the shepherds are held accountable for taking care of the sheep.
So, Jeremiah, in the previous chapter, has done a chronological survey of Judah’s kings, and concludes with this warning against “shepherds”, a common metaphor for kings during that time, and a veiled reference to king Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. According to biblical writers, Zedekiah reigned over Judah during the most tumultuous and tragic time in that country’s history. He was 21 years old when he ascended to the throne, and he ruled for 11 years, and was listed as “one of a long line of kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Zedekiah, according to the writer of Chronicles, “did not humble himself before the prophet Jeremiah who spoke from the mouth of the Lord.”
Outside of biblical literature, there is little knowledge of Zedekiah. The Book of Jeremiah portrays him as a weak and tragic figure who cannot master the faith and courage to prevent the collapse of Judah.
So, we have this king, this shepherd, who is a weak and tragic figure, unable to prevent the collapse of his kingdom, and the scattering of his sheep.
I would not want to be a shepherd. I would not want to be responsible for the safety of the sheep, and I definitely would not want to be responsible for the safety of the sheep in the Lord’s pasture.
But, remember I said that these verse hold both actual shepherds and the sheep of God’s pasture, the people, accountable? Then that makes all of us a shepherd. And we are in trouble. We are scattering sheep. We are driving people away with our stances on issues that really are no business of the church. We are driving people away with our attitudes and behaviors. Look at us. We are focusing on money as the message as opposed to the Messiah. Look at us. We are more concerned with maintaining our monuments to our ancestors than we are with maintaining a relationship with each other. There are some of us who have driven people away because we did not like them, or like their families, or because of some long-ago forgotten feud over a fried chicken dinner.
We are in trouble. God says that because of our scattering of the sheep, of God’s people, there’s going to be a scrutinizing punishment.
I really don’t want to be a shepherd, because shepherds are in trouble. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention the Gospel selection this morning, a retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion and the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves. It looks very dark for God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture, because hope is hanging on a cross. The Shepherd is hanging on a cross.
But there is hope on the horizon. God, through Jeremiah, says that God will father the remnant of the flock out of the lands where they have been driven, and bring them back to the fold, and the sheep will be fruitful and multiply.
There is hope on the horizon. God says that there will be shepherds raised to take care of the sheep, and the sheep will no longer fear, and there will be no dismay, and no sheep will be missing.
There is hope on the horizon. The Lord will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely. This shepherd will be an amazing shepherd – he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. He will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.”
And on this Christ the King Sunday, we realize that Christ, our King, is on the way. God is raising up that Branch, that King.
So we look forward to Advent as the evidence of God’s loving intervention into human life, that gracious invasion which alone has the power to save us. Out anticipation, fueled by our own sense of inadequacy and failure begins to rise, and we sense that soon, very soon, God’s promises will be renewed. In this way we reiterate the experience of those so long ago who yearn for the birth of the Messiah. We also yearn for the consummation of God’s grace, that Second Advent.
The shepherd is coming to re-gather the lost sheep. Let’s be ready to be found.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Who's To Blame?

This sermon was presented at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on Sunday, November 13, 2016 at the 8:00 a.m. service. Audio can be heard here.

This week, due to various circumstances, I was unable to wrap my mind around circumstances that happened in this country, and in my life. In looking for the words to present to you this morning, I was just…stuck. And let me just tell you – when as a wordsmith you cannot form sentences, you’re in trouble. So, I went searching for words that would help me stand here before you and present the good news. It was difficult, but I was able to find some. I give special thanks to Dr. Gilberto Ruiz of St. Anselm University for HIS words, because they spoke to me in a way that I hope they speak to you.
As humans, we always have to find a need to blame someone when life is not going well. We have to try and make sense of why something is happening to us, either as an individual or as a group. Whenever a disaster strikes, it doesn’t take long for some prominent Christians to blame it on the secularization or moral permissiveness of society. If we’d hadn’t take prayer out of schools, these people say, we would not be having these problem. If we returned to our roots as a “Christian” nation, they cry, there would not be bloodshed in the streets. These folks love quoting II Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.” If you don’t believe me, think about this:
On Thursday September 13, 2001, two days after the worst terroristic attack on American soil, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on certain groups and organizations he characterized as promoting “an alternative lifestyle” and trying to “secularize America” during an appearance on the 700 Club. An Austrian priest, Rev. Gerhard Wagner wrote in a 2005 parish newsletter that Hurricane Katrina resulted from the indescribable amoral conditions of New Orleans. Recently, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has attained notoriety for this line of thinking.
Anyone who wants to justify their belief that God uses wars and natural disasters to punish people for “attacking” Christianity can find material in Luke 21:5-19 to support this view. This passage presents Jesus predicting the Jerusalem temple’s destruction (vv. 5-6) as well as more general catastrophes (vv. 7-10) that are preceded by an intense persecution of Christians (vv. 12-19). I propose, however, that we take a closer look at the different sections of 21:5-19 to see if other, more compelling readings are possible.
By the time Luke puts the finishing touches on these verses, the temple’s destruction has already happened. Luke’s Gospel is dated to about 85 ce, 15 years or so after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 ce, which means that for Luke’s readers what Jesus says in Luke 21:5-6 is more a reflection on the temple’s destruction than a prediction of it.
Luke uses the destruction of this magnificent temple to make a statement on the impermanence of human achievement. In response to their wonder at the temple’s beauty, Jesus attempts to divert the attention of his audience from their fascination with “these things that you see” (21:6). Their focus should be on something else. What, exactly, is not specified, but immediately before this exchange Jesus drew attention to a poor widow in the temple (21:1-4). Perhaps Luke’s Jesus thinks his audience should focus their attention on the poor, not on the temple building.
Those listening to Jesus teach in the temple, however, remain concerned with what will happen to the building (Luke 21:7). In response, Jesus moves from discussing a specific catastrophic event to more general statements about the coming of false prophets, wars, and other calamities (21:7-12). Here Luke employs language and imagery that is conventional in apocalyptic literature from this period. As readers we now have to decide how we are going to interpret Luke 21:7-12. Are we going to read these as literal predictions of Jesus, or are we going to read this section in light of the aims of apocalyptic literature?
If a story begins “Once upon a time,” do we take literally the story’s events, or do we adjust our expectations because we recognize it as a fairy tale that is trying to entertain even as it conveys a moral or lesson? The decision we have to make in reading Luke 21:7-11 is similar. A specific genre (apocalyptic) is introduced, meaning we should adopt the interpretive lenses that help us understand this genre on its own terms.
Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Sure enough, while describing the terrible events, Jesus tells his listeners not to be afraid (Luke 21:9). There is nothing particularly original or specific about Jesus’ “predictions” here. Every age has its own false prophets, wars, natural catastrophes, and so on. We will misread 21:7-11 if we think Jesus is describing a specific set of calamities. The point is that when bad things happen -- and they will -- we should “not be terrified” (21:9) or follow anyone proclaiming these are signs of God’s judgment and the end (21:8). Instead, we should trust that God remains present in our lives.
That assurance of God’s faithfulness to us in the face of difficult times is the real concern of this passage is confirmed by Luke 21:12-19. Jesus details the persecution that his followers can expect to face: arrests; persecution; trials before government authorities; betrayal by family and friends; hatred on account of Jesus’ name; and even execution.
Throughout his Gospel, Luke depicts Jesus as a prophetic figure who risks rejection and death as a result of his prophetic message. Anyone who follows Jesus can expect the same hostility that Jesus and Israel’s great prophets endured. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles (written by the same author who wrote Luke’s Gospel) provides numerous examples of early Christian leaders facing precisely the sort of troubles that Jesus describes in this and other passages in Luke.
But does Jesus in Luke 21:12-19 tell his audience they should lay blame on a particular person or group of people, on their society, or even on their enemies, for such treatment?
He says that persecution is “an opportunity to testify”. Just as God gave Moses and other prophets the capacity to speak to and confront their doubters and opponent, Jesus himself will provide strength and wisdom for such testimony. Jesus tells them that not a hair on their head will perish. Ultimately, their experience of persecution will not end in death but in a victory for their souls. Underscoring all of these statements in 21:12-19 is the importance of trusting in God even in the midst of hardship and persecution.
A close reading of Luke 21:5-19 shows that using this passage as a springboard for proclaiming God’s judgment on society would miss the point. Rather, the passage warns us about becoming too fixated on temporary human institutions, perhaps with the implication that we should attend to the poor in our communities instead, and it exhorts us to be firm in our trust in God when calamity and persecution strike. Despite its language and imagery of destruction, Luke 21:5-19 is ultimately a passage grounded in hope -- in the hope that God remains present in the world and in one’s life even when things have gotten so bad that it feels like the world is closing in on us.
And before I take my seat, I need to quote another prolific writer, Edward Mote, who wrote these words that provide medicine for my soul this morning:

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace
In ev’ry high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood,
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

When He shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in Him be found,
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.