[This was shared during the worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
We’ve heard it a million times: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
It’s a way of reminding us that looks are deceiving.
Often the people for whom we harbor jealousy because they seem to have it totally together, are the very people whose lives are most unhappy, most out of control.
Unassuming people may harbor a depth of character we can hardly imagine.
We should know better.
When the judge and prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem in order to anoint one of the seven sons of Jesse as king of Israel, he was about to choose Eliab. Eliab looked like a king sent from central casing.
But look, please, at 1 Samuel 16:7 (page 196 in the pew Bibles): “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” Instead, God ordered Samuel to anoint David to become king.
Don’t judge a book by its cover!
It isn’t just people we judge wrongly. We can have a wrong estimation of churches too.
An acquaintance of mine served a megachurch for over a decade. They had all sorts of programs and thousands showed up for worship every Sunday. Their facilities were impressive, state of the art, massive. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But my acquaintance once told me that there was something missing in that congregation. Everything about the place was big...except the people’s faith in Christ, except their hearts turned cold to God and to others. They believed in their programs, their buildings, their bigness, not in Jesus.
Similarly, I have known congregations that had tiny memberships and remained tiny precisely because their entire congregational lives were built around maintaining their facilities as a stained glass mausoleums.
Buildings, like this school building, can be tools that God gives to congregations to pursue the mission of the Church: loving God, loving neighbor, loving one another, making disciples for Jesus Christ.
But you really can't judge a book by its cover. And there must be more to being Christians, more to being the Church than what a world that doesn’t know God can see.
Take a look at today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 21:5-19 (pages 734-735).
Let’s quickly set the stage. As with last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we’re in the week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, when Jesus would die on the cross, and ultimately, Easter Sunday, when He would rise from the dead. He’s teaching in the temple in Jerusalem.
In the passage just before our lesson, Luke tells us how Jesus observed a procession of wealthy people leave their gifts in the temple treasury.
But Jesus wasn’t impressed with them.
He was impressed with a widow who gave a pittance, which also happened to be all she had to live on.
The world might be impressed by external shows. God isn’t.
It’s why God told His people through the prophet Amos that He hated their festivals.
What God wants from those who come into His presence is authenticity.
An authentic desire for deeper faith and servant hearts.
David himself knew this. Look at Psalm 51:17 (page 395), part of his prayer of repentance after committing adultery and murder: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit [a spirit broken open to God]; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
Some would look at David and only see a powerful man who abused his power to sin and then publicly repented as a brilliant PR move. That's not how God saw it. God saw a man whose heart was open enough, whose heart was broken enough, to let God in and to let God’s praises erupt from the depths of his wounded soul.
And what did Jesus tell the Samaritan woman at the well, do you remember? She told Jesus that her people thought the worship of God could only happen on the mountain in her country, while Jesus’ people, the Jews, said it only happened in the temple in Jerusalem. Look though, at what Jesus tells her in John 4:21 (page 742): “Woman...believe Me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...[then in verse 24] God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and truth...”
Not necessarily in candles and organs, not necessarily with guitars and drums, though people can worship God authentically by those means and in many other ways. We always truly worship God in spirit and truth: With broken, open spirits and honesty before God.
Now look at the lesson. “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 'As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.'"
The disciples haven’t been paying attention to what Jesus was conveying in His commendation of the widow rather than the wealthy. The disciples are wowed by the temple.
It may be hard for us to understand how much freight the temple carried for the people of first century Judea.
For the devout, it was the place where God lived in the Holy of holies and the place where they could make sacrifice for their sins.
For nationalists, it was a symbol--like the Statue of Liberty for us--of their country, a symbol they seemed to especially crave as they lived under the rule of the Romans.
For Herod, the puppet king of Rome who built this third temple on the spot of the previous structures, the temple was a bid to win the loyalty of a people who hated him.
It was an impressive place, encrusted with jewels. Its marble columns were more than forty feet high.
But it’s dangerous to judge a book by its cover. Jesus says that as powerful and impregnable as the temple looked, it would one day be reduced to dust. And in 70 AD, the Romans did destroy it.
This was incomprehensible to some people standing nearby in the temple. In verse 7, we read: “Teacher," they asked, "when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?" This is a control question, the sort of question posed by people who find it hard to trust in God, but what to stay ahead of the curve, have inside information instead of faith in Christ. Today, their number includes Christians who are so obsessed by speculations about the end times that they can't live out simple faith in Jesus.
Next comes the most confusing part of the lesson. Start at verse 8: “He replied: '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. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.' Then he said to them: 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.'”
I found these verses confusing because the question asked of Jesus was about what signs would point to the destruction of the temple and, here and as the chapter unfolds, Jesus seems to be talking about the end of this world.
And He is.
Like the Old Testament prophets or the apocalyptic books, Daniel and Revelation, Jesus is conflating time. He’s talking about the present, immediate future, and the future of the cosmos.
That’s because since Adam and Eve fell into sin until the risen, ascended Jesus returns to judge this world, raise the dead in Christ, and bring about the final consummation of His kingdom, two things have been going on in the created cosmos.
First: Under the burden of sin and death, humanity has suffered and will suffer from natural and human disasters. Each disaster, a sign of our need of new life.
Second: The good news of that new life that only comes from Jesus Christ will conquer the sin and death of believers in Christ and ultimately, make the whole creation new.
Much will happen until then though. That’s what Jesus wants us to know in the next part of our lesson, starting at verse 12: “'But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.'”
When we entrust our lives to Christ, which is what it means to believe in Him, we can count on the constant possibility of rejection.
Sometimes, people kill Christians for their faith to this day.
Sometimes, they simply cannot comprehend their faith. A woman who used to read my blog once wrote to me: “I can’t understand it. You seem like an intelligent person, a good writer. How can you talk about Jesus as though He were God? It’s such a waste of your life!”
That, friends, is the world in which we are called to be Christ’s witnesses. Jesus doesn’t promise that it will be easy. Yet it’s our call, out of simple gratitude for being saved from sin and death, to be Jesus’ witnesses. In fact, Jesus makes it a non-negotiable of the Christian life. "This will result in your being witnesses to them," is what He says here. In Acts 1:8, Jesus says, "You will be My witnesses."
How can we do that?
Well, not by trying to look good.
Not by memorizing our testimony about Jesus and spouting it like parrots.
Look at what Jesus says starting in verse 14: “...make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”
In other words, don’t worry about looking Christian or sounding Christian. Simply focus on following Jesus.
Let the Holy Spirit teach you through the study of God’s Word, worship with the Church, receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Then God will teach you what you need to say, not only in the face of hostility, but also in response to people who genuinely want to know what you believe as a Christian.
To be Christ’s witnesses, we don’t need a how-to guide, we simply need to pay heed to what the Holy Spirit is teaching us as we draw close to God the Father in Jesus’ Name and learn to pray the prayer David prayed in that same psalm of confession, Psalm 51:15. Would you go back to that with me? David prayed: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.”
In thirty seven years as a Christian and twenty-nine as a pastor, I have seen things I never would have expected. Many segments of American society have moved from indifference to Christian faith to outright hostility.
Ignorantly, intelligent people who know nothing about Jesus, say that Christianity is the source of most of the world’s problems.
And, in other parts of the world, people are killed and persecuted for their faith.
Jesus’ words seem increasingly to have come true.
But the answer is not for us to hunker down or keep the light of Christ hidden under a basket. That would be inauthentic!
The answer is to be open books: In good times and bad, the God Who threw in His lot with us on the cross of Calvary and rose from the dead to give us everlasting life, calls on us to follow Him, to give witness to His greatness and love. Jesus says at the end of our lesson: “All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.”
May we stand firm in our faith and so stand with Christ forever. Stand firm! Amen