Pretenders

Sermon for Sunday, November 13, 2022 || Proper 28C || Luke 21:5-19

You all know that one of my favorite Bible study exercises is reconstructing the questions Jesus wishes he would have been asked. So often in the Gospel, Jesus does not answer questions directly. People ask him questions, and frequently, his answers don’t line up with what they ask. This pattern happens often enough in the Gospel that I’d bet it was a hallmark of Jesus’ conversational style. And let me be clear, Jesus doesn’t dodge questions or spin them towards talking points like a politician. Rather, Jesus answers the deeper questions he hopes people would ask.

Today’s Gospel lesson has a marquee example of Jesus’ conversational pattern. Here it is: 

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘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.’ They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place? And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.’”

Did you catch it? They ask two questions about when this destruction will take place and how they will know it’s coming. But Jesus does not answer these questions. Instead, he says, “Beware that you are not led astray because many are going to come pretending to be me.” So, what question does Jesus wish they had asked?

I think the question is: “How do we stay faithful to you, Jesus, during a time of turmoil?” To this question, Jesus answers, “Beware that you are not led astray because many are going to come pretending to be me.”

Jesus’ early followers lived in a time of turmoil, and so do we. So, what is masquerading as Jesus? And how do we stay focused on Jesus and faithfully walk his Way of Love during these trying times?

We can identify things that pretend to be Jesus using a couple of tests. First, they will promise safety and security and certainty, when in truth these things are never assured. They will say, if you only owned this weapon, you will would safe. Or if you only lived on enough land never to be bothered by the neighbors, you would be secure. Or if you only believe the charismatic demagogue, no matter how fanciful the propaganda, you would never doubt.

Second, the things that pretend to be Jesus try to make us feel good by telling us who to blame for our problems. False messiahs say things like this: Those people over there who don’t look or act or speak or love like you do, they’re the reason your life is in turmoil. Every systemic injustice in the world springs from one of these false messiahs. Racism and sexism and classism and homophobia all seek to make one segment of society feel powerful at the expense of another group. If we have someone to blame, we will simply nurse grievances rather than come together to make the world a better place.

Third, the things that pretend to be Jesus will never, ever challenge us to change the way we live. They will coddle us. They will anesthetize us. They will nurture our apathy until we reach the point where the world is literally burning around us and we just wonder what’s new on Netflix.

We live in a world where all three of these pretenders exist. And so, our reconstructed question remains: “How do we stay faithful to you, Jesus, during a time of turmoil?”

Let’s take each of the pretenders and see how the real Jesus acts in their place. First, Jesus never promises safety or certainty. In fact, later in today’s reading he does just the opposite. “You’ll be arrested and persecuted,” he says. “You’ll be betrayed and thrown in prison.” Instead of safety, what he does promise is companionship. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus says, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” And instead of certainty, what Jesus does promise is eternal relationship with God, the Lover of Souls. Jesus goes all the way to the cross to show his solidarity with and love for, not just the people who believe in him, but for the whole of creation.

Second, instead of telling us who to blame for our problems, Jesus moves directly to those people who seemingly aren’t like us and shows that they are just as much a part of his community of concern as we are. He never demonizes, never casts anyone away from his presence. Rather, he empties himself of power and privilege specifically so he can stand with and for the people whom society treats as the least. And he calls us to do likewise.

And third, instead of leaving us in the fog of apathy, Jesus does challenge us. He challenges us to follow his Way of Love down roads that will change us forever. He changes us from the narrow, selfish creatures we often are into beings of openness and expansive love. His call to repent is a call to change our hearts and lives so they resonate more resoundingly with the movement of our God of love and justice. He loves his followers into new ways of thinking, into new ways of loving, into new ways of being. St. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.” This newness is the constant re-creation of standing in God’s presence in the here and now. When we embrace this newness for ourselves, we can participate in God’s mission of healing reconciliation, as God makes all things new.

There are many pretenders that try to inhabit the role of Jesus in our lives. Unmasking them is part of the soul work God calls us to do. And when we do this work, we are never alone. For the true Christ is with us, always, to the end of the ages. The true Christ carries us to ever wider communities of belovedness. And the true Christ challenges us to grow deeper into our identity as God’s people in this world.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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