Habbakuk 1: 1-4, 2:1-4 Psalm 37: 1-9 2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10
If you knew for certain that tomorrow the world was ending, what would you do? Would you buy a ticket to fly, hope against hope to ring the doorbell of a long-lost lover, just to see his face and confess your love before the world ended – would you make plans to get something off your chest? Would you take your kids the most beautiful spot within a few hours drive, to see the sun go down one last time, to laugh and hold one another? Maybe you’d go on a bender and spend all your money on pleasure – because the world’s ending anyway.
Well, some days it really does feel like the world’s ending – or worse, some days it feels like the world is notending. I don’t know what’s worse, the knowledge that someday Christ will come in glory with all the angles and make a new heaven and a new earth, or that today, apparently, isn’t that day! We’ve gone from a two-year investigation into our president’s possible collusion with a foreign power to a two-week period of admission of doing so – and yet nothing has happened. Apparently, it is not the end of the world. If it is, then apparently everyone just keeps on doing what they did before, without changing anything – just as Jesus tells us in the story of two men working in the fields.
So, what would you do if you knew the world was ending? In 1944 Germany – or sometime around that year – the churches that resisted Hitler began sharing an aphorism that over time was attributed falsely to Martin Luther – “If I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple today.” I suppose they could have said a mulberry tree, but it took a lot of faith – faith in the face of a fascist who was actually good at being a fascist, faith in the face of the behavior of their neighbors, friends, and fellow church-goers, faith in the face of carpet bombings of Dresden and Nuremburg, faith in the face of so many beautiful dead, to say – “if the world ends tomorrow, today I plant an apple tree.” Or perhaps not so much faith – maybe just a little faith, just enough to keep going to say “I’m not giving up today. The world ends tomorrow. I’ll give up tomorrow. Today I’ll trust God. Today I’ll live like God is really in charge. Today I’ll plant a tree. Maybe my faith is the size of a quarter of a mustard seed – but nevertheless today I’ll plant a tree.”
There’s an odd maladjustment between our Old Testament and New Testament texts. Habbakuk and the Psalm seem to be speaking of persistence in the face of crisis, while the Gospel is about faith and service, and doesn’t seem that enlightened on either front – walking trees and slaves, it’s the kind of thing Simon Hitchens and his ilk love to use to mock us. But they’re together for a reason – it’s this line from Habbakuk, that the righteous shall live by faith.
Typically, the stress in Lutheran circles rests on “faith” but I’m not sure that’s right. The action is in the verb, live by faith. Or as one of the resisters in Germany wrote, only the obedient believe and only the believers obey. They live – they do- by faith and their faith is doing. This is why these two paragraphs are together – the disciples ask Jesus “increase our faith”, and Jesus simply tells them to do as they’ve been told. Trust God enough to plant trees – heal, feed, pray, forgive, join with Jesus, Paul, and the whole church in suffering for the Gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. Not our own purposes and grace, not our vision, written in our handwriting, but God’s vision written on our hearts. Write it on a tablet, write it so large a runner could read it. God says – plant a tree in faith, and the runner will read the vision in your heart, that with God, even the end of the world is not to be feared – dying, Christ destroyed our death, rising he restored our life – Christ Jesus came in glory.
Our faith does not depend on world events – it depends on one world event, an event only half-witnessed, and event that trumps all others – a death in an afternoon outside Jerusalem, and a resurrection. That’s what our faith depends on. All that we do, and all that we are, hangs on the tree of the cross, and the emptiness of the tomb. Because if we believe that Jesus has risen from the dead and reigns at the right hand of God, then in some sense we are already dead. The world, as it is known, is already over.
So often, in times like these, we can feel adrift. Keats, that Irish mystic asked, “Can the center hold. Will things keep us together? One of the smarter, if more strident commentators I’ve read said, “Our norms will not save us.” and I suppose that’s right, since nothing of ours can really save us, not in the long run. Paul says, “Hold on to the sound of teaching…in the faith and love of Christ Jesus.” Hold on to Christ – keep seeking the vision. Because the world turns and turns, and no one gets out alive. The world, in a sense is already dead to those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are dead to the world.
Because this does not mean that we live in any kind of separations from the world. You’ll hear that sometimes from preachers – keep your eyes fixed on the skies. That’s not it at all. Christ does not leave us with nothing to do – instead Christ gives us the world again.
What would you do if the world ended tomorrow? For Christians, perhaps we should ask – well, the world ended, now what? Now we join with our Savior in his redeeming and refashioning work, according to the Father’s grace and purpose.
The righteous live by faith, the prophet says. We can expect turmoil – as Jesus says elsewhere, plagues, famine, wars, rumors of wars. These are the birth pangs. We still have the Resurrection through all that. We still have the victory, the assurance of our hopes. We still have Christ. So, what should we do? With our quarter-of-a-mustard seed sized faith maybe we should plant a tree. Maybe we should dream bigger than we thought before. After all, the world, for the resurrected one, is already over.
We can remain steadfast because the presence of Christ will never leave us. When we despair, when we feel our faith slipping, when the world is too much with us, we just find God where God wants to be found – in the Word, in the Sacrament, and in the obedience to His command to love one another and to serve this burning world.
Have no fear – if you do, give it over to God, and return here where for a moment the world ends and all things come into one at this table where Christ feeds us. The vision is here, and we see it here so we can show it out there.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack