You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.
Y’know, it really is a miracle that we are here at all this morning. Of course there is the miracle and gift of life itself, which is a topic very much worth pondering, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking more about how it is that the Church exists at all, let alone four-hundred-ninety-eight members at Saint Paul’s or eighteen-thousand members of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast or one-point-nine-million members of The Episcopal Church or two-point-two billion Christians in forty-one-thousand different denominations around the globe. Christianity was founded by a rag-tag group of disciples whose leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was betrayed by one of his closest associates, arrested by his own people, and killed as a traitor by one of the largest empires in world history. Thirty years after Jesus died, there were maybe four thousand Christians in all of the Roman Empire when in the year 64 a fire broke out in Rome that burned for six days. Rumors swirled that the Emperor, Nero, had ordered the fire be set and in an attempt to deflect attention from himself, Nero blamed Christians for setting it. Quickly, a persecution swept through Rome that many scholars believe is how both Peter and Paul ended up martyred. Christians were an easy target because they were a very small sect and because they were viewed by proper Romans as having a “hatred of humankind,” their leader was killed as a traitor to Rome, and their chief activity of worship was believed to be ritual cannibalism: eating the body and blood of their dead leader. It really is a miracle that the Church survived at all. Our presence here this morning is the result of more than two-thousand years of Christians who have endured amidst all sorts of hardship.
Our ability to endure goes back even further than the time of Jesus. This morning’s Old Testament Lesson and the Canticle both come from the book of the prophet Isaiah, a book that tells the story of more than two hundred years of endurance. The First Song of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, who lived some seven-hundred years before Jesus and was a prophet to several Kings of Judah in a time that saw the Assyrian Empire conquering Israel and breathing down Judah’s neck. Things did not look good for God’s Chosen People while Isaiah was alive, and yet the prophet was able to speak words of comfort and strength to encourage the people to endure their hardship. “On that day…” Isaiah wrote again and again, imagining a better world, “On that day when God’s mighty hand brings vengeance upon our enemies and salvation to our land, we will draw water with rejoicing, we will ring out our joy, and we will live in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.”
Some two-hundred years later, when most scholars believe a different prophet wrote the final ten chapters of Isaiah, the people of Judah have been through the Babylonian Exile, their Temple has been laid waste, and they have returned to find a very unwelcoming land. As they begin the arduous work of building the Second Temple as a testimony to God’s presence even in the midst of their hardship, the prophet declares that their endurance will be rewarded: that the shame and sorrow of the recent past will be replaced with eternal joy and prosperity. Isaiah’s great vision of the new heavens and the new earth are a reminder of the hope of Judah that in then end the reward for their endurance will be greater than anything they could even imagine. It is a utopian picture of God’s holy mountain, where he will dwell alongside his people, where infant mortality rates will drop from 3 in 4 to 0, where someone living long enough for Willard Scott to call their name on the Today Show would be considered a youth, where all human work is successful, where wolves stop eating lambs, and where even the lions are domesticated. All the people have to do to inherit this paradise is endure.
And endure they do. The temple is ultimately built, and then expanded and impeccably adorned at the command of Herod, so that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem the outer court can hold four-hundred-thousand people. It is no wonder that tourists all around Jesus are looking up at its great edifice and saying, “Wow! Would you look at that Temple! It is breath-taking, just beautiful!” Jesus knows, however, that things aren’t quite what they seem. The Temple is big and it is beautiful, but it is only that way because Herod, the Roman figurehead, self-proclaimed “King of the Jews,” had funneled massive amounts of money into it. Herod’s Temple, as it came to be known, was paid for by massive taxes on the local Jews and was as much a sign of the power and presence of God in Jerusalem as it was the power and prestige of Herod himself.
Jesus knows that a time of real endurance is coming. He is only a few days away from his crucifixion, and he is keenly aware that the road ahead for his followers is not going to be an easy one. As they look over the Temple Hill, Jesus encourages his disciples in a most peculiar way, through an apocalyptic vision. “The day will come,” do you hear the echo of Isaiah here? “The day will come when this whole Temple will be destroyed, wars will be unleashed, natural disasters will pile one upon the other, and the skies will be filled with ominous signs. You will be hated, arrested, persecuted, and some even killed. Like me, you’ll be turned over to the authorities by your closest family and friends, but these trials will be an opportunity for you, a chance to testify to the truth. Don’t worry. I’ll be with you. I’ll give you the words to say. I’ll give you the wisdom you need. All you have to do is endure and you will gain your souls.”
Like in Isaiah 12 and Isaiah 65, Jesus encourages his disciples to endure the forthcoming hardship for the sake of unrivaled future blessings. He invites them to endure, not by their own might, or as the result of their own intestinal fortitude, but by having faith in the Father. That seems to be the key to unlocking endurance. It is not me who steels myself against the coming trial, but it is through faith in the promises of God that we gain our strength.
Given my own tendency to want to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, I think of it as miraculous that the Church exists at all, but when you think about the strength of Judah, the steadfast faith of Jerusalem, and the endurance of the early Church, it is less a miracle and more a testament to God’s faithfulness. Over and over again, God has been willing to give his people faith as a gift of his grace. We endure because Jesus Christ endured the cross and the grave to make us right with God. We endure because of the gift of faith that gives us hope and saves our souls. We endure because God wants us to. We endure so that we can testify to his faithfulness in times of persecution and in times of prosperity. We endure so that we can join with those who have endured from every generation in proclaiming, “Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid… Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” Amen.
 2012 Parochial Report
 The Blue Book, 2012
 Pew Research, 2011
 Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2011
 OT1 Class Notes
 Roberts, J.J.M., Introduction to Isaiah in the HarperCollins Study Bible, (1993), p. 1013.
 Corrine Carvalho, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1792
 Richard Swanson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1853