Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
May we have faith in the promises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s an old World War II saying in Britain that was popular during the time when bombs were raining down on England and it was also used for many years in the post-war period when food and other commodities were scarce – it went: “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’”. It was said with tongue in cheek, of course. Initially, the gospel passage, with its predictions of doom, gloom and disasters, brought it to mind for me. The passage didn’t leave me feeling exactly cheerful – did it you? If I’m not careful, I find it easy to get sucked into news stories of doom and gloom, even to get depressed by our current political and worldly upheavals. Jesus’ listeners were told to expect the worst - earthquakes and famines, wars and insurrections, hatred and betrayals. Jesus touches on many things that could possibly go wrong – natural disasters, political disasters, social disruption and personal betrayal. That’s what I hear so strongly on first reading this piece – BUT, on delving into the passage a little more closely, I discover that, in spite of all the doom and gloom, there’s hope. There are promises that Jesus makes, that assure us we’ll not be left alone to cope with disasters. He encourages us to persevere through difficult times. He says that we’ll be rewarded for doing so with a deeper understanding of Him and the life he offers and that we’re loved more than we could ever imagine. That sense of hope and God’s love for us is the take-home message from this reading. God is victorious over all evil things and we, with God’s help, can be too.
This gospel passage was Jesus’ final public discourse. It follows right after his comparisons between the rich folk in the Temple dropping their offerings in the collection plate – offerings they wouldn’t miss -and the poor widow who gave her all. The Temple was a popular gathering place and a magnificent building. It was so revered that it was customary to swear by the Temple; speaking against it could be considered blasphemy. It had become an idol and it was a symbol of beauty, stability and permanence. Imagine, then, the incredulity that Jesus faced from his listeners, when he predicted that their precious Temple would be demolished, that every stone in the building would end up in a heap of rubble. In a time of peace, this was unbelievable. Naturally, people wanted to know when this was likely to occur and what signs there might be to warn them of this impending catastrophe. Jesus continued his discourse by predicting the coming of false messiahs, who would try to lead them astray, along with the previously mentioned disasters.
Historically, there’s evidence that all of Jesus’ predictions occurred and that they first happened before the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, only 7 years after the Temple’s completion. The city fell to the Romans, the Temple was set on fire, the gold mortar between the huge stones melted, they collapsed and it became a desolate ruin. Jesus promised that anyone who believed the signs and escaped would be saved. Some historians have indicated that in the terrible fall of Jerusalem, no followers of Jesus lost their lives. Jesus’ warnings were also protections. Historically, there’s also evidence of false prophets claiming to be the messiah and plenty of evidence of persecutions – the persecution especially of Jesus’ followers. “They will lay hands on you and persecute you”, Jesus said. Their stories are recorded in the Bible. John the Baptizer was the first witness to the gospel to be imprisoned; Peter, John and Stephen were hauled before the Sanhedrin, James before Herod Agrippa and Paul before Gallio. All were persecuted and imprisoned. Their persecution, however, Jesus said, would give them an opportunity to testify about him, which we’re told they did.
Then came Jesus’ first promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”. In other words, God will speak through them, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be with them to help and guide them. Promise #2: He will not leave them to fend for themselves. They could rely on Him for help and guidance. In spite of all this hatred and betrayal – promise #3 - by their endurance in bearing these trials and by trusting his promises, Jesus says that, from an eternal perspective “not a hair of your head shall be lost”. A life of faith is not an exemption from adversity, but a reliance on the promise of God to bear witness to that adversity, to be with us in the adversity and to be saved for eternal life through the grace and love of our God.
How might we look at the passage in today’s terms? We’re certainly experiencing earthquakes, famines, wars, insurrections and hatred. One might be tempted to think that we’re gearing up towards Jesus’ Second Coming, but, apparently, people in many past generations have also thought that they were living in the end times. Time will tell of course. Jesus, in his discourse, tells us not to worry about wars and insurrections, that they will occur and that the end won’t follow immediately. The promises he made back then to his listeners, also apply to us today. Jesus was honest in his discourse – this type of honesty is what to expect if you follow him. He could foresee signs that others couldn’t. It’s only when we see things through the eyes of God that we see them clearly. We might do that through prayer and meditation – ours, as well as that of others. Jesus also spoke of a safety that’s beyond earthly threats. Those who walk with Christ may lose their life, but never their courage and ability to endure trials and hardships.
In more recent times, in addition to the experiences of the disciples in the past, I’m reminded of someone like Nelson Mandela. He endured 27 years in prison, much of it in a damp concrete cell 8’x 7’ in dimensions, which contributed to his suffering from tuberculosis. Sometimes he was locked in solitary confinement, and for a long time, was permitted only one visit and one letter every 6 months. His wife was rarely allowed to see him and he was unable to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son. He attended Christian services on Sundays and also studied Islam. He never gave up hope and eventually, after his release from prison, led the African National Congress to victory in an election for both blacks and whites. He became the first black President in South Africa. The first thing he did as President, was to forgive his tormenters; secondly, he incorporated them into his government. He introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services, creating the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which focuses on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS. God was with him and guiding him during his times of trial and adversity. God was with him when he came to power.
Closer to home, I think of my son-in-law, Bill. Bill served as a Senior Pastor in a non-denominational/Baptist church for a number of years, until a segment of the leadership decided that they didn’t like the changes he was suggesting that would, in Bill’s opinion, lead the church forward. They made it clear to him that it was time for him to move on. He was subject to derision and forced to step down. With two children in college and a third in his final years in high school, one might imagine the financial hardship and uncertainties of not having a job or an income. In order to be employable in a Presbyterian church, the church he originally trained in, he needed to re-educate himself and submit to the ordination process of that church. God has been with him and his wife and family during these trials and adversities. He has never lost faith in God’s goodness and he’s now coming out of the dark tunnel into the light of leading a new parish and looking forward to an upcoming ordination. Adversity has strengthened him and his faith.
I can remember times in my own life when this has been true. It may have been a sense or inner knowledge that God is with me or God may have been present through a friend or stranger who came into my life at just the right time. God loves and cares for each one of us more than we can ever imagine or comprehend, so, if you’re going through a particularly difficult time, know that Jesus was there before you and will continue to be there with you now. His is the victory over all evil. Look for the grace and unexpected blessings even in a time of hardship, pain or tragedy. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” Jesus says, and, who knows, perhaps by doing so, we’ll be able to reiterate that old World War II saying that “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’” without having tongue in cheek! Amen.
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