Karl Barth is often credited with the suggestion that preachers should do their sermon preparation with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Though he insisted that the newspaper ought to always be interpreted through the lens of Scripture (and not the other way around), this suggestion of his also reminds preachers to uncover the ways in which Scripture speaks the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – into the circumstances of our world and our lives. And with readings like the ones we heard this morning, this can seem like a daunting task – what possible word of hope might there be in such passages that seem overwhelmingly about doom, destruction, and violence?
It doesn’t take much imagination to see all that Jesus predicted in the global affairs of our contemporary moment – there are currently over 40 armed conflicts happening world-wide; epidemics of disease and famine are affecting millions of people across the globe; earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters are displacing hundreds, thousands, and millions around the world. Political strife threatens to destabilize entire regions and is causing
wide-spread civil unrest. Random acts of violence, like the shootings that happened in California and New Jersey this past week, are terrorizing communities and leaving a trail of brokenness, confusion, and despair in their wake.
There are some who read passages like the ones we read this morning and see in them signs that “the end” is near. That the calamities we experience in our world indicate that Christ’s return is imminent. That the so-called secularization of society in the West is producing an environment rich in the persecution of Christians and Christian values. And yet, I wonder if this fascination with apocalyptic doom misses the point of passages like these? If this way of looking at things doesn’t close off the message of hope to any but a select few?
Is it possible to read passages like the ones from this morning and instead see in them something of an invitation and a promise?
A little bit of contextualization might help us here. Luke is writing at a time that most scholars agree is well beyond the destruction of the Temple Jesus speaks about. Its beauty and
splendor would have already been reduced to stubble. The persecution and hardship that Jesus warns about is a foreshadowing of the experience of the apostles that Luke records in the book of Acts, where (to name just a few examples) we learn about Peter and John being arrested for
preaching about Jesus after healing a crippled man. After spending a night in jail, they were brought before the religious council to defend themselves, and, we are told, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and emboldened to give testimony to Jesus.
Later, the apostles were arrested again and miraculously escaped prison. The next day, temple police found them and brought them before the council and again, we are told, they were empowered to bear witness to the gospel. Then, Stephen, the first recorded martyr of the Christian faith, was arrested on false charges and when he was asked to give an account of himself, once again we are told that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and given the words and wisdom he needed to speak truth to power.
From this perspective, it becomes a little easier to see the invitation that our gospel passage offers us. When Jesus warns his listeners about the hardships coming their way, he
insists that it is in these very circumstances that they will be given an opportunity to testify – to witness to a hope and certainty about the way things are and will be, founded not on the permanence and stability of social, political, and religious institutions, but on the permanence and stability of God’s presence and grace.
We learn from the witness of the apostles recorded in the book of Acts, the martyrs of the early church, and so many of the saints who have gone before us, that our calling to testify is not about painting a utopian picture of social progress. From our vantage point in history, it is easy to observe how applicable Jesus’ words are to every age that has come before us. No generation to date has been exempt from wars, insurrections, natural disasters, famine or disease, and there
is no reason to think that any generation after us will be exempt from the same. This observation should temper any temptation toward a theology that defines hope in utopian terms as if we were moving toward some pie-in-the-sky future that we somehow build or bring about on our own. In
this sense, hope is not at all about what we can accomplish, and instead is about what God will accomplish.
Our hope is in the God who is bringing to fruition the world that is to come and who invites us to embody that hope in the particular patterns and practices of our lives, patterns and
practices that reject and disrupt the status quo of our social, political, and even religious systems. It is, to be a sure, a hope that looks beyond our present moment, but it is not a hope that ignores the here and the now. This kind of hope is an invitation to fearless endurance in the face of the suffering that results from so much of the destructive forces that Jesus names. It is embodied in the ways we pattern our common life together, in the ways we seek to fight against injustice, in
the ways we break down barriers of social norms that harm, marginalize, and oppress.
This invitation to fearless endurance is not an invitation to pretend that suffering is absent from our lives or our world. Suffering is real, it is present, it should be named, especially when it is the result of oppressive and violent systems.
Theologian Mary Shawn Copeland, in an essay titled ‘Wading Through Many Sorrows,’ says this: “Suffering always means pain, disruption, separation, and incompleteness…It can render us powerless and mute, push us to the borders of hopelessness and despair.” I’m certain that Jesus was well aware of what suffering means. And yet, he invites us to embody power, to raise our voices in times of destruction, to have the audacity to be courageous in the face of despair, to be witnesses to the truth in systems of corruption.
That is our invitation.
What, then, is the promise in our gospel passage? I want to suggest two things. The first, is that our witness is empowered by God’s presence in our lives. This is what marks us as a people of hope! It is our capacity to stand up, to raise our heads and to bear witness to a kind of life that rejects the false securities and certainties of this world; a kind of life that claims that the suffering, violence and injustice so prevalent around us will not have the last word. That, indeed, as the prophet Malachi proclaims, “the sun of righteousness will rise and bring healing on its wings.”
We are not left to our own devices to stand against the destructive forces of the world. We do not have to just grit our teeth and bear the pain, disruption, separation, and incompleteness that characterizes suffering, nor do we need to just dig down deep to find the strength to get through it. The patterns and practices that form us as the people of God are the means through which God transforms and strengthens us to live lives worthy of the gospel, that infuse in us the words and wisdom of the Christ who redeems us, and that give us the audacity to fearlessly endure the calamities of our day.
The second promise I want to suggest, requires us to do one more small contextual analysis. Our gospel passage is found in a unit that does not end where our reading today did, but
goes on to speak about the coming of the Son of Man. The One who promises to empower our endurance and quiet our fears is the same One who promises to return and to bring the
redemption he offers us to fruition. We proclaim this mystery of faith in various ways every time we gather around this altar – we eat and drink in anticipation of a heavenly banquet where we will experience the abundance of God’s love and the fullness of the reconciliation that God offers us in Jesus Christ. Our eucharistic prayer is a corporate prayer, a testimony to the God we serve, a statement of our belief that the one who created heaven and earth, who took on human flesh to show us the depths of love, who offers us freedom from sin and death, is the same God who we profess will come again in glory to bring about a new heaven and new earth.
These promises fuel our hope, they compel us to lean into a future characterized not by the modern myth of progress but by the faithfulness of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains. These promises enable us to accept the invitation of Christ to show forth God’s praise – not only with our lips but in our lives. These promises remind us that the Holy Spirit empowers us and strengthens us to take what we profess in this space and embody the gospel in a world desperate for good news.