Readings: Isaiah 65:17–25, 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13 & Luke 21:5–19
In the opening verses of today’s gospel passage, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which of course came true in the year 70, when it was totally destroyed by the Romans after they had put down a rebellion by the Jewish people. This prophecy of Jesus prompted the disciples to ask two questions: When will it happen? And, what will be the sign that it is going to happen?
Jesus goes on to describe three things that will take place in the future: (1) imposters will come in his name and try to trick the faithful (and we know there have been literally hundreds of people down through the centuries who have claimed to be the Second Coming of Jesus); (2) war and conflict will rage on; and (3) natural disasters will be widespread. Based on what is happening in the world today, with all of the various civil wars and other military conflicts being fought, not to mention the many natural disasters occurring, we could quite reasonably argue that the end of days will happen any time soon. In today’s passage though, Jesus assures the disciples that the end times are in the future and that these things will not all happen at once.
He also tells the disciples that they themselves will be arrested and persecuted on account of his name, and that some of them will even be betrayed by family members or friends. Then he says a rather strange thing in verse 13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” The persecution they suffer, will provide them with an opportunity to testify to their belief in Jesus. He goes on to tell them that their testimony must not be rehearsed or prepared. Instead, they should rely on the wisdom that will be given to them in the moment. Jesus says that the reward for their testimony and their endurance of these catastrophic times will be the gaining of their very souls. Let’s reflect on Jesus’ unusual statement about suffering as opportunity for testimony.
What kind of testimony does one give in the face of suffering? One example of a testimony that was born out of a time of great suffering can be found in the song “Precious Lord,” written by Thomas Dorsey. Dorsey, born in 1889 in rural Georgia, was a prolific songwriter and an excellent gospel and blues musician. While a young man, Dorsey moved to Chicago and found work as a piano player in churches as well as in clubs and playing in theatres. Struggling to support his family, Dorsey divided his time between playing in the clubs and playing in the church. After a period of time, Dorsey devoted his talents exclusively to the church.
In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis. After the first night of the revival, he received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” He raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth. The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same coffin and withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite some time.
While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.
At the end of today’s passage Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Jesus assured the disciples that he would be with them and make his Kingdom known through them. In the end, he promised that he would return in power and glory to save them. But he wasn’t saying they would be exempt from physical harm or death in the persecutions that were to follow. Remember, many of his followers were martyred for their belief.
What he was saying though, was that none of them would suffer spiritual or eternal loss. On earth, everyone will die, but those who believe in Jesus will be saved for eternal life.
Where there is such belief, we are given the endurance by which we gain our souls. Such endurance requires us to be patient, persistent and committed, not lazy or idle while we wait for salvation.
That had been the problem with certain members of the Thessalonians. Believing the second coming of Jesus to be imminent, many of them had given up their work and abandoned the regular tasks of each day, to instead wait in excited idleness for Jesus to come. In his second letter to them, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to return to their work and quietly earn their living. He suggests to others in the church community that if they witness someone not “pulling their weight, they should ignore that person so as to make them feel ashamed. But he stresses that they do this out of genuine love and concern for their fellow believer and not out of anger or resentment.
There is no denying that elements of radical suffering still exist in the world. However, we are given a foretaste of the new heavens and earth through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The message that God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to the Jewish people who returned from exile in Babylon, was that He would create “new heavens and a new earth”. There would be a fresh start, with no memory of the age that had gone before. Creation would be as God originally intended it; peaceful and harmonious. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
God is the one who creates, sustains, reconciles and sustains us. Created by God, we are given gifts and abilities and invited in to participate in the ongoing formation of the new creation for all children of God whereby we can work to diminish suffering. The question is, how do we participate in what God is already doing? How do we use our God-given gifts to participate in the kingdom of God here and now? Think of the little things that can be done to show signs of God’s new creation.
We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the homeless, one act of mercy or change at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one act of love, one can of beans, one moment of encouragement, one confession of God’s presence, one moment in which another person is humanised rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice.
Taken collectively with those of other believers, single acts such as these of serving God and our neighbour, illustrate that God’s Kingdom breaking into the world today.