St Laurence, Effingham—Luke 21:5-19, Malachi 3:13—4:2a,5-6; II Thessalonians 3:6-13
One of the blessings of our Anglican and Catholic tradition is the church year. It systematically takes us through the mysteries of our faith, and if we pay attention to it, and allow it to spill over into the rest of our lives, it draws us closer to Christ in the fellowship of his Church. If you have been an unusually attentive observer of the subtleties of the liturgical calendar in the past, you may know that we are in that time during the year when our attention is drawn to that article of the Creed in which we profess our belief that the same Christ who came as a vulnerable infant two thousand years ago will come again in glory, this time to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. When he comes, all wrongs will be put right, all injustices will be corrected, and all tears will be wiped away. Justice, peace, and love will prevail throughout the created order.
In the meantime, though, things are in a bit of a mess, aren’t they? People in the Philippines are digging out from a catastrophic typhoon. Civil war is causing anarchy in Syria, with a huge cost in suffering and lives. Human trafficking, which is just a cleaned-up name for slavery, seems to be thriving in many parts of the world. Iran seems resolved to develop nuclear weapons, daring the rest of the world to try and stop them. And, of course, there’s Israel and the Palestinians—creating an environment that is the incubator of 98% of worldwide terrorism.
And on top of these global catastrophes, ordinary bad stuff still happens every day to ordinary people. We get sick, we get old, we die. Along the way, we make stupid financial decisions and mouth off to the wrong people and try to hang on to jobs that we find boring at best because somehow we’ve got to pay the bills. In my case, a bad day is defined by how well the technology I depend on works. If I have computer or internet connection problems, it sucks up huge quantities of valuable time and energy.
With all that’s going on, globally and locally, it can be exceedingly difficult to find faith and keep faith. We say we believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords, to rescue the downtrodden, reward the righteous, and crush the oppressor. We say we believe in the communion of saints and the life of the world to come. But it is awfully challenging to maintain those beliefs in the face of everything that confronts us.
We may be forgiven for assuming that, since we have the benefit of twenty centuries of experience since the first coming of Christ, we have a unique perspective that the earliest generations of Christians didn’t have. That may be, but we are by no means alone in our inability to cope with the need to wait, to hope, to persevere, to keep on keeping on. We are not alone in our desire to just have it be done with. The very earliest generation of Christians was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was going to happen …pretty much…next week, or the week after, at the latest. Some of them decided to quit working, to no longer invest time or energy in the long-term fabric of their earthly lives, because, after all, what’s the point? If Christ is coming very soon, why break a sweat over a roof that isn’t going to actually start leaking until next winter? St Paul, in his letters to the new Christians in Thessalonica, had to gently reprimand these folks and tell them, If you don’t work, don’t expect to eat!
The Jewish community 500 years before Christ also had to deal with their own version of the same problem. Their world was just as chaotic and just as unsettling to them as ours is to us. They were waiting for the Lord to send his long-expected Messiah—in Greek, the Christ—who would restore the national glory that they enjoyed under King David another five centuries or so earlier. Listen to how cynical they were getting as they waited:
It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape.
This sounds like the voice of a people who have nearly reached the end of their rope, and we empathize with them.
Even the very contemporaries of Jesus felt the pressure. They were going around with him day by day. Many of them had sacrificed their livelihoods and put their personal lives on hold in order to follow him. They had high hopes that he was indeed the Christ, the one who would deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression. In the days just prior to his crucifixion, Jesus and his followers are looking at the magnificent Jerusalem temple, and he says something quite remarkable: “…the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As you might imagine, that got a conversation going, and Jesus took the opportunity to explain that things would definitely get worse before they got better:
…when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once….Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony.
Quite a bit to look forward to, isn’t it? Very often, we’d just rather not. Can’t we just “fast forward” through that stuff? Isn’t there a pill we can take and have someone wake us when it’s all over? The fact that we have company in our misery may or may not be comforting, but we do: Christians have been waiting for 2,000 years. The Jews waited for the first coming of the Messiah another thousand years before that. And the whole human race has been waiting since before the dawn of recorded time. We read about the first promise in the Book of Genesis: As the Lord is banishing Adam and Eve and the serpent from the Garden of Eden, he tells them that a descendent of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. The Church has always considered this the first promise of a divine Savior, the first premonition of the gospel. And now we wait. We continue to wait.
And Jesus encourages us in our waiting. He tells us that, as we bear witness to him until he comes again, he will supply our needs—in this case, particularly our need to know what to say when the world challenges our faith in all the ways it does. On the surface, this means that the Spirit will give us words in moments of direct confrontation. Underneath the surface, it suggests that the Spirit will give us words to repeat to ourselves in moments of doubt and fear and frustration:
I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.
By your endurance you will gain your lives. This is God’s good news to us today as we mark this season of special attention to the second coming of Christ to put all things right, the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride adorned for her husband. “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Hang in there. I will meet your needs as they arise. Not before they arise, but as they arise. Trust me. Be faithful. Your perseverance will be rewarded. And, believe me, what’s coming is well worth waiting for! In the words of Malachi’s prophecy:
Behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
May we not grow weary, my brothers and sisters. May we not lose heart. Christ is coming. Our salvation is at hand. Amen.