For several years after college I worked for an international development and relief organization based in Chicago. We provided medicine and medical equipment and personnel for foreign hospitals in 80 or so of the economically-poorest countries of the world. My work was in personnel, which included orienting our expatriate doctors and nurses and medical technicians to the host culture where they would we working. We always told them in great detail the worst they would likely experience: the extremes of the weather, the meager diet, the primitive sanitary conditions, the political tensions with the host government, the competition among various religious and political groups in their area, the lack of privacy, the prospect of their becoming sick, the homesickness they would likely feel, the possible strains on their family, the desperate need for their work… and the haunting guilt they would probably feel being such privileged people in the face of such poverty.
Much of our extensive orientation program focused on worst-case scenarios, and for two reasons. For one, we didn’t need to tell them much about how good their foreign experience would likely be. Drawing on their imagination, their sense of adventure, romance, virtue, dedication, heroism, altruism, faithfulness already gave them a lot of good images of what their foreign experience might be. We didn’t need to tell them about that. Rather, we especially told them how difficult their foreign assignment would likely be because that’s what worked. We relied on extensive research undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development and by the United Nations. These studies showed conclusively that people facing adverse situations are much more prone to find success, fulfillment, satisfaction, good mental and physical health, and be retained if they were prepared for the worst they could possibly face, rather than for the best. And so we prepared our personnel for every worst-case scenario.
I’m reminded of this “preparation principle” in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus reminds us that “servants are not greater than their master.” He says, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” Jesus is not promising us an easy time if we choose to follow him. Quite to the contrary. Someone has said that the Gospel, the good news, is bad news before it is good news. Jesus’ prediction, read in isolation, is just bad news. Here’s the qualification that makes Jesus’ bad prediction good news: Jesus promises us his presence and his provision in all that we face in life. Nothing will separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Nothing will separate us from the presence of God: God Emmanuel, God with us. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ followers discovered this to be true. Like Jesus promised, they would be shared – not spared, but shared – the cross, and that they would meet Jesus in their suffering and distress, and they did. You would have no reason to believe this unless you, too, have experienced Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ provision in your life in the worst possible situations… which, if so, makes bad news – the bad news of the Gospel, the bad news in our newspapers, the bad news we hold in our own hearts and lives – promising. Jesus promises us his presence and his provision always. Come Lord Jesus.
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