Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? Today’s lessons may give us a clue.
Scripture scholars tell us that Luke was writing to a group of predominantly Gentile believers near the end of the first century. Some ten or twenty years earlier, in the year 70, they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. It’s difficult for us to imagine how devastating these events were for the Jews and for these early Christians.The Temple was the dwelling place of God, the focal point of their religious belief and practice. It was hard to imagine where God was in a tragedy of this magnitude. Furthermore, these early Christians were experiencing opposition from their neighbors and mounting persecution at the hands of the Romans; some were being arrested, imprisoned, even put to death for their faith. With no relief in sight, we see them looking to God for answers, for some sign of hope.
What we have in this passage from Luke’s gospel is an example of apocalyptic writing. Apocalyptic writing looks forward to a tumultuous time, when the world as it has been known and experienced up to this point will end, and a new world will take shape in which God’s order is restored and justice and peace are re-established. The best example of this in the Hebrew Scriptures is the book of Daniel, which looked forward to the day when power of Babylon would be broken and the Israelites would return from exile. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation similarly looked forward to the destruction of Rome and the inauguration of the triumphant reign of God. These writings offered hope, especially for the oppressed victims of worldly powers.
Apocalyptic writing arises out of experiences of tragedy and oppression, as people of faith look to God for indications of God’s will and for relief from their suffering. It is the voice of faith in the most difficult of times, expressing trust in God and confidence that God will act on behalf of those who are powerless. The spirituals that were composed and sung by African slaves in this country are full of apocalyptic language, looking for a day of freedom and release when justice would be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Apocalyptic writing and music gives voice to the hopes of suffering people for a better day, a new day, when justice will reign.
Every age, I suppose, has its unique experience of suffering brought about by oppression, violence and evil. Not long ago we brothers read a recently-published biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during our silent meals in the refectory. The unimaginable suffering imposed by Hitler and the Nazis in the last century certainly prompted a desperate longing for God to act with justice. The cry for God to destroy the Nazi’s evil regime and to vindicate its victims was in the heart of every faithful Jew, and of countless others besides. Many longed for a day which they could not yet imagine, and looked to God to overcome their oppressors, clinging tenaciously to their faith in God’s goodness, power and mercy.
The 21st century has its own fears and concerns: (1) an unstable world economy, in part brought about by exorbitant risk-taking and greed; (2) the constant threat of terrorism and war fueled by hatred, fear and pride; (3) the rash of natural disasters that have occurred over the last ten years: tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and famines; (4) the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the “haves” and the “have nots,” in our country and in the world; (5) the threat of vast numbers of weapons of mass destruction that are stockpiled in our country and throughout the world, presumably in order to maintain peace. We are living in our own version of the ‘end times.’
What can we learn from these apocalyptic writings, and especially from the lessons we have heard this morning? I’d like to suggest three things:
1. We can learn that people of faith are not exempt from the world’s suffering. Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in the Gospel of Luke calls for faithfulness and endurance from disciples who are threatened by arrest or by penalty of death. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock writes, “There is nothing here of the arrogance one sometimes sees and hears in modern apocalyptists, an arrogance born of a doctrine of a rapture in which believers are lifted above the conditions of persecution and hardship. There are no scenes here of planes falling from the sky because believing pilots have been raptured or cars crashing on the highway because their drivers were believers and hence have been lifted to an indifferent bliss. According to [Luke], [Jesus’ disciples] are in a time of witnessing in the face of suffering and death, but ‘by [their] endurance [they] will gain [their] lives’” (Luke 21:19).
2. We can learn that God does not forsake us in these times, but is always with us, and that the purposes of God cannot be thwarted. There are, to be sure, times when it is difficult to see light in the face of overwhelming darkness and evil, but as Gospel of John assures us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). In the end, darkness cannot extinguish the light of God. People of faith know this to be true. The great spiritual leader of India in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi, expressed it this way: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail – think of it, always.” The purposes of God cannot be thwarted.
3. We can learn the importance of keeping before us a vision of what can be, what will be, in the day of God’s coming. The lesson we read this morning from the book of the prophet Isaiah (65:17-25), articulates a vision of the reign of God that inspired hope in the hearts of the Jews in ancient times, and which still stirs our hearts today. The prophet looks with hope for the promise of God to be fulfilled. He quotes God saying, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (v. 17). “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (v. 19)…”The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (v. 25).
The writers of apocalyptic literature saw beyond what was seen to what was as yet unseen. They distinguished between what appeared to be happening and what really was happening. They saw history in the larger context of God’s purposes for humankind and for all of creation. And they witnessed to their faith that God would and could overcome injustice, conquer evil and transform the world. Theirs is a message that can offer and restore hope, that can give us renewed strength to face the troubles of our own time. “Without a vision the people perish,” the book of Proverbs tells us (Prov 29:18). Apocalyptic writings can renew for us this vision and hope.
“Do not be terrified,” says Jesus (Luke 21:9). When you are handed over and imprisoned, when you are brought before kings and governors to answer the charges brought against you, rise up in hope, “for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (v. 15). “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (v. 19).
If you find yourself in a place of suffering today, if you are tempted to despair because of the state of the world, lift up your eyes and fix them on God. Trust in the goodness and mercy of God. Stand up and look despair in the face and say, “I will not be afraid.” In your heart, say with the psalmist, “FOR GOD ALONE my soul waits in silence; from GOD comes my salvation” (Ps 62:1).
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