I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
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 even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
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 newday, when justice will reign.
Every age, I suppose, has its unique experience of suffering brought about by oppression, violence and evil. In spite of all our progress, we are not exempt. The 21stcentury has its own fears and concerns, as we’ve already noted. We are living in our own version of the ‘end times.’ What can we learn from these apocalyptic writings that can help us face our own predicament? I’d like to suggest three things:
- 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 in times of trouble. 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).
- 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. In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus encourages us by saying, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). We can face the future in hope because we know that God will never abandon us.
- 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 ancient prophets articulated 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. Jeremiah looks with hope for the promise of God to be fulfilled. He quotes God saying, “The days are surely coming…when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up…and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land… Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jer 33:14,15).
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.
Today’s gospel warns of a time when “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world” (Lk 21:26). But, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified” (Lk 21:9). Instead, he encourages us to “be on guard,” and to live with focus and purpose. “Be alert at all times,” he urges us, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place” (Lk 21:36). This word of hope enables us to stand up and face with undaunted resolution the challenges that lie before us. They inspire us to act with boldness and ready us to make whatever sacrifices will be needed. Our confidence in God alone keeps us from “fainting with fear” and gives us the courage we need to act in hope.
If you find yourself overwhelmed today, if you are tempted to despair because of the circumstances of your life or 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.” Strengthen your resolve to oppose violence in all its forms, to conserve and protect the earth, to toil and sweat for justice, to pray and work for peace. Do not fear; only believe.
Craddock, Fred B. Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p.245.
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