Enduring Hope

Nov 13, 2022

Sermon 11-13-22
The Rev. Dr. Sandy Selby
Text:  Proper 28/Pentecost +23 - Luke 21:5-19
            With conflict in our nation that was brought to focus in the mid-term elections this week; conflict around social and economic issues tearing apart families and congregations; accelerating gun violence in our cities; the ongoing devastation and deprivation in Ukraine at the hands of the Russians; and natural disasters in our world including famine in the horn of Africa, monsoonal flooding in Pakistan, hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes, melting glaciers and polar icecaps, not to mention the ongoing pandemic—with all of this chaos around us, the message from Jesus in Luke’s gospel this morning sounds a bit too close to home. Enough already! Couldn’t we instead have turned this morning to Matthew’s gospel, and heard the nice, comforting story about “the lilies of the field” (Mt 6:25-34)?
            But, like most mainline denominations, we Lutherans follow the lectionary, engaging with the particular lessons appointed for the day, even if they make us squirm. On the face of it, today’s lesson from Luke is one of those difficult passages that are hard to hear, and challenging to preach about. But in this day and age our gospel lesson is timely, for its predictions of destruction, catastrophe, conflict, and suffering carry within them a message of hope.
            For most of the season of Pentecost, we have been walking with Jesus who, after his Transfiguration on the mountaintop, had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). After a long and eventful journey, he and his followers made a triumphant entrance into the city. Immediately he went went to the Temple and cleansed it of the merchants who were selling goods there. Since then, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple every day, where he is being challenged by the Sadduccees. He has contrasted the rich people who are contributing their gifts out of their abundance with the poor widow who out of her poverty contributed two small copper coins, all she had to live on.
            And then, his attention turns to the Temple itself. It was, as Luke describes, impressive. Its outer court could accommodate up to 400,000 people, and its exterior was covered on all sides with massive plates of gold.[i] All this will be destroyed, Jesus says; not one stone will be left upon another. He goes on to describe the coming wars, insurrections, and natural disasters, using unsettling language filled with powerful imagery. Such apocalyptic language was used in biblical times as a means to encourage the faithful to trust God, even in the most challenging circumstances. In similar passages to this one in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus talks about this violence and destruction within the context of the end times, the last days. But here, in Luke, Jesus says that the end times will be somewhere down the road. This destruction of Jerusalem and the other trials he describes will happen in the here and now, and his followers will need to find a way to endure.
            Jesus goes on to tell his followers that before all of that destruction occurs, they will suffer persecution; they will be arrested and brought to trial. They will be betrayed by their very families, and hated because they follow him. Anyone who follows Jesus will be met with hostility. 
            When Luke wrote his gospel around the year 90 of the Common Era, the violence, insurrection, and destruction of the Temple had already happened, nearly twenty years earlier. The glorious Temple in Jerusalem, and much of the city around it, had been destroyed. So the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke are more a reflection on what had already happened than a prediction of an event.[ii] Luke’s purpose in writing this apocalyptic account was to encourage the followers of Jesus, nearly sixty years after his death, amidst the challenges they were facing in trying to follow Jesus while the world around them seemed to be falling apart. As such, Jesus’ words are relevant to us, today. Jesus tells his followers—he tells us—that when violence, destruction, conflict, and suffering occur, we must trust that God will sustain us in our time of trial.  Jesus says, “do not be terrified”; then he promises two things:
I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, and,
By your endurance you will gain your souls, which can also be translated, “by your endurance you will gain your life.”
            I like the way commentator Gilberto Ruiz summarizes the message of this passage from Luke: “Despite its language and imagery of destruction, [this] is ultimately a passage grounded in hope— in the hope that God remains present in the world and in one’s life even when things have gotten so bad that it feels like the world is closing in on us.”[iii] These are words of hope for us, today.
            And here, it’s important that we distinguish between hope and optimism. Optimism places the future in our hands, in our abilities, alone. Hope is founded in trust, placing our future in God’s hands, trusting and being open to the God who works through us to bring about transformation, calling us to live with love, justice, goodness, and peace—even as it appears that the world around us is falling part at the seams. It’s not easy for us to feel optimistic, today, given events in the world around us; but we must not lose hope.
            Jesus promises his followers,  “I will give you words and wisdom” and, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
            Here’s a German man’s story of how that happened, for him, during World War II. The Royal Air Force’s code name for the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 was “Gomorrah.” Each night a thousand aircraft dropped incendiary bombs, creating a firestorm that swept through the city, killing 40,000 people in one week. This survivor tells his story:
Together with others belonging to my school class, I was an air force auxiliary in an anti-aircraft battery in the inner city. The battery was stationed on the Outer Alster, easily visible for aircraft, and it was completely wiped out in a hailstorm of bombs. But for some incomprehensible reason, the bomb which blew to pieces the school friend who stood beside me at the firing platform left me unscathed. I found myself in the water, clinging to a plank of wood, and was saved…In the end, those of us who had survived made our way through the wreckage of the streets, climbing over charred bodies. We were convinced that this was indeed ‘the end’, and that the war would be over in a few days. But this terrible end was followed by two other years of unending terror which destroyed the lives of millions…At that time I was 17 years old.[iv]
The narrator of this story was captured by the Allied Forces in 1945, then spent the next three years as a prisoner of war in England and Scotland. In recounting his story, he tells about the toll his wartime experiences took on his inner life: recurring nightmares, numbness, and shame. Raised in a secular home, he had no religious faith to sustain him. But in the prison camp a chaplain gave him a Bible. In it, he says, God “gave me the words” that described my own experience, in the psalms of lament and in Jesus’ words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When he was released from prison, he returned to Germany and studied theology. Ultimately that man, Jürgen Moltmann, became one of the world’s leading theologians, best known for his theology of hope. In the book in which Moltmann tells his story, he describes his understanding of Christian hope:
We wait and hasten, we hope and endure, we pray and watch, we are both patient and curious. That makes the Christian life exciting and alive. The faith that ‘another world is possible’ makes Christian enduring capable of [envisioning a] future.[v]
            “I will give you words and wisdom…By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
            Born in 1889 in rural Georgia, Thomas Dorsey was a songwriter and a gospel and blues musician. He moved to Chicago as a young man, and was a featured piano player in churches, clubs, and theaters. Ultimately he played exclusively in churches, and struggled to support his family. In August 1932, Dorsey went to St. Louis to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting, leaving his pregnant wife behind in Chicago. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram saying, “Your wife just died.” Hurrying home to Chicago, he learned that she had died after having given birth to a son; his son died the next day. After burying his wife and son in the same casket, Dorsey withdrew from his family and friends for an extended time, refusing to compose or play music. A commentator tells what happened:
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.[vi]
“I will give you words and wisdom…By your endurance you will gain your souls.” These are words of hope for us, today.   Amen.
[1] Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 399.
[1] Gilberto Ruiz, “Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Commentary on Luke 21:5-19,” www.workingpreacher.org, 2016.
[1] Ruiz
[1] Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: the Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 33-34.
[1] Moltmann, 88.
[1] Nancy Lynne Westfield, “Pastoral Pesrpective: Luke 21:5-19,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 312.