As we approach the end of the Church year and prepare for the liturgical season of Advent, our scriptures become very apocalyptic—speaking of the future. Today’s lessons certainly fall into that category, as they set forth promises of the coming of God’s reign, or the Kingdom of God, in the midst of visions of destruction and persecution.
In the climax of his public teaching during his final days in Jerusalem, Jesus presents to his disciples a series of apocalyptic prophecies and images. And talk about being hit by a thunderbolt, it’s only the end of the world, AS THEY KNOW IT. Jesus gives his disciples the bad news first, and it includes destruction of the beautifully adorned temple—the physical foundation of the Jewish faith—on which they have been reflecting. Not one stone will be left on top of another. And their very lives are at stake due to what will soon be inflected on them. For the good news, they have to wait a bit.
To bring this home at some kind of personal level for us, and to understand the shock and horror of the situation, it’s sort of like the college student who sent the following letter to her parents:
“Dear Mom and Dad: I am sending this text on someone else’s cell phone because my phone got burned in the fire. I got out of the hospital, and have moved in with my new boyfriend Bill. He got me a job where he works as a bartender—I’m a waitress at the Red Dog Saloon. Your new grandbaby is due next fall.”
But wait…The next page continued: “Mom, Dad, none of that really happened. However, I made a C in French, and I’m failing History. Love, your Daughter.”
Now for Jesus’ good news in modern verse: Those who retain their faith in a God of love and justice, in the midst of social upheaval or environmental calamity, will call upon their God to make right what is wrong. You will suffer and be persecuted, but by your faith in God and your faithful spiritual endurance, you will gain your souls.
What causes us confusion is the line about not a hair on your will perish. A literal interpretation makes it sound as if nothing could possibly happen to the disciples. However, the book of Acts is full of stories of arrest, persecution, and imprisonment because of faith in Jesus. Most of the disciples died tragic deaths for their faith. In fact, Peter, like Jesus, was crucified, but when his persecutors went to nail him to the cross, he asked to be crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die as his Lord had. And we know from history that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, or AD, during the Siege of Jerusalem.
Jesus knew, as he approached his own death, that the world wasn’t yet ready for this radical new Jewish call to faith. Most could not understand how the seemingly powerless love he taught and exemplified, could replace loveless power. Most could not understand how Jesus’ gospel of love could replace a system of simply keeping the Law, when in fact, Love went beyond the Law. It all seemed to be changing too quickly. The religious establishment feared loss of control; the Romans feared loss of political power.
Most of us have never had to suffer for our faiths, and I pray that we never will have to suffer for our faith, although there are places in the world where it continues to take place. Yet, in this life, suffering comes in many forms. We lose a job, we lose a loved one to cancer and death, we are affected by war, upheaval in our government, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, we are mistreated by family or friends, and confusion about church life. Life in general can seem difficult.
Ask Job. He will tell you. He lost all his wealth, he lost his beloved children, and he lost his health. He was in such misery that his wife, tormented by watching his suffering, said to him, “Job, curse God and die!”
But what does faithful Job say? “Though he slay me, yet will I praise him!” Job suffered, he complained, and he took God to task. Yet he endured. And ultimately he received blessing upon blessing for his obedience, endurance in the faith, and his faithfulness.
I am going to share a story about Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and real estate investor who lost almost everything and yet remained resolute in his faith.
He lost a child to illness, lost his property to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and then, trying to send his family to Europe for respite, lost all four daughters at sea.
When his wife cabled him, “Saved alone,” he set sail for Wales. Over the sea near Newfoundland where his daughters had drowned, he wrote a hymn, which is one of my old-time favorites, that we sang in church a few weeks ago:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Spafford and his wife Anna picked up their lives, had three more children, and moved to Jerusalem to found a ministry to the poor.
Life and soul don’t always walk in sync. Jesus promised his disciples that none of them would die. In fact, almost all died grisly deaths, martyrs to their faith in him. But all was well with their souls. And we see a spiritual truth: For while life is in human hands, soul is in God’s hand.
Another verse from Spafford’s hymn:
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!
The Christian hope isn’t that life will never end. Life as we know it always ends. Our hope and faith is that the God who gave us life will welcome us in death, and we will live with God in eternity; in essence, never dying.
Who will know that “eternal life”? Christian religionists have tried for centuries to make it a select set to which only the righteous (as they define righteous) can belong. They tried to compel obedience by positioning themselves as the gatekeepers who say Yea or Nay to the newly departed. That threat and fear might have built a church, but it misrepresented God’s nature. It appealed to the lowest form of ethics, namely, doing good just to avoid punishment. The highest form is what Spafford attained, namely, doing good because God is good, regardless of what is going on around us.
Some people discover God’s goodness in this life, and they are blessed by manifold opportunities to do good, love and forgive your neighbor, and be generous to give to the work God is doing—the building up of the Kingdom of God in our very midst. Some people remain blind to God in this life and only discover God’s mercy and grace after relinquishing all other gods in their lives, perhaps at death.
This is not the good news that Jesus preached, taught, and exemplified. Jesus taught and he still teaches us today, that nothing, nothing, nothing can snatch you from the love of God for those who love God…that nothing and no one can rob you of your salvation, grace, mercy, and faith.
God loves what God has made. Who is anyone to say that God cannot love us into eternal life? Stones and mortar, rafters and beams of the church buildings might be torn down or burned. We will always have as the foundation of our faith, Jesus, the new imperishable temple. We will, by our faith and our generosity, like that of Job’s and Spafford’s, help Jesus build the Kingdom of God, investing in the Kingdom of God, here and now! And we will be able to say, I have lived, I have tried, I have failed, my lot has been imperfect, and I have suffered, but by the grace of God, I will never really die. “And, yes, it is well with my soul!”