Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Worst Times, Best Times

Worst Times, Best Times
Lk 21:5-19[1]
  I grew up in an era when everybody was asking about the “end times.”  Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth was the handbook for interpreting God, the Bible, and the end of the world.  I guess he was the voice of the Left Behind philosophy in that day. [2]   The popularity of Tim LaHaye’s series only bears witness to the fact that this kind of thinking is still around.  People still view the “end times” with fear and trembling. Except that one of the main reasons why this approach to the Christian faith has been so popular is that there’s a huge exception clause.  Faithful Christians don’t have to worry about the trials and tribulations of the “end times” because they are going to be taken to be with Jesus in the “rapture.”  Hence the language of being “left behind”--it refers to the poor souls who haven’t yet embraced the Christian faith who are going to have to endure the “great tribulation.” 
  Besides the fact that this whole approach to the Christian faith is incredibly heartless when it comes to the fate of most of humanity, the problem is that it makes nonsense out of what the Bible actually teaches.  I think our Gospel lesson for today is a case in point.  Contrary to what the fear-mongers of our day have to say about the last times, Jesus said that his followers would be right in the middle of it all.  He said they would be arrested and persecuted (Lk. 21:12), that they would be betrayed even by members of their own family (Lk. 21:16), that they would be “hated by all because of my name” (Lk. 21:17).  It sounds like Jesus envisioned Christians enduring the hardships and trials of the last times along with everyone else--perhaps even more so.[3] 
  Unfortunately, our lesson for today is a bit confusing.  Some of what he says seems to refer to events that would happen in their lifetimes--wars and insurrections, the Jewish people falling by the sword and Jerusalem being trampled by the Gentiles (Lk. 21:23-24).  And, in fact, about 40 years after Jesus’ death the Jewish people fought a three-year war to throw of the yoke of their Roman conquerors.  It was a war, however, that they were destined to lose.  And as payment for their rebellion, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple.  And many of the people got caught up in the violence--Jewish people and Christian alike.
  But some of what Jesus refers to in our lesson seems to point to a time in the future--a time when there would be “dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (Lk. 21:11) and the nations would see “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:27).  So it’s hard to know if Jesus was talking about something that was to happen in the near future or about the end times.  I think the answer is that he was talking about both.  He knew that the Jewish war would be just as devastating for his followers, and he used that catastrophic event to warn them about the hardships that they would face until the final cataclysm, the return of Christ.[4]  And so Jesus urged them to “be alert,” praying for strength, so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard when the day of his return actually would come (Lk. 21:34-36).  And he promised them that the final outcome of all of the trials and hardships would not be destruction but their redemption (Lk. 21:28)![5]
  In fact, it seems that the trials and hardships that were to come upon those who followed Jesus were to be intentional, not accidental.  Jesus said that the purpose for all of this was to give them “an opportunity to testify” (Lk. 21:13).  Now, if you’re like me, you might like to take a pass on that kind of “opportunity.”  But in fact it would seem that Jesus was trying to tell them that the hardships they would undergo because of their allegiance to him would actually give them the perfect opportunity to bear witness to their faith.  Think about it: it’s one thing to share your faith with someone over coffee at a local cafe.  It’s another thing altogether to bear witness to your commitment to following Jesus when your life is at stake, or you are threatened with bodily harm, or you are facing some form of attack.  Then your witness is backed up in a powerful way by your actions.[6]
  Part of the mindset that I learned growing up was that we lived in a country where nobody would be persecuted because of their faith.  We took great comfort in that, just like people take comfort in the idea that Christians will be spared from the hardships of the end times.  But the truth is that those who commit themselves to follow Jesus and to live out the values of God’s kingdom will always face trials and hardships in this life.  Just ask the people who were threatened and beaten and killed for standing up for justice during the Civil Rights movement.[7]   Suffering is part and parcel of what it means to follow a Savior whose path led him to the cross!  But trials and hardships are never the last word in our faith.  When we are overcome by the difficulties of the present life, we need to remember that “our redemption is drawing near”![8]  If we can do that, if we can maintain our faith in the face of the worst that our times can throw at us, then they can become the best of times for us, because we will have the chance to really show a doubting world what it means to be a Christian.[9]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/17/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] This view, known as Dispensationalism, was first articulated by J. N. Darby in the early 19th Century, but it was popularized by C. I. Scofield in the “Scofield Study Bible” that has been a popular version of Bible among fundamentalist Christians for over 100 years.
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 245, where he says that “Disciples are not exempt from suffering,” and that there is in this text “nothing of the arrogance ... born of a doctrine of a rapture in which believers are lifted above the conditions of persecution and hardship.”  Cf. similarly, R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in New Interpreters Bible IX:402, where he acknowledges that “in every generation there are those whose religion is simply a form of escapism into the fantasy of futurism.”  Cf. also F. Dean Lueking, “Gaining One’s Soul,” The Christian Century (Nov. 4, 1998): 1019, where he says that in the face of speculation about “signs” what is needed is “Disciplined, enduring discipleship.”  He says, “The key to the End Time is the cross, not heifers and stones and rebuilt altars.”
[4] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1329, where he said that the Gospel of Luke views the destruction of Jerusalem  “in a microcosmic view; it sees the crisis that the earthly coming of Jesus brought into the lives of his own generation, but sees it now as a harbinger of the crisis which Jesus and his message, and above all his coming as the Son of Man, will bring ‘to all who dwell upon the entire face of the earth’ (21:35).” Cf. also Ibid., 1349.
[5] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 248, where he points out that looking to the end time in the midst of suffering “should aid us in keeping gains and losses in proper perspective ... and cheer us with the news not only that today is a gift of God but also that tomorrow we stand in the presence of the Son of man.”
[6] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1340.
[7] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:402-403, where he says that in spite of the escapism some have embraced, “every generation has also had its courageous and prophetic visionaries who devoted themselves completely to Jesus’ call to create community, oppose injustice, work for people and make a place for the excluded.  Every generation, therefore, is called back to the teachings of Jesus by the examples of those who have suffered persecution and hardship because they dared to strive to live out Jesus’ call for a community that transcends social barriers, that cares for its least privileged, and that confronts abuses of power and wealth.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 247: “The final changes in heaven and earth are not ... to usher in a time of terror for the faithful; rather they are to realize that these are signs of the time of their redemption (v. 28).”
[9] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 243, where he says that the whole point of “apocalyptic” teachings that look to the end times is that it presents “a dramatic witness to the tenacity of faith and hope among the people of God,”  especially when they have to endure suffering.  Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:411: “The message of the eschatological discourse, ... needs to be proclaimed in every time because it is one of hope: ‘Your redemption is drawing near’ (21:28). God’s word will never pass away (21:33).”

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