Fear, Wars, and Portents
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” Wow, our gospel reading today is filled with pleasantries is it not? Maybe you are sitting there thinking, “Please Fr. Eric, preach a little hope for us this week, because your sermons have made being a disciple seem a bit challenging. I mean those Pentecost readings have been a little ominous and foreboding, and the warnings about church conflict, being a saint in a changing world, and “In Me I Trust” have been a little too much, ok? Tell us something good today, and tell us a story of hope.
We all could use a story of hope these days, especially when we see government flashing portents of strife and division. We all could use a story of hope, especially when we see yet one more school shooting in Santa Clarita last week. We all could use a story of hope, especially when the world we live in, sometimes seems like a powder keg ready to explode, just waiting for the spark to ignite. We all could use a story of hope today As we fear what we believe to be ominous times.
Being afraid of the end the world is nothing new for us. This nation has faced many challenges, tragedies, and transitions. We survived a revolution, civil war, two World Wars, the September 11th Attacks, and the subprime mortgage collapse a few years ago. We have been afraid of the “End of the World” as we know it, the unknown, the inevitable, and the probable, it all looms out there. We could choose to live in fear, but Jesus says that there is great hope for us, if we just embrace it, and allow the hope of the Gospel, to be woven in the stories of our lives.
We humans need hope and so, movies, books, and television have given us stories of hope. One of my favorites is “The Lord of the Rings, an epic high-fantasy novel written by English author J. R. R. Tolkien, the son of an Anglican, and a dear friend of C.S. Lewis. The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who had in an earlier age created the One Ring … as the ultimate weapon … to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth.” (1) The Lord of the Rings is a story about how diverse ethnic peoples lived on the edge of destruction every day in a battle against Sauron and his humanoid creatures.
The good guys are thehobbits, dwarves, elves, and men of Middle Earth, who chose not to live in fear and hiding but in hope, and so, they worked together to thwart the evils that plague the world. The bad guys are the orcs, goblins, and an evil lord hell bent on turning hope to despair, beauty into darkness, and life into pain. The Lord of the Rings is an epic tale, and I believe Tolkien took his cue when writing this tale, from the Christian story of hope and salvation. Our hope story is the one where we Christians through faith, endurance, and hope, rely and as trust in Jesus Christ who ultimately overcame the greatest obstacles of this life, including death.
So, with divisive government, new foreign threats, school shootings, health problems, family strife, and other troubles, we experience fear and trepidation every day in this life, but what if we had faith to live in hope. What if we saw difficulties and trials as opportunities to die in some way to our fears, so that in God’s time, we might be transformed into the people God is moving us to become.
Life today is full of changes: new jobs, relocations, loss of relationships, financial woes, a detour from a career dream, or the death of loved ones; these are the natural occurrences of life that may feel, while in the midst of them, like the “end of the world.” We all know, if we have lived at all, tragic circumstances will happen, changes will come, and life is not always, nor has it ever intended to be easy.
Jesus confirms that reality and in today’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Being a follower of Jesus sounds difficult doesn’t it?
“There is a religious fantasy among some Christians, who believe a gospel where financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God , and that with positive speech alone … God will increase one’s material wealth.” (2) Some even believe that if we pray unceasingly the right words with the right mindset well, that perfect parking spot at Wal Mart or Target will magically appear and we will be in God’s graces. That is not faith, but a misguided belief that being a disciple of Jesus is easy, or being a Christian is a “trouble-free” life. It is however, a life of peace in the grace of hope is what discipleship is really all about.
Jesus said that when we face rejection of our commitment to follow him, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” When we make the decision to live the radical principles of self-giving love, it will come with some rejection in this “dog eat dog” world. Regardless where Christianity is professed, if we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we potentially face opposition even from our friends. Try this next week, if you are bold enough. When you are in a conversation with a secular friend over lunch or dinner, and they ask you about a recent decision you made in your life, tell them it was because of your Christian faith. You will have just opened yourself to the persecution Jesus is talking about, but that simple statement claiming your faith is really evangelism in action.
You hear me talk all the time about evangelism all the time, telling you that we Episcopalians are supposed to do it, because it is something Jesus expects us to do. Now, Jesus does not command us to go door to door next week, ring the doorbell, hand the person a gospel tract, and say to them, “I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.” Evangelism is not overt proselytizing trying to get someone to make a decision to join St. Monica’s on the spot. Evangelism is an ongoing willingness, readiness, while having the endurance to boldly, and every day to claim your identity as a follower of Jesus, and when the opportunity presents itself, to do so without reservation or fear.
You see, in a culture, in which we are growing to nearly 1/3 of us claiming no connection to a faith community, we Episcopalians are going to have to become evangelists once again. We are going to have to rely on more than merely fine liturgy and impeccable music, nonthreatening sermons, and proper coffee hours in order to be proclaimers of hope. Remember, we are a church on a mission to be icons of Good News of hope, endurance and faith for others.
In this fear-filled world, we offer a way of following Jesus that offers grace filled hope in the midst of warnings, despair, and fear. So, being a Christian was never meant to be easy, but God never abandons us, God gives us the means, God provides and thus, we have hope in a peace that passes all understanding; Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Jesus assures us that when we face trouble, transitions, challenges, and yes, even when we face wars, insurrections, and maybe even the end of the world, we can be at peace. We are at peace because even death itself has no power over the hope we have in the Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s love has already overcome death, and that is where we find our story of hope.
In the Lord of the Rings, the best scene of the whole trilogy happens at the gates of Minis Tirith, the heavily fortified capital of one of the last vestiges of humanity. At this place, the epic battle of the evil of the world and all its forces, converge to overtake humanity. Destruction was at the gates and a courageous hobbit named Pippin sees the end in sight. He looked at the wise wizard Gandalf, his faithful battle partner and said, “I didn’t think it would end this way.” Gandalf replied, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.” Pippin confused, replied, “What? Gandalf? See what?” Gandalf with hope in his eyes, as if he had seen glimpses of it before (which he had, said, “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” With hope staring at him, and with a smile, Pippin responded, “Well, that isn’t so bad.” Gandalf smiled and said, “No. No, it isn’t.” The wizard had seen glimpses of the blessed hope that he gave little Pippen that day. Like him, we Christians have hope in us, the hope of Christ, and it is a hope for the world that is facing the fears of its own destruction. We must share it with others.
The truth of the matter is this, if we who have this hope are afraid to share our hope in Jesus Christ, we lose our mission call as disciples. As our brother the Apostle Paul reminded that early church in Thessalonica, he reminds us today, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Jesus promises us that even at the end, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” So, next week, be bold and take a risk, and be good news for someone you meet this week. The promise of faith, hope, and endurance in Jesus Christ is the story all us need to hear today, and not just today, but every day.