“Not a hair of your head will perish; by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Have you ever watched young children go off a diving board for the first time? Some of them (the very brave) will walk to the ladder and go up needing just a little verbal encouragement. Maybe they’ll walk to the end of the board, close their eyes, and step off. Then there are the reckless few who seem not to understand the risk, who bound up the ladder, run to the end of the board and leap into the air. And of course there are the others, the fear filled ones, who may need a helping hand or to see a trusted adult ready to catch them in order to jump into the water. And we all know those who are paralyzed by the thought of even going up the ladder and if they get that far may need someone to help them back down. Diving boards are a place of fear from thrills to terror. As a child I did not like the idea of even looking at a diving board. My fear froze me. And yet, now, I do go off diving boards and have even taught others to do the same.
What makes the difference to get through fear and terror is having some trusted person there to coach, to encourage, and to strengthen by their presence. Fears are more bearable when there is some trusted one with you, alongside of you all the way. Think of something in your own experience that has caused you to fear, on the side of being fully terrified, and then remember what or who helped you to get through that fear. With that in mind let’s turn to today’s gospel.
We are fast approaching the end of the Christian year; Advent begins 2 weeks from today! And, as always at this point on the calendar, the lessons on Sunday, and during the week, focus on the end of time and the return of Jesus. This apocalyptic teaching comes as the days are getting shorter and, in this part of the world, are characterized by more darkness.
We can be motivated by the possibility that our master will return, or we can be fearful, perhaps even terrified of what will happen when he does. Darkness can foster both responses: motivation and fear.
Today’s gospel offers another way of thinking about this. Jesus tells us that especially in times of chaos and destruction, we can be encouraged by our ongoing relationship with him. “Not a hair of our head will perish; by our endurance we will gain our souls”, we are told. The hope that is ever present in Jesus allows us to trust him in all situations. We are strengthened by His presence and invited not to be terrified as we remember that we are not alone, Jesus is with us. He is the one encouraging us, alongside of us, at the end of that metaphorical diving board.
The 21st chapter of Luke finds Jesus and his disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem. Remember that for the Jews the Temple is God’s house; it has great religious significance. This particular Temple building complex was a re-construction and expansion done by King Herod about twenty years before Jesus’ birth. Some would say that it was more of a monument to Herod than to God but that is for others to ponder.
As we enter the story, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple on many topics, last week’s gospel was a part of this same dialogue. Today, Jesus is alerting his followers to the hardships ahead. As we began, apparently the disciples have become distracted from Jesus’ instructions by the Temple building and its grounds. They talk about its beauty and grandeur and they point out what a majestic gift it is to God.
While at first Jesus engages in this dialogue with the disciples, he quickly shifts the discussion to warn the disciples about the destruction of this temple, which historically we know did actually occur in AD 70. Note how the human disciples did the human thing by quickly asking Jesus when will this destruction happen and what will be the sign that it is about to happen? Of course, even if they knew the answers to those questions there would be little they could do to prevent it. It is just that humans like to be in control of situations when we can.
What then had been a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples becomes a monologue with Jesus telling them all sorts of things that will happen before this destruction occurs. It is at this point that we modern day readers begin to understand that Jesus is not just talking about the Temple being destroyed but rather the end of time. Jesus says there will be false teachers who will try to distract them; there will be wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues. We modern day readers also know that all these terrible things have happened and continue to happen throughout generations.
So we who live now are a bit weary of predicting when the apocalypse will occur. (However, there are biblical scholars who still study and try to give a date.) We are told elsewhere in scripture that no one knows when the exact end will come, not even Jesus. And so I believe, that wondering when this will happen is relatively pointless. Only God the Father knows when. Jesus has told us that he will come again. Worrying about when this will occur is actually a distraction from the focus of our purpose and our salvation.
Jesus does not spend a long time on this part of his monologue. Rather he tells them that before all of the destruction, they, his disciples, will be persecuted, betrayed and even hated by some. These are dire times with dire events. Again, Jesus does not dwell on this, rather he tells them to look at all these happenings as opportunities to testify. They will be his witnesses on earth. (Now personally this is a whole lot more terror and fear producing than anything else I might have experienced.) And yet, Jesus gives them the ultimate comfort that He, Jesus, will give them the words that they are to use in witnessing to him. It will be a gift from him; He will provide the words and wisdom so great that it cannot be contradicted. Jesus will give them that, his presence, his words, his wisdom. They will not be alone. What encouragement this is, knowing Jesus is and always will be with them as they face whatever terror may come their way.
When the disciples kept their focus on Jesus’ presence with them they could then keep to their purpose of testifying faithfully and trusting in Jesus for their salvation.
Note that we modern day disciples are encouraged to do the same. We are to keep our focus on Jesus’ presence with us. We are to keep our focus on being his faithful followers. We are the ones Jesus expects to spread his message of love and forgiveness to all. Jesus is our trusted one to be with us in all our fears no matter how large and to encourage us and coach us on our path with him.
Legend has it that Martin Luther (the 16th century theologian of the Reformation) once said “If I knew that tomorrow is to be the day of judgement then today I would plant an apple tree”. What an indication of Luther’s trust in God. That summarizes what course Jesus gives us: Live each day in relationship with God and spend little time worrying about the end of time. If we do worry about anything let it be in worrying about how we live with God in the present, each day. We have been given the hope that is in Jesus and that is all sufficient.
The lectionary at this time of year reminds us in no uncertain terms that we are to continue to trust Jesus in all things and at all times. And especially in times when we experience fear and terror, we are to remember that Jesus is with us. We are confident and safe in God’s hands. “Not a hair of our heads will perish; by our endurance we will gain our souls.”
Martin Luther said if he knew the world were to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree today. What a deed of hope and trust that would be! I wonder, how would you finish Luther’s sentence? If you knew the world were to end tomorrow, what would you do today? We have the hope that is in Jesus Christ; how would you show your trust? If you knew the world were to end tomorrow, what would you do today?
If I knew the world were to end tomorrow… I would pack sack lunches today.
While your answer is probably not the same as mine, you will have the opportunity to think about yours and maybe hear others’ responses as we do make sack lunches today!
Thanks be to God for his continuing presence among us!