‘Faithfulness in Difficult Times’
Those of us who are over the age of forty would probably all agree with the statement that we now live in a different world than the one we were born and grew up in.
I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, in a little country that was on the front line of a potential nuclear conflict. To me, the Iron Curtain seemed to be a permanent fixture of European life; I never expected to live to see it come down. But in 1989, down it came, and the world as we knew it changed beyond recognition. For a few years, the fear of a nuclear holocaust was lifted, and we all thought that the world had changed for the better. But then the clouds began to gather again, and on September 11th 2001 they burst into a spectacular thunderstorm that seems to have engulfed the world ever since. We all thought that the end of the Cold War would make the world a safer place, but I suspect that none of us feel much safer. Enemies are no longer easily identifiable by the uniforms they wear; the person sitting beside us on the bus could now be the one who blows us up in an act of terrorism. This is the grim new world we live in.
Notice the language we’re using here. I said at the beginning that ‘the world we live in today is not the same world we were born and brought up in’. Now, literally, that’s not true: it’s exactly the same world. But we use the ‘new world’ figure of speech because things have changed so much that it seems like a different place to us. All the old familiar political and social landmarks are gone, and we don’t know how to find our way in this new order of things. So we talk about ‘living in a different world’.
There was a phrase that was commonly used in the time of Jesus for this idea: ‘the end of the age’. Bible readers in our day often think that this phrase means ‘the end of the world’, but in fact it usually doesn’t. When Luke wrote his gospel, it’s highly likely that his first readers had already lived through ‘the end of the age’; they had seen the Jewish Temple reduced to a pile of rubble and the city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Roman armies. They had been brought up to believe that the Temple was a sign of God’s presence among his people, and that God would protect Jerusalem from the pagans. When that Temple came down, it must have seemed to them like a combination of the World Trade Centre and Canterbury Cathedral being destroyed at the same time. It must have shaken their faith to the core; what on earth had happened to God’s promises to care for his people?
So Luke wrote chapter 21 of his gospel to remind his hearers that Jesus had predicted this event. Not only that: Jesus had predicted all sorts of grief for his followers, so if they found themselves in trouble, that didn’t mean that God’s plan had somehow gone wrong! No –the kingdom of God was confronting the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdoms of this world weren’t jumping for joy about it. But the Christian response to this wasn’t to give up in despair; rather, they were called to be faithful to Jesus, and to continue to testify about their faith at every opportunity.
This passage starts with Jesus making a startling prediction about the Temple: ‘You see these stones? They’re all coming down! The time’s going to come when none of them will be left standing’. The disciples are shocked, and they ask him ‘When will this be? And what sign will we be given that it’s about to happen?’
Notice carefully how Jesus answers. A lot of people look at this passage in a fairly superficial way and conclude: ‘Jesus foretells wars and earthquakes and signs in the heavens and persecution of Christians; when these things happen, they’re signs of the end of the world’. But in fact that is exactly not what Jesus says. He says in verse 9, “Do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately”. In other words, these things aren’t signs of the end of the age – they’re just ‘business as usual’. This is the context in which we live: days of war and unrest, earthquake, deadly disease, prejudice and persecution. That’s the context in which we are called to follow Jesus.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the things Jesus describes as ‘business as usual’ for his followers. One of them is the arrival of false prophets. He says in verse 8, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘The end is near!’ Do not go after them”. We know all about these false prophets; throughout Christian history we’ve had people who’ve set dates and drawn timelines and confidently asserted that the Antichrist was Napoleon Bonaparte or Adolf Hitler or Henry Kissinger or even the Pope. ‘Business as usual’, Jesus says; ‘don’t take any notice of them’. False prophets have been around since the beginning, and they’ll continue to be around until the end.
Two more pieces of ‘business as usual’ follow: wars and natural disasters. Jesus says in verse 9, “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”, and in verse 11 he talks about earthquakes, famines and plagues. Throughout history people have looked at these events and thought, “Surely this means that the Lord is coming again soon”, but here Jesus says, “No – it’s just business as usual in the fallen world we live in”. And even astrological signs don’t mean much; in verse 11 Jesus cautions his hearers not to read too much into ‘dreadful portents and great signs from heaven’. Don’t take any notice of your horoscope: it’s just the movement of gas giants in space, folks!
Another piece of ‘business as usual’ for the church is persecution, and Jesus talks about it in verses 12-19. He says that his followers will be persecuted by both religious and political authorities, and as we read the story of the early church in the book of Acts we can see that he was right – synagogue leaders, high priests, Jewish princes and Roman authorities all joined in the persecution of the early Christians. And around the world today, this is reality for many of our Christian brothers and sisters as well.
The persecution will even reach into their own families; “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers”, says Jesus, “by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death” (v.16). My friend Howard Green used to be an Anglican priest in Japan, and a few times during his ministry there he baptized young teenagers from Buddhist families who had decided to become followers of Jesus. In that situation, Howard told me, it was common for the families to disown the children. This is tough, and Jesus knows it is tough, but it doesn’t mean the end of the world is coming; this also is ‘business as usual’, the sort of suffering that Christians have experienced all through our history.
As I read this passage I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous wartime speech in which he said that he had nothing to offer but ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’. “Follow me”, Jesus says, “and you’ll go through wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famines, persecutions from the religious establishment and the government and even members of your own families”. That sounds appealing, doesn’t it? This is the Gospel of Christ: thanks be to God!
Where is the good news in this passage? When our world seems to be falling apart, what can we count on? Two things, and we’ll look at them in reverse order.
First, in verses 18 and 19 Jesus says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (vv.18-19). This reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 10, where he tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. He then goes on to say, “And even the hairs of your head are all counted” (vv.28, 30).
Obviously, in the context, this does not mean that God will save followers of Jesus from being killed for their faith. We know from history that this is just not true. In the two thousand years of Christian history, hundreds of thousands of Christians have paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to Jesus, and they continue to do so today in some parts of the world. No - what Jesus is doing here is taking away the fear of death for his followers. Yes, we may die, but we will not be lost; God will keep us in his care, and on the last day we will rise again with Jesus and live with him forever in the new heavens and new earth that God is going to create.
And this is tremendously important for us in the face of the normal troubles we face in this broken world – wars and natural disasters, plagues and deadly diseases and the fear of aircraft falling out of the sky and so on. I think Bishop Victoria spelled it out well for us in the days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. She was interviewed in the media several times, and her message was always the same: I’m hoping for healing, but if it’s not to be, I’m in God’s hands and that’s good. Or, as Paul put it, ‘If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Romans 14:8-9). Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey used to tell the story of a woman dying of cancer who he visited as a young priest; when he came into the room she smiled at him and said, “Don’t look so worried, vicar – I’m only dying!”
So the first promise is that whether we live or die we can count on God to keep us in his care, and we know that ultimately we will not be the losers. And secondly, Jesus says, we can count on him to give us the words we need. He tells his followers that when they are brought before the courts and put on trial for their allegiance to him, they shouldn’t worry about what they are going to say: “For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to contradict” (v.15).
This promise was fulfilled in the story of the early church. In Acts chapter four we read that Peter and John were brought up before the Jewish ruling council and questioned about their faith. The apostles spoke fearlessly about Jesus, and the council members were surprised by this. We read, ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus’ (Acts 4:13).
You and I aren’t likely to find ourselves hauled before courts for our loyalty to Jesus, but we may well find that from time to time we’re put on the spot by friends and relatives. Maybe we get religious terrorism thrown in our teeth, or the other objections that people commonly make to Christian faith. When that happens, we’ll sometimes be surprised at how the Lord gives us the words we need. And sometimes we won’t even be aware of it until long afterwards. I’ve had the experience a couple of times of people telling me that something I had said had made a real impression on them, even when I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps a person was attacking the Christian faith, and I said a word or two in defence of Jesus and his Gospel; the argument continued, and I didn’t think I was making any impression at all, but later on I found out that the message had gone home, even though the person tried to ignore it at the time.
The disciples of Jesus who first read the Gospel of Luke had lived through terrible events which shook their world down to the foundations. We might feel today as if we’re living through the same sort of events as well; wars and rumours of wars, climate change and super bugs, and an atmosphere of increasing hostility toward Christian faith. Other Christians before us have gone through this sort of thing, and much worse. This passage calls us to three things:
First, ‘endurance’: ‘By your endurance you will gain your souls’. The word here is sometimes translated ‘perseverence’. It means that when the times get tough you don’t give up on your faith; you keep getting up in the morning, saying your prayers and reading your Bible and doing the things that Jesus told you to do, and helping your fellow Christians to do the same.
Second, ‘trust’. God has promised to keep us in his loving care; in the strength of that promise we can keep on following Jesus and leave the consequences in God’s hands.
Third, testimony. When Jesus is talking about his followers being put on trial for their faith; he says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v.13). When following Jesus gets us into trouble, the prudent person will shut up about their faith; Jesus, however, doesn’t call us to be prudent but to be bold, and to speak our word of witness whenever we have the opportunity.
Follow Jesus faithfully; trust God to keep us in his care; take every opportunity to speak a word of witness for Christ. These are the things Jesus is calling us to in this passage. May the Holy Spirit give us the will and the strength to do them. Amen.