“ … not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will secure your lives.” Lk. 21:19
It’s that time of the church year again – the time to talk about the “end times.”
As we find ourselves beginning to look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas, family gatherings, shopping, preparing special foods, and the busyness all this implies, the church asks us to call time out on the field and remember something very important:
The world we know will not be around forever – it is going to end for every one of us at some unexpected moment.
As one commentator put it: “By the year 2090, none of us will be walking this earth anymore. We’re not going to be here. What does that mean? We’ll all be has-beens. Some of us will be talked about, but most of us will be forgotten.”
We each live in the specter of our very own personal end times.
The symbolic drowning of Baptism is intended to remind us of this fact. Every primitive initiation rite ever devised was designed to communicate this message. The multitude of books now available telling us of life-after-death experiences teach the same truth.
Today’s Gospel sounds dreary and morbid. It speaks of wars and persecutions, earthquakes and famines, plagues and betrayals and death.
These passages unfortunately have been used down through the centuries to scare people into “drinking the Kool-Aid” – a term that refers to the 1978 suicide of members of Jim Jones’s cult who were ordered to drink grape-flavored juice laced with potassium cyanide.
But, putting this passage in its proper context, reminds us that first century followers of Jesus the Christ were convinced that the “day of judgement” would be coming very soon. However, in the earliest letter Paul ever wrote – only twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he reminds the people of Thessalonica that they needn’t worry about all of that. And Jesus himself tells us: “See that you not be deceived.”
Jesus is telling each of us that when we come to realize that everything we deem to be important and urgent is all passing away, then no individual event matters very much. We can let it go. We don’t have to sell our souls to win one argument or resolve any particular conflict or overcome any certain tragedy. We can resolve to not allow one single moment in our life, no matter how important it may seem at the time, to dominate our life.
Yes, we will each undergo personal “wars” with our own selves and with others. We will each experience major “earthquakes” in our lives, like the death of dear ones. We will all have to come to terms with “plagues” in the form of betrayals and “famines” caused by depression and addictions and traumas.
But the promise of Jesus to each of us who follow his path of trying to liberate others and redeem our own hearts is to commit ourselves to doing as Jesus did, and loving what Jesus loved.
Such efforts will live forever … and follow us into eternity.
In his December 24, 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” delivered by Martin Luther King, these words summarized the full meaning of today’s gospel:
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you …. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process and victory will be a double victory.”
The “double victory” that Dr. King describes is reflective of the transforming power of the community of Jesus’ followers. It’s the power of the lion and the lamb dwelling together in harmony. It’s the ability of the persecuted living alongside the persecutors.
Jesus assures each of us of final victory.
However, the victory is not done in a tone of triumphalism standing with raised arms over a fallen enemy. Rather, this double victory emerges whenever sinners become transformed into saints, enemies become friends, and warriors become worshipers.
“Soul force” is the phrase Dr. King uses. “Soul force” is what will endure. “Soul force” is what will be timeless.
And this is what each of us is called to emulate in our own lives: to feed the hunger of others; to clothe the nakedness of so many; to forgive 70 times 7; to embrace the prodigals in our lives; to walk the extra mile; to cease the judgements; to ensure quality of life to all from womb to tomb.
When we focus on making our lives into lives of reaching out in caring and service, as Jesus himself did, then we will find ourselves liberated from the terror and pain of the wars, earthquakes, plagues and famines haunting our lives.
And we will become free – free to live forever with the God who promises “not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will secure your lives.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.