5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives. (CEB)
In My Name
Every year, pastors in the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church are required to fill out paperwork about ourselves. One is a Summer Conversation Form, where we answer questions about our ministry prior to sitting down with our District Superintendent for a conversation about our answers. It’s meant to be a check-up of our overall spiritual health and vitality, which is always a good thing.
Another bit of paperwork is called the Pastor Consultation Form, which provides the bishop and cabinet a snapshot, if you will, of each pastor’s ministry activities; who we are; how we lead; what we value; and how we understand things like worship and congregational life. That form is important, too, because it helps the bishop and cabinet identify gifts and match pastors with congregations.
Yet, occasionally, a question that is asked will needle my theological sensibilities just a little. This year, it was the very fist question on the form, which asked “What excites you about serving out your call?” I know, it seems innocuous enough. It should be simple to answer. What are the things that excite me about living out my call? My problem with the question is that it felt like the questioners only want to know the exciting pieces of living out my call instead of the wholeness of it, including the unpleasant parts.
Not that I was unable to answer the question as it was asked. There are things in living out my call to ministry that excite me. Right now, I’m working with teachers at the Junior High School to host National Novel Writing Month. I get to hang out with forty-one junior high and high school students and help them write their novel during the month of November. These are students with whom I would not otherwise have any contact outside of the writing program that I started there. That’s pretty cool. It’s exciting to see what these students write, and it’s exciting to watch them accomplish their word count goals.
Although the question about what excites me in living out my call probably wasn’t meant the way I interpreted it—as an exclusion of the difficult parts—that question still triggered something inside of me. It made me feel as if the painful parts of living out my call didn’t matter and ought to be swept under the rug where no one can see them. It made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to name those painful parts of living out my call. And, there was no follow-up question about the painful parts. That made the question and the answer it wanted feel incredibly false and incomplete, because the truth of living out a call from God is that call does not always lead to or stem from excitement.
Very often, living out our call from God, whatever that call might be, leads to pain and suffering: even anguish. A cursory reading of the prophets or the Gospel accounts will reveal that much. Can you imagine asking the prophet Jeremiah—the weeping prophet!—what excited him about living out his call? Or Amos? Or Ezekiel? Or John the Baptizer?
Imagine posing that question to Jesus as he was being nailed to the cross. Hey, Jesus, what excites you about living out your call?
While the question was probably innocent, there does exist in the church a false assumption that living out our faith and call from God results primarily in excitement, happiness, or joy; that sorrow is not allowed or even unfaithful, that the expression of any suffering we might experience must be hidden, that we must put on a brave face and pretend everything is hunky dory. Because we’re Christians, by golly, and that means we’re supposed to be happy and joyful all the time.
I know this false assumption exists because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in false smiles that are meant to deflect questions and mask the depth of pain that a person is feeling because they think that faith in God means we have to pretend everything is fine. I know this false assumption exists because I’ve tried my darndest to exhibit it at times.
Sometimes, living out our call is fraught with difficulties. It doesn’t matter if we’re called to be a pastor, a teacher, an administrator, an auto mechanic, a business professional, a farmer, a missionary, or a stay-at-home parent. Sometimes, our attempts to live faithfully leave feeling like our souls are desolate, and we have been abandoned. So, let’s at least admit that.
At the same time, we should probably ask ourselves why we would be surprised at that. We should also ask ourselves why we try to pretend it should be otherwise. Jesus warns us that life lived in the name of Jesus will be difficult. Peter reiterated this when he wrote: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings” (1 Peter 4:12 CEB).
The warning Jesus gives, beginning in Luke 21:12, points to the reality of what his followers could expect before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. They didn’t have it easy because they were disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple is not a free ticket to a perfectly happy life. Rather, the disciples and early church often faced enormous difficulties. Just as Jesus warned, they were handed over to authorities. They were beaten, abused, and maligned. Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, records how Stephen was stoned to death and the apostles were dragged into court and beaten. Paul was stoned in Lystra, dragged out of the city, and left for dead.
What’s more, it’s not only our personal trials that pain us, but the disasters that strike the world. In Luke’s narrative, these signs were not things that pointed to the end of time because Jesus was illustrating how these signs pointed to the destruction of the temple. But the mention of nation rising against nation, and kingdom rising against kingdom, and earthquakes, famines, plagues, terrifying sights and great signs in the sky do conjure up apocalyptic thoughts.
At some point in history, nearly every generation has thought the end of time was upon them. This has been especially true in times of war and conflict. In my own memory, people thought Desert Storm in the ‘90s pointed to the end. Others were sure the year 2000 would be light’s out for planet Earth. Then, there was September 11, 2001 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then came the death toll of the tsunami of December 06, 2004, and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. More recently, the plight of the Yazidi, the Rohingya, the wars in Libya and Syria, the drug cartels in Mexico, and the refugees at our southern border remind us that the world has, indeed, gone crazy. These events also give us pause. They break our hearts. And, they assail our faith.
One scholar suggested that the siege of Jerusalem which resulted in the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 had to happen. The indicative mood in the sentences tells us it’s a fulfillment of God’s plan. So, instead of things like this being a source of anxiety, they should instill expectation and hope in us.
And my initial thought was, does this guy know how many people were slaughtered in the siege of Jerusalem? Does he really mean to imply that human violence is all part of God’s plan? Do the words Jesus speaks about nations rising against nation imply such destruction is part of God’s plan or, rather, does it point to the inevitability of human sin which leads to such violence?
And the natural disasters we face, are those part of God’s plan, or are they also, somehow, related to human sin? You have to go back to the beginning to find it but theologically, the natural world is messed up because we broke God’s garden. Paul wrote about this in Romans:
“Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it [namely human beings]—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:20-25 CEB). We broke God’s garden, but God’s plan is to fix that, too.
Violence and human suffering are not part of God’s plan, but such things seems to be an inevitable part of our plans. We humans are always causing suffering in other human lives, even if it’s not physical suffering.
Suffering for our faith seems to be inevitable, too. We might not face religious tribunals in the synagogue, or get dragged before governors and other civil rulers because of Jesus’ name, but we do occasionally face difficult situations where our faith is tested to the breaking point and we are left staggered and stammering for a word to speak in reply. We do face individuals—even groups—who don’t want to hear the truth of God’s word.
When that happens, whether a defense of our faith is required of us or when our faith is crushed under the weight of people’s violent words or actions so that we can barely breathe, Jesus calls us to endure. When we endure, then Jesus can turn our suffering into an opportunity for us to rise up and confess our faith. In fact, Jesus promises to give us words and wisdom that none will be able to counter or contradict. Our example for that would be Stephen in Acts 7.
We’re used to testimonies that praise God for healing, or rescue from times of trouble, or blessings we’ve received, or confidence of our salvation we might have, or for good times and good things. But here, Jesus reminds us that our endurance in suffering can be a powerful testimony, too. Suffering, whether it’s something we experience ourselves or the empathy we feel for or with others, tends to silence us. It tends to make us feel powerless, and it can push us to despair.
The cross of Jesus Christ ought to remind us that suffering can become an example of faithfulness to those who endure. How many of you are wearing a cross right now? That cross is a symbol of suffering and abject defeat. But it’s also a symbol of endurance, faithfulness to living out God’s call, and trust that God will indeed save, not only us, but the whole world. That is good news worth sharing no matter the cost.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay