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Isaiah 12, from the Common English Bible
Luke 21:5-19, from the Common English Bible
Say what you will about Jesus, but he is not one to sugar-coat reality.
Neither, apparently, is the author of the Gospel of Luke, even if he speaks in the future, rather than the past or present, tense.
You see, by the time Luke decides to write down the story of Jesus, Roman forces have already destroyed the temple. Those who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ and began following his Way had been facing persecution, prison, betrayal, and even death for several decades by then. As for wars and earthquakes, famines and epidemics, when haven’t they been part of the human story?
And all this was spoken and/or written some 2,000 years ago. Imagine how just a part of Jesus’ list of bad-times-ahead warnings would go if he were speaking today:
There will be children torn from their parents and imprisoned in cages. Entire cities will be under water and huge swaths of land will go up in flames. You will be able to communicate with millions of people from all over instantaneously, yet loneliness will be a common scourge. People will continue to be judged and penalized and sometimes killed because of their race or sexuality or gender identity. Children and adults will regularly shoot and kill children and adults at school and in stores, in nightclubs and at work, and politicians will rush again to make sure all kinds of guns can still be bought by all kinds of people. The president will oversee the most corrupt and deceitful administration in U.S. history, and evangelical Christians will pull out all the stops to re-elect him. The Internet will make it possible to know what is happening on the other side of the world even as it is happening, and the Internet will make it harder and harder to tell truth from lies. Untold hours of your day will be sucked up by a computer screen that fits in the palm of your hand, and you will measure your worth by the number of likes you get on a photograph of the last meal you made.
You may have your own list of worries. You may have your own rundown of things that terrify you and tempt you to despair, and make you want to never let your children out of your sight. You may have your own reasons for being tempted to give up on humanity and maybe God, too.
Surely we all have situations and circumstances and aspects of life and our own lives that make it hard for us to hope and nearly impossible for us to trust in God.
How, then, do we live? How, then, do we love? How do manage to love and live in this world where, as both Jesus and Frederick Buechner say, beautiful and terrible things will happen—and not be afraid?
Luke doesn’t tell us how Jesus’ original listeners responded to his bad-news message; nor do we know how Luke’s original readers felt in having their future laid out in such discouraging detail. The truth is, that after Jesus tells us to testify and hold fast and hang on, Luke has him speak another seven verses’ worth of warnings and signs and bad things that will happen.
I don’t know about you, but that’s all a little much for me.
Doesn’t “gospel” mean good news? I want to ask Jesus. Aren’t you supposed to tell me why I shouldn’t be afraid when so many frightening things are happening? Aren’t you going to remind me that you’ll be with me through it all?
But then, just as I’m about to slam the book shut and throw up my hands, just as I’m about to give up on trying to make it in this crazy world, Jesus says some curious things:
When all these bad things start happening, pay attention and look around, because your redemption is at hand, the day when you will be made whole and at one with God is coming soon. And, yes, I know it’s scary, but when you see these signs, take heart—because it means that God’s realm on earth is almost here. Be not afraid, for you, too, will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.
Say what, Jesus?
In her beautiful book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about the time she was invited to preach at a church in Alabama. When she asked the priest what he wanted her to speak about, he said, “Come tell us what is saving your life right now.”
That invitation itself ended up saving Taylor’s life a little bit, and she has never stopped reflecting on the question or asking it of others. And I can’t help but wonder if the same question is woven through the lines of Jesus’ list of warnings and signs and all manner of bad things that surely will, or have already happened.
What is saving your life right now?
What gives you hope? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What fills your heart with joy? What keeps you going when times are tough? What makes you feel alive? When is it that you feel most like yourself? What is it that helps you fall in love with this beautiful and broken world? What helps you connect to Spirit, to Love, to community, to more life? What makes it possible for you to choose trust over fear? What makes your heart sing? What renews your spirit? What keeps you from giving up?
What is saving your life right now?
I love that the question includes a time element. What has saved your life, what is saving your life, and what will save your life can change over time. If you’re young or lost or depressed or living through the fog of grief, what is saving your life might even change from day to day.
But it’s a question worth asking; it’s one of many things worth naming and paying attention to. In fact, if the poet Mary Oliver were still with us, she might say that it was paying attention—to the natural world, to the daily miracles, to undeniable, every-present beauty—that saved her life and made her who she was.
What is saving your liferight now?
I was out to dinner with friends one evening last summer, a brief respite from the non-stop roller coaster of sanctuary work. That work, with its intensity and unpredictability and high stakes, had kept me from taking a summer vacation, and I was tired. As my friends and I talked about how we were doing, I realized what was saving my life right then: Rowing. Not just the act of rowing, of course, and certainly not getting up at 4:35 in the morning. But the comaraderie, the glorious sunrises, the teamwork, the bald eagles soaring over the river and feeding their young ones in the nest, the challenge of each stroke, the predictability of the process, and the reliability of the joy, the laughter, and the great blue heron I regularly startled from the dock when I was the first one to make it down with oars or the launch cart.
Yes, I know it sounds somewhat trivial and fleeting and very un-spiritual, but for those few months it was rowing that saved my life.
What is saving your life right now?
For some of you I know it is the meaning and purpose and relationships of the very sanctuary work that, for a time, was wringing the life right out of me. For others of you it is the love of your partner or your love for your children or grandchildren. Maybe you’re being saved by sweet memories of a long life with your beloved. Maybe it’s trusting that something new and different is just around the corner. For some of you it might be the joy of making music with others, or the purpose of working with others against climate change. For others it might be a meditation or prayer practice or a gratitude practice. Maybe it’s knowing that you are a beloved child of God. For some of you it might be time spent in nature or time spent alone. It might be meaningful work or dear friends. Maybe it is, quite literally, a pill or an injection, physical therapy or surgery. For others it might be cherishing the gift of each day. Maybe it is the circle of friends and loved ones who keep cheering you on, who walk beside you through the hard times and won’t let you give up. For some of you, at least from time to time, I know it is this church and the amazingly caring and wonderful people who are in it.
There is no denying that times are hard. But we must ground ourselves in the Life that truly is life and hold on to the Love that will not let us go. We must focus on anything and everything that is true and holy, all that is lovely and pure and life-giving and admirable.
We must let ourselves be saved. We must keep looking forward to the day when we will, with great joy, draw water from the wells of salvation. We must look for that water and give thanks for it every day.
I hope you will think about what is saving your life right now. I hope you will name all the things. I hope you will tell someone about it.
Whatever it is, whatever the things are, thank God for them! Whatever it is, recognize that God is in it and working through it to love you and heal you and save your precious life. Whatever it is, hold onto it and keep holding on. Keep your eyes on the prize, and you will see God. Open your heart to live and to love, and you will see the realm of God at hand, right here and right now.
Yes, “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”