Enduring by Witnessing | Enduring by Witnessing

Enduring by Witnessing

A Sermon for the second Sunday before Advent, 17th November 2013, on Luke 21.19.

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[1]

One bright autumn morning my brother-in-law, Gene, was making a phone call before he left for a meeting. His office in mid-town Manhattan had a large floor to ceiling window. As he gazed southward, an airplane suddenly crashed into the Twin Towers. Than another plane slammed into the buildings. The skyscrapers burst into flames and collapsed, killing 3,000 people. Gene had been due for a meeting an hour later in one of the towers.

Even today, many of us have vivid memories of that September 11th attack twelve years ago. About twelve years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, St. Luke was writing today’s gospel. The atmosphere was tense with fear, suspicion and anger. After the Romans had crushed the Jewish revolt in 70 AD, many people wondered if this war was a sign of the End of Days. For the Jews, the destruction of their temple was as shocking as 9/11. The temple was the sacred place where they offered sacrifices to repair their relations with God. They wondered, why had God allowed the temple to be destroyed? Who was to blame? Centuries earlier, just before the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah had warned that the first temple would be destroyed because the Jews had not followed God’s laws.[2] Now the second temple had been destroyed, this time by the Romans. Their leaders wondered if God was angry once again with his people for not keeping his laws? [3] In the synagogues, some Christians had been preaching blasphemy, claiming that Jesus was the Son of God. Both Jewish and Roman authorities became increasingly hostile to these Christian troublemakers. When they were put on trial, Jesus urged his disciples to endure in their faith. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[4] During this turbulent First Century AD, the conflict began between Jews and Christians that has led to centuries of tragedy. Today there is increasing dialogue between Christians and Jews, and cooperation on charitable projects, such as this Sunday’s Mitzvah Day.

In troubled times, minority groups are often blamed for problems and attacked. Today in countries where Christians are in a minority, they are sometimes persecuted. Recently Coptic churches in Egypt have been attacked. In Pakistan, churches have been bombed. In Nigeria, Christians have been murdered by militant Islamists.

In this country, we are fortunate that Christians are not subject to physical persecution. Whatever hostility we may encounter is very minor, compared to what other Christians have suffered. Yet there is a growing hostility to Christianity and to all faiths. Militant atheists blame Christianity for wars, for oppression of women, for destruction of the planet, and for other assorted ills. They claim that declining church attendance proves that many people think Christianity is worthless. A woman working at British Airways was forbidden to wear a simple tiny cross. Christian faith is often denigrated in insidious and corrosive ways.

The hardest kind of hostility for us to bear may come from those closest to us, from our friends and our family. Snide remarks and open scorn from those we love can be quite hurtful. When family members have different beliefs or none, they may argue bitterly over events such as weddings or funerals.

Christians are often misrepresented as deluded and silly, figures of fun. Many people, if they were asked to describe someone who’s a regular churchgoer, they might say, Ned Flanders. Ned Flanders is Homer Simpson’s irritating goody goody neighbour, who wears huge specs, a soup strainer moustache and a pea green pullover. No matter what happens to him, Ned always bounces back with a goofy grin. This satire of a born again evangelical has amused many Christians. One professor at an evangelical theological college has called Ned Flanders, “television’s most effective exponent of a Christian life well-lived.”[5]  Ned suffers all kinds of adversities, many of them inflicted by Homer Simpson. Despite Homer’s contempt, Ned always responds with Christian love. He makes stupid mistakes. Yet Ned always endures in his faith. Ned Flanders is a comic exaggeration. If our friends were to look beyond this cartoon character for a real life example of a committed Christian, they might think of us. What kind of examples are we?

We’re very squeamish when talking to others about our faith. We don’t want to sound glib and smug like Ned Flanders. Personal faith is often complex and difficult to put into words. Faith is hard to explain if someone’s determined not to change their opinions. Yet an atmosphere of scorn and contempt is actually an opportunity for us to speak out about our faith. The person who makes an anti-Christian remark, may well have unspoken questions and an underlying spiritual emptiness. In a field, when the barren soil is disturbed, when the ground is ploughed up, then the earth can receive the seed. The gospel seed may lie dormant for a long time, it may even wither and not sprout. Nevertheless, we the sowers have planted it. Our task is to sow the seed of the gospel. We may not win an argument, we may not be shrewd debaters, we may not convince our opponents. Yet we will have fulfilled our task: to sow the seed. We should not ignore questions or attacks on our faith. Nor should we return insult for insult. Questions about our beliefs should not make us feel discouraged. We ourselves need to keep questioning and examining our beliefs so our faith can grow and mature.

When we have a chance to talk about our faith, Jesus tells us, “… make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance”.[6] Unfortunately this advice doesn’t apply to writing sermons! Nor does it mean that all of us don’t need to study and to pray. We need to know the basics of our faith. Our current Bible challenge is a good way to equip us to respond to questioners. We shouldn’t fret if we can’t solve every convoluted theological conundrum. People don’t want pre-packaged answers to catechism questions. If we listen carefully, we can discern the questions and the needs underlying aggressive statements. Openings to talk about our faith often happen when we least expect them. A child may come home from school and say, “my friend Dickie says God is only a fairy tale.” We may be relaxing at a party when suddenly someone ambushes us with a silly remark, such as, “That old church down the street has been made into luxury flats. It wasn’t needed because nobody goes to church any more”.

When we have to defend our faith, we’re not on our own. The Holy Spirit stands right beside us. Jesus promised, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[7]  Ask the Holy Spirit, trust the Holy Spirit. With the power of the Spirit, we can speak confidently about our faith.

When confronted by hostile questions we must reply to them and endure in faith. Christian endurance is not a passive position, but an active response. Endurance does not mean huddling in a doorway, waiting for a rainstorm to pass. Endurance means going out into the storm, and persisting on the path Christ has marked out for us. Jesus promised, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[8]  Amen.

 



[1] Luke 21.19

[2] Jeremiah 26.4 – 6; I Chronicles 9.1; the Babylonians destroyed the first temple in 586 BC.

[3] For more background on the tense atmosphere of the time, see sources on the influential gathering of rabbis at Jamnia at the end of the First Century AD, and the controversial “Petition against heretics and enemies”.

[4] Luke 21.19

[5] Gary Bowler, Professor of Philosophy at Canadian Nazarene College, quoted in Pinski, Mark I., “Blessed Ned of Springfield” in Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/february5/1.28html

[6] Luke 21.14

[7] Luke 21.15

[8] Luke 21.19

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.