When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 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.”Luke 21:5–19 NRSV
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In Luke 21:5-19, we encounter a tension between the visible signs we can see now and a future salvation that is yet invisible. In that tension, those who trust in God are called to refrain from hoping in what seems impressive—and to continue to trust God when things go poorly. Trying to do both of these feels counterintuitive. Indeed, some would say it’s irresponsible. “Have you seen what is happening?! Don’t you care?!”
Salvation, even healing, that we have experienced in the past is relativized in the face of new problems ahead. We tend to cling to what we can see now, and to the narrative that the world is telling us. Uncertainty clouds our faith.
This last Sunday, there was a fire near our church, just on the other side of I-5 in California. Heavy winds and very dry conditions turned a small freeway fire into a larger dry-brush-fueled blaze, causing authorities to shut down the freeway in both directions. Those who were already on the freeway were being diverted to side streets. It was a serious situation, but with 150 firefighters managing it, there wasn’t immediate danger to anyone.
There was a lot of smoke, however, becoming a thick cloud that settled over the lanes. After seeing reports, last year, of drivers in northern California being trapped by forest fires, some drivers weren’t willing to trust the process. Some wouldn’t wait for the orderly exit; they wanted to go their own way, no matter the consequences. They turned off the freeway into an open field, breaking down a fence and making their way to side streets on their own. Their impatience fueled panic, such that a few smaller cars became stuck in the dirt along the shoulder, unable to navigate the terrain. Now stuck in the dirt, with visibility limited, sirens all around, uncertain lights flashing, and a growing fire an unknown distance away, some drivers got out of their cars, left them in the dirt, and ran for the streets.
Among the pictures of the aftermath were wide swathes of blackened fields and two burned out husks of cars. No one was injured and no structures caught fire. It was dangerous, to be sure, but it was being addressed by those who were well trained and committed to the safety of everyone. But when things seem out of control, it is easy to lose hope or put our trust in unhelpful directions.
The lesson, of course, is (as Douglas Adams’s The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy puts it), “Don’t Panic.” That’s good advice for almost any situation, for panic undermines our ability to navigate crises and often creates a crisis where there is merely a need for care.
The scene on I-5 was unusual. Rather than abandoning our vehicles on the side of the road and running for our lives, more often we rationalize our panic through other means. We anticipate, plan, prepare—oftentimes for the worst. This tendency is not itself bad, but it can easily become a frenzy when panic is at the root. When we panic, we overanalyze everything surrounding the situation, trying to find some deeper cue about what to expect and how we should respond. This is not new. Ancient peoples looked to portents in the heavens or to the revealing arrangement of entrails. The experience of success was ascribed to a favorable fate; while frustration and persecution were perceived as signs of divine judgment.
That is not necessarily the way of God, however. In the mission of God, the past does not establish a present that determines a future. In the work of God, slaves go free. Conquering armies dissipate. Death turns into life. This is a “theology of hope,” as theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have called it. This hope does not mean that the solutions to the world’s problems are obvious. As Paul asks in his letter to the Romans, “Who hopes for what is seen?”
In our day and age, we’re not likely to put our trust in portents, but we do have a tendency to put our trust in media prognosticators and give ourselves over to politicians. We are drawn into systems that rely on division and chaos in order to ensure their own continuation. We begin to identify with leaders and their proposed solutions, rigidly dividing according to the political system with its promise of civil and social solutions. We become anonymous pawns, tools to be used but not valued.
This makes Luke 21:5-19 all the more important for our current situation. We see power and think that is the answer. We hear the influential and think they are on our side. We learn about disasters and think we’re being judged.
Such was the situation in Jerusalem, where visitors marveled at the great temple, built by Herod to express his wealth and civic generosity. “Don’t trust that this is a sign of God’s favor,” Jesus reminds them. Don’t trust in the beauty or the apparent devotion. Don’t trust in smooth words or promises by the powerful. Do not trust in the signs of success in this world. It’s going to fall apart.
In Luke 21:8, Jesus notes the presence of false prophets and untrustworthy leaders. Do not trust them. If they say they are coming in the name of Jesus, then they should reflect the values and methods he has displayed in his own ministry.
Don’t trust your assumptions about the disasters either. They seem overwhelming, a sign of judgment or impending doom. Rather than terror, it is another call to trust in God. Jesus said these things would happen, so even though they are very difficult they are not undermining God’s work. Rather than anxiety, these should instill expectation, hope in the midst of the trouble that propels people onward. Do not give into the fear. Stay on the path. God is still in charge. It is a message of reassurance even as it points to the reality of troubles. Don’t break down fences and seek safety in the fields.
Panic leads us into the fruit of the flesh rather than living out the fruit of the Spirit. It distorts the Christian message and often leaves us like burning husks on the side of the road. We may be saved, but not without significant loss.
There is much more to the story than what the world knows; God is more active than the world can perceive. The resurrection is our hope in present struggle and a sign that God’s favor will far overshadow the experience of pain. By participating in God’s story, by being faithful to God’s promise in their experiences of real wilderness, those who trust will experience the fruit of resurrected life that will be sustained eternally. This is what Alan Kreider calls “the patient ferment,” a commitment to God’s path that brings hope in the midst of the world, both for this world and beyond our present experience of this world—which can involve politics (indeed I believe it invites us to such involvement), but always with an eye to God’s calling in us and for us.
While politics can perform a healthy function—social organization and leadership are good!—politics mixed with panic becomes dangerous, for it subverts our trust in God and leads us away from the path we are called to walk with Christ.
We read about the theme of trusting God’s faithfulness in each of the lectionary texts on this day, providing boundaries for our response to the troubles around us. Don’t give into despair, Isaiah reminds us. On the other side, Paul warns the Thessalonians not to succumb to passivity. The call is to hope by being faithful in our calling.
Hope is to define God’s people, not fear or anxiety. Trust in God leads us to transformation, not trust in politicians or powers of this world. In our trust we can engage politics in a new way, participating in the system without being defined or co-opted by it.
There will be difficulties in life, but God is up to something amazing. Our calling is to hold on and be faithful. It’s worth it even when we can’t see why. The flames are behind us and smoke is all around. Continue to live in God’s guidance and we will experience fullness of life.
Obedience is better than sacrifice and patience is better than panic.