Mal 3:19-20a; II Thes 3:7-12; Lk 21: 5-19
A man dies and goes to hell. There he finds that there is a different hell for each country. He goes to the German hell and asks, “What do they do here?” He told, “First they put you in an electric chair for an hour. Then they lay you on a bed of nails for another hour. Then the German devil comes in and whips you for the rest of the day.”
The man he moves on. He checks out the USA hell as well as the Russian hell and many more. He discovers that they are all more or less the same as the German hell.
Then he comes to the Indian hell and finds that there is a long line of people waiting to get in. Amazed, he asks, “What do they do here?” He told, “First they put you in an electric chair for an hour. Then they lay you on a bed of nails for another hour. Then the Indian devil comes in and whips you for the rest of the day.” “But that is exactly the same as all the other hells – why are there so many people waiting to get in?” “Because maintenance is so bad that the electric chair does not work, someone has stolen all the nails from the bed, and the devil is a former Govt servant, so he comes in, signs the register and then goes to the lunch room.
Today’s gospel is filled with signs of the end of the world: wars, and famines, and dreadful portents. Clearly the gospel writers are pointing to that great day when Jesus will return, bring this world to an end, and establish the Kingdom of God. But it would be a mistake for us to limit the meaning of today’s gospel to that great event at the end of time. For the truth is that in our lives we experience moments when our world comes to an end. There are moments of passage, moments of change, when one world ends and another begins. These moments can be joyful or frightening. Oftentimes they are both.
When you commit yourself to another person in marriage or when you give birth to a new son or daughter, your world changes. There are new opportunities and there are new responsibilities. Very soon you cannot even remember the way things used to be. When you are told that you no longer have a job, when you file for divorce, when you receive a negative medical diagnosis, when the person you love dies; one world ends and a new one begins. As much as you would like, you cannot go back again. When your youngest child leaves for college, when you hold your grandchild for the first time in your arms, when you enter retirement; your world changes and you must change with it.
In all of these changes—even when they are joyful—there is always some fear. Will I be able to be the parent that my child needs me to be? How will it be living without my children under my roof? How will I face the holidays without the person I love? How will I fair with chemotherapy? When we face a new reality, when we enter a new world, there is fear. How do we deal with it? How do we cope when our world changes?
Today’s gospel points us in a direction. Jesus says, “By your perseverance you will save your lives.” Jesus is saying that when we enter a new world we must be willing to persevere. But what do we mean by perseverance? You can define perseverance in a lot of different ways, but the understanding I am suggesting to you today is one which is most common and most practical. This is the understanding that I hear over and over again in ICU units and at wedding receptions, in funeral homes and at baptism parties. It’s the understanding of perseverance that most easily and commonly comes to our lips: perseverance is living one day at a time. Perseverance is refusing to be overwhelmed by all the things that we do not understand and cannot control in the new world in which we must live. Perseverance is choosing to take one step, the next step—choosing to take that step as best as we can and to keep taking the next step until we end up where we ought to be.
Today’s gospel is a gospel of hope. But we might not recognize it. We can be distracted by thinking that the gospel is predicting the future, what will happen at the end of time. But actually, by the time Luke was writing this passage, the things that he was describing had already taken place. The temple was already destroyed. Wars and earthquakes were occurring. False teachers were leading people astray. Persecutions had begun. So far from predicting future events, Luke was describing the crises and turmoil of his own time. It is in those contemporary challenges that Luke’s call to hope becomes clear.
What Luke is telling his audience and us is that it is in the midst of our suffering and turmoil that we should cling to hope. In the midst of our present troubles Christ assures us not a hair of our head will be harmed and by perseverance we will secure our lives. This gospel tells us to persevere, to hold on, not to give up hope. Of course, the basis of our hope is not our own cleverness or our confidence that we can resolve all of these crises. Our hope rests in our belief that God is a repairer of broken dreams, a healer of wounds, a God who will protect us and save us.