Malachi 4:1-2a ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ~ Luke 21:5-19
The Bible was written thousands of years ago and on the other side of the globe. If we’re ever inclined to wonder whether such old and foreign ideas can still have relevance for us today, these readings can put that question to rest. Jesus is painting an extraordinarily bleak picture. The temple—the center of religion and LIFE for his listeners, the temple with its grand and stunning beauty, will be completely destroyed. We know from history that it happened; in fact, even though Jesus was speaking BEFORE Jerusalem’s destruction in the year 70, Luke probably wrote these events down AFTER 70, so by the time of Luke’s writing Jerusalem was already in rubble, the stones of the temple thrown down.
When I visited the Holy Land in 2013, I had the chance to see evidence of this destruction with my own eyes. Where Herod’s enormous and exquisite temple once stood, there’s now just a broken down portion of one wall. Faithful Jews and Christians visit that site, awe-struck to stand before even this little bit of the temple. But its former glory is gone.
Jesus goes on to describe further suffering. Wars and uprisings, earthquakes, famines and plagues. As we read these words of Jesus it isn’t hard to think about current events. Governments and kingdoms in our own time rise and fall, doing battle both against one another and within their own borders. This week there’s political unrest in South Korea, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, fighting in Iraq, economic crisis in Venezuela, and of course uncertainty both here in the United States and abroad over the election of Donald Trump, a non-traditional sort of president for the US.
We’ve heard recently of devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Italy, South America and even Oklahoma. If we think more broadly about destructive weather, we’ve seen dangerous storms such as hurricane Matthew and flooding in Louisiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and abroad in Ethiopia and Great Britain.
And famines… nowadays they may not look just like they did in the first century Middle East. In today’s global economy, famines are seldom caused by failed crops or drought but the results are the same: people starving because they can’t get enough food. There are thousands of people within 10 miles of St. Peter who don’t have enough to eat. That sounds like famine to me.
So all these things that Jesus said would happen…we know they happened in the first century, and we know they’re still happening today. I guess this tells us that we’re still living out the reality that God’s beautiful world has been infected by sin. Sin’s ugliness makes people disagree in violent ways. Sin’s greed keeps people from sharing resources so people go hungry. And sin may or may not cause the deadly weather patterns that we see, but sin shows itself during a storm, when some may be prevented from reaching safety because of the actions of others. And sin shows itself after a storm, when the destruction can be made so much worse by those who take advantage of the situation. It can be hard to think about God being present in all these horrible situations, but this is God’s world, and God is here.
After Jesus gets us thinking about all this devastation, we hear the good news. We hear that even as things are falling down around us, that even if we are taken prisoner and tortured, we are not alone. In fact, Luke has Jesus suggesting that all this terrible stuff happening to us can actually be an important opportunity. We can testify! Now, most of us here are good Lutherans, and the idea of giving our testimony isn’t usually something that gets us excited. In fact, usually it’s quite the opposite. We usually DREAD having to talk about our faith, especially to someone who may not agree with us. But here’s where the good news from God comes in: I will give you words and a wisdom that…no one will be able to contradict. God doesn’t leave us on our own. God will give us the words.
Last week, Jonathan and I were invited by some friends to join them for a concert. We weren’t sure what kind of concert this would be, but we’ve often enjoyed entertainment with these folks, so we trusted that it would be a fun evening. So we traveled to the historic Universalist Church in downtown Montgomery. This structure was built in 1837 and is actually similar to our building in many ways. One big difference is that is it’s no longer used for worship; it’s owned by the City of Montgomery and is used for city events or available for others to rent it. While we sat, enjoying the music, I came up with a theory of why Montgomery’s Universalist church is no longer used for regular worship…the pews! Now, our pews may not be a comfy as your lazy boy recliner at home, but I believe they’re formed carefully to allow worshipers some level of comfort… But these Universalist pews…tiny…, straight, …and hard as can be. One thing we’ve noticed is that the concerts and other events we’ve been to there never last longer than an hour, and even that can be pushing it. So can that be why the Universalists deserted their beautiful little red brick church in Montgomery?
I can’t really answer that, but at any rate, the less-than-one-hour musical event that our friends invited us to enjoy turned out to be an old-fashioned hymn sing. No argument from me…what a treat it was to sing those old favorites. The group’s leader gave a brief introduction to one of the hymns that got me thinking…he told of a nineteenth century Chicago attorney named Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford and his wife had a large family and his legal and business successes were complemented by his active work on behalf of his Presbyterian Church. But in the 1870’s, things began to unravel for Spafford. He experienced heavy financial losses in the Great Chicago fire, and his wife suffered from poor health. To help relieve some of these stresses, the family planned a trip to Europe. Spafford’s wife and children set sail on the S.S. Ville du Havre, with Spafford following soon after. But Spafford’s crossing turned into a time of desperate torture for the successful man. Shortly before he set sail, he received word that The Ville du Havre had sunk at sea. Many lives were lost. Spafford’s wife survived, but their four daughters all drowned at sea.
During the long days of Spafford’s crossing, he found himself putting thoughts to paper…thoughts that gave him comfort. They were thoughts that testified to his faith that no matter how many losses he would experience, because of his faith in a good and almighty God, he would be able to say confidently “It is well with my soul.”
After hearing the story of Horatio Spafford and singing his powerful hymn on Thursday evening, I decided it would be a perfect hymn for us today. By Friday morning I knew I was probably too late to get the title into the bulletin, but I decided to check with Tammy anyway. It would be great to have the title listed in the bulletin, but if it turned out that Tammy had already run it, I knew you’d be flexible and forgiving enough to let me simply announce a hymn change. So I called Tammy, and she had already listed the hymn she had chosen in the bulletin…and it was, in fact, the very one I was requesting. Thanks be to God for being at work in our lives!
As we try to find ways to testify, to proclaim our faith in God even as the world around us is full of discord, storms, and people starving, we can sing these words written by a man whose own life had been wrenched apart. And you’ll see that Spafford doesn’t paint a rosy picture. He acknowledges the presence of Satan, sin, and sorrow in life. But in the end, “It is well with my soul.” Spafford could make this confession just days after his four daughters had died, and we can make this confession too.
Now, will you sing with me? Testify, for God will give you the words. It is well with my soul.
When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.
2 Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain
3 My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more; praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain
4 O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain
St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio ~ November 13, 2016