The Ultimate Endurance Contest
November 17, 2013
On one level, our Gospel Lesson for today seems pretty bleak and foreboding. It can be easy to get caught up in the warnings contained in this reading that we miss the glimmer of hope that we find at the end of the reading.
There is good news in our Gospel Lesson today. Our Lesson concludes with these words: “By standing firm, you will save your souls” (Luke 21:19, NIV). The NRSV puts it this way, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”
Perhaps you remember that old poster that hung in many a dorm room with the picture of the waterlogged cat hanging from a tree limb. The caption on the poster reads, “Hang in there, baby!” It's the ultimate endurance contest!
Let’s start with some context: Jesus has been teaching and preaching in Jerusalem during that final week that we call Holy. By this time, Jesus already has turned over the tables of the merchants in the Temple. The religious establishment is churning, trying to decide what to do about this rogue prophet who is drawing so much attention during the Festival of Passover.
Some of His listeners are captivated by the majestic appearance of the Temple, that great symbol of Judaism. It’s hard for us to understand how important the Temple was to ancient Jews. Some might suggest that the Vatican holds that same level of significance for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, but I don’t think that even the Vatican inspires quite the same degree of devotion. The Temple represented the identity of the Jewish people--both religious and civic. It truly was their national treasure. For Jesus to suggest that the day would come soon in which not one stone of the Temple would be left standing upon another was shocking indeed.
I should point out that many Bible scholars believe that Luke wrote these words sometime around A.D. 80 and 90, although others suggest that it could have been written even later. That would mean that Luke was recalling these words of Jesus some 50 to 60 years after Jesus spoke them, and ten to 20 years after His words came to chilling fruition when Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans in A.D. 70. That would be somewhat like recalling the words of a street corner preacher in 2001 warning of the coming destruction of the World Trade Center. Luke was helping his audience of Greek readers catch the connection between Jesus’ teachings and the horrible reality that unfolded.
Those who heard Jesus teaching that day certainly were shocked. They questioned Him, “Teacher, when will these things be?” “What will be the sign that these things are ready to take place?” (Luke 21:7). Natural questions, perhaps. But Jesus knew that if His followers became too preoccupied with those signs of what was to come, they would be too tempted to abandon ship when the time arises. At the same time, they would become easy prey for others who claim to have “inside information.” In their parallel accounts of this teaching, Matthew and Mark both add the quote from Jesus, “about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32).
Jesus then points out that things will get worse before they get better. There will be wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues. Dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. Persecutions and betrayal. With the persecutions will come opportunities to speak in my name. Jesus assures us that we don’t have to worry about what to say—He will give us the words and wisdom (Luke 21:15). Up to this point, Jesus has been giving us a pretty bleak picture. But there is good news, also. For it is then that he says, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
To be honest, in my heart of hearts, I hope that I am not placed into that position. I am pretty non-confrontational. I don't have any fantasies about being the last man standing. I am much more the one who would proclaim, “why can’t we just all get along?”
Yet, whether our testing comes looking like a scene from Apocalypse Now or the silent bedside vigil of a loved one who is nearing their final breath, Jesus still calls us to faithful endurance, to “standing firm.” It is the ultimate endurance contest. What does that sort of endurance look like?
First, it means faithfulness. We are called to remain faithful and trustworthy to our task. I recall hearing the stories of police and rescue workers in New Orleans who abandoned their task to seek personal safety. Against this picture, I think of Detective Robert Williams. At the time Katrina hit, Detective Williams was undergoing treatment for cancer—multiple myloma—that eventually would take his life. But when the storm was raging and his co-workers were urging him to get out of town so he could continue to receive the life-extending treatments, he stood firm. He was honored just yesterday when a new Police Substation Unit for the 8th District was named in his honor.
It’s the sort of faithfulness that we teach to our kids. Remember the Dr. Zeuss story about an elephant named Horton who keeps his word and hatches an egg? Through all sorts of conditions, Horton kept his word. Even in the worst of times, Horton would repeat the words:
I meant what I said and I said what I meant.
An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.
This sort of faithfulness is the character of martyrs—of Stephen, James, Peter and Paul, of Perpetua and Felicity, Joan of Arc, Jon Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmer. In more recent days, of Jean Donovan. But there are so many more that we rarely hear about. I read an estimate that in the 2,000 years since Jesus lived among us, there have been 70 million Christians who have died for their faith; 45 million of these deaths took place during the 20th century. I have no idea how that number was calculated, or how liberally they defined what it means to die for Christ. Even so, it is a huge number. Even if you took only one-tenth of that number, it is huge. In our world of relative safety, it is hard to imagine. Children of God who chose to stand firm, even in the face of death itself.
But these martyrs, whether ancient or modern, were not trusting in their own power; they were trusting in the One who is most worthy of their trust—in Jesus Christ himself. It was this same Jesus who assured them that He would give them the words to speak when it was time. Now those words of Jesus are not an invitation to go unprepared. They don’t excuse the preacher from entering the pulipt unprepared. Rather, Jesus is inviting them to live boldly, trusting in His promise to be with them and, when necessary, to give them the words to say.
Yet, I still have to wonder what motivates women and men to stand up in the face of death and witness for their Lord. How would you respond in those circumstances? How would I respond in those circumstances? I don’t believe any of us can say for certain. The challenges we face are much more mundane. We live quiet lives in a quiet town and ultimately even die quietly. Enjoying times of love, life and laughter along the way.
Yet, that quietness masks the struggle that many of us face along the way. The struggle to provide; the struggle to survive; the struggle to raise our children with the work ethic and the moral ethic that they need to survive, if not thrive, in today’s world. When I preached this sermon this morning (November 17, 2013), I relied on a quote that was attributed to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was said to have written that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I subsequently found another source that that this actually was a combination of quotations: one from Thoreau and one from Oliver Wendell Holmes. So much for internet integrity! But the point remains—we lead quiet, desperate lives and we keep our song bottled up.
I think that the words of Jesus in today’s lesson, urging us to “stand firm,” are an invitation to let our song escape. If we are to live authentic lives with the joy that God has given to us, let us stand firm. Let the song escape, whether we are celebrating the joy of marriage, the birth of a new life, the maturing years of seniorhood, or offering prayers of thanksgiving for a life that has left us.
But when those times of desperation come, Jesus invites us to keep on singing. Not ignoring the realities around us, but joining with the hymnist in affirming that “whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Perhaps you have seen the picture that has been circulating on the internet and on the news in the past few days: a picture that shows the devastation that has taken place in the Philippines, caused by Typhoon Haiyan. The picture was taken in Tanauan a small town in the central Philippines. You can see the remnants of buildings, lying on the ground. You can see the trees completely devoid of leaves. But in the center of the picture you can see a statue of Jesus, standing tall, arms outstretched, beckoning to all to stand firm.
Some say it’s a miracle. Others say not. I can’t say for sure. But I certainly can say that it is a testimony to the assurance that Christ offers to us all, telling us to stand firm, to endure. Telling us to "Hang in there, baby," reminding us that we are God’s children, and assuring us that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God!
Copyright © 2013 by Thomas E. Frost. All rights reserved.
 Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 175.
 Dan Lawton, “New N.O. police substation honors dedicated officer, ” from The Advocate, viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at http://theadvocate.com/news/7602782-123/new-no-police-substation-honors.
 Dr. Zeuss, Horton Hatches the Egg (New York: Harpercollins, 2004).
 Susan Brinkmann, “The Greatest Story Never Told” in Catholic Online: The Catholic Standard and Times (December 5, 2008), viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at http://www.catholic.org/national/ national_story.php?id=30882.
 See “Henry David Thoreau>/Quotes,” viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8202-most-men-lead-lives-of-quiet-desperation-and-go-to.
 See “The Walden Woods Project,” viewed on the internet on November 17, 2013 at http://www.walden.org/Library/Quotations/The_Henry_D._Thoreau_Mis-Quotation_Page. The Walden Woods Project indicates that the first portion of the quote—“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”—was a slight adaptation from Thoreau’s Walden, and the second portion of the quote—“ and go to the grave with the song still in them”—was from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem, “The Voiceless,” which reads “Alas for them that never sing /but die with all their music in them.”
 Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 377.