Today is the second-last Sunday in the church calendar year. Next week we celebrate Christ as the King triumphant, all-powerful, indomitable. That is the climax of the churchs understanding of the story of Jesus the Christ Event and the implications of his teachings for our lives as disciples.
Yet one week before this celebration, curiously, it might seem, the lectionary directs us to the grimmest of teachings about the cost of discipleship. Jesus paints a very frightening picture of what the disciples and we should expect. He anticipates turbulent change and challenge in the natural, social, and religious contexts of human life.
History has proved him right, and not only in the disciples generation, but in every generation since. (Thats why it is so misleading to try to use this prophecy, or any other, as some sort of guide to try to calculate the end of the world, the Second coming of Christ, the Apocalypse, Armageddon, or anything at all, really!)
In our own immediate times, it takes only a moment to list some of the many troubles that Jesus prophesied. With regard to war and revolution, I was surprised to realise that even I, in my settled, peaceful eastern suburbs existence have met people who have either been directly affected, or have family members who have been affected by the turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Zimbabwe, East Timor, and Sudan.
Nations are still rising against nation, very obviously again the Middle East, where the daily domestic lives of Palestinians and Israelis are so entwined and yet so fraught with mutual distrust and hostility. In Pakistan and Burma dictators persecute and imprison those who speak out on behalf of the people against injustice and corruption. Notably, in Burma, these have been the religious people, the Buddhist monks and nuns who live disciplined lives in pursuit of peace and holiness.
Nearer home, in Melbourne we have seen in our courts this week men who have engaged in dishonesty and corruption, seeking power for their own aggrandisement, betraying colleagues and the integrity of the wider body of the police force.
At the same time, other members of the police force, men and women who took an oath with their hands on the Bible to uphold the right also appeared in court. In the course of their ordinary work of apprehending those who would seek benefit or advantage for themselves to the detriment of others, these ordinary police officers are challenged, accused, mocked and provoked by defendants and sometimes by lawyers more concerned with displaying cleverness that uncovering truth.
In the Federal Court, our own government, through the Tax Office, prosecuted charities that have turned to business activities to fund their work, partly because of reduced government funding. The Court vindicated the long-held distinction between business activity intended to make profits for the benefit of those who own the business, and activity intended to create funds for charitable and religious purposes.
In terms of natural disasters, we are well aware that the world is physically unstable. Many people live in places that provide the necessities of life in terms of food, water and shelter, but at the same time, threaten that life through the same agencies of water in over-abundance, fuel for fires, earth that shift and slides. We are all being affected by changes and upheavals in the physical environment, on a global scale, through the related effects of impacts on rivers, forests, deserts and islands. And as our planet is subject to change in weather influences and patterns, even the atmosphere and stratosphere are affected, and it does not seem far-fetched to expect that our scientists will soon be reporting observable changes on a cosmic level, as our planet is in relationship with other parts of the solar system.
In terms of social and religious conflict, there are voices raised all around the world in hatred, based on the premise that one religion must be inherently antithetical to another.
To go back to the courts for a moment, two men were fined and convicted this week for anti-Semitic offences against a Melbourne man outside his home last year. The Tax Office, as weve heard, chose to mount and pursue a costly court action based on the wilful misinterpretation of the nature of charity-based business activity, in order to claim a portion of the monies raised.
As we draw closer to the election, many people are feeling frustrated, disappointed and cynical because we perceive that important issues are being discussed in superficial and short-sighted terms. Too often, the voices of social and church agencies that protest this approach or try to enlarge on it are scoffed at and dismissed as irrelevant or naïve.
This demeans both the intrinsic worth of the democratic system itself, and the many people who work selflessly for the benefit of those in our communities who have less bargaining power than others.
In just these few moments, we have considered some of the many inconsistencies and flaws of our world across many dimensions. It is difficult to be consistent and faithful in such a world, even with the best of intentions.
That is why Jesus concern was not with when we might encounter these things.
Rather, he was concerned with how we respond when we inevitably do encounter them.
His advise was succinct: it consists of only one specific instruction, one assurance of help, and one guiding principle. This minimalist approach gives rise to hope that we can in fact achieve what Jesus advocated!
The context of Jesus advice is that when we are engaged in some kind of conflict "on account of (his) name (this will) result in (our) being witnesses to (the people who accuse or persecute us)." (Luke 21: vv12-13)
So let us hear his words with that context of being witnesses to him in mind.
First lets hear the one instruction: " make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves". (v 14)
Why not? Because this would distract us and deceive us into thinking that we must rely on our own wit, knowledge or engagement with the other party on their terms, to defend ourselves. If we want to witness to Jesus, we must trust in his provision for us, and his sovereignty over us and the situation.
And he will display the power that our trust witnesses to: For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict." (v 15)
Does this mean that we will always win our case, or our argument? Does it mean we will be spared the consequences of living in this inconsistent and flawed world? We know that it doesnt. Jesus acknowledges that in v16 they will put some of you to death.
We might be hurt, lose our reputations, suffer financial loss, estrangement from friends, or changes to our lives brought about by some of the large-scale dramas of our time in which we are only bit players. Yet how we conduct ourselves in hard times witnesses to the power of Jesus in our lives.
Even in the worst of circumstances, witnesses have testified to the power of Jesus to sustain them through suffering, sorrow and injustice. We have seen in their lives the assurance and certainty that graces the spirits of people who stand firm in faith and obedience. They have proven the truth of Jesus words, By standing firm you will gain life. (v19)
And we can see in the lives of other people that vast amounts of wealth and power over others does not endow them with any grace whatsoever quite the contrary in some cases.
We all have personal trials and tribulations in our lives, but we also have a part in the larger, more public contests between justice and injustice, corruption and integrity, wise government and foolishness, faithfulness and defeatism. In all of this, at every level, Jesus has proven through every generation, every time of conflict and turmoil, despair and sadness that he is worthy of our trust and commitment. His words have held true for all who have believed them: By standing firm you will gain life. They were true for the first disciples, and they are true for us today.
Let us affirm the basis of our hope in Jesus by singing together hymn no. 560 "All my hope on God is founded."