“Standing Firm”Dr. Ben Wagener Luke 21:5–19 Year C: Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
After living and working in San Diego for four years, our son moved to Los Angeles last summer to take a new job. At the end of the first week in his new apartment, he felt the strong tremors of the Ridgecrest, Calif., earthquake and crouched under a table as a precaution. The shaking was “no fun,” he reported. Then he continued, “After experiencing wildfires near San Diego and now an earthquake in Los Angeles, I think I am a true Californian.” Not so fast, I pointed out; he still needed to withstand a mudslide to complete the chaos experiences of a true Californian!
Both natural and human-caused chaos has always been with us. In the last days of his life in Jerusalem, Jesus warned his disciples of much chaos to come, and he suggested how they might withstand the terrors as steadfast disciples. He warned them of the temporary status of the magnificent Temple. He then predicted earthquakes, famines, wars, plagues, terrors, and great signs from heaven. In addition, he said, his followers would also need to be faithful on a more personal level as they faced arrests, persecutions, and being handed over to hostile authorities.
Some versions of scripture report that Jesus shared a commonly held assumption that a terrible time of testing, or a day of judgment, was coming. Today, there are those who are convinced that biblical prophesies—particularly from the books of Daniel (2:44) and Revelation (16:14–16)—will be soon realized in a literal calamity, culminating in a battle of the end times called “Armageddon” in the vicinity of the state of Israel.
Setting aside such an apocalyptic interpretation, I am much more interested in how Jesus teaches us to withstand the ongoing chaos brought about by a culture of hatred, racism, and violence. What wisdom does Jesus offer when tribulation becomes almost more than we can bear? And who are some role models who might inspire us?
A true theology
In the fourth century, Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, was an influential theologian in the early Christian church. He refuted the heresy called Arianism, which questioned the divinity of Christ. However, the Roman emperor supported Arianism and sent a prefect named Modestus to warn Basil. If Basil did not capitulate and switch sides, the emperor would confiscate his property, banish him into exile, beat him, and even put him to a violent death.
In the face of these threats, Basil very calmly sent word back that in good conscience he would have to maintain his position: “If you take away my possessions, you will not make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. Who can torture me? I am so weak that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God.”
Stunned, Modestus said, “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me.” “Perhaps,” replied Basil, “that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we look to Him alone.” Modestus could only report to the emperor that Basil was not to be intimidated; and the Emperor decided not to pursue any of the threatened punishment.
As Jesus told his disciples, “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” (Luke 21:12–13, NRSV).
Closer to our own time, we have the example of the courageous German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the turmoil in Germany in the 1930s. As the German church compromised its Christianity to conform to Nazi ideology, Bonhoeffer and fellow clergy spoke out. By 1934, many clergy opposing the German church and Nazis were suspended from their churches, denied the right to preach, transferred to new posts, or forced to retire. On May 1934, 138 church delegates in Barmen, Germany, issued a statement opposing these harassments and pledging their support for a new “Confessing Church.”
The keynote of the declaration was to acknowledge the unique Lordship of Christ over every area of life, at the same time rejecting any other overarching authority in faith and practice. The emergence of the Confessing Church prompted Bonhoeffer to action; he began to develop a network of ecumenical churches around the world for the joint proclamation of God’s message to stand up to evil, not just in words, but in actions.
The Confessing Church struggled to maintain its identity. Between 1938 and 1945, it split into two paths: either secret resistance to the Nazis or some sort of compromise with the German Christian church and Nazi ideology. Although the Confessing Church never saw itself as a formal political opposition, or a refuge for political activists against the Third Reich, many members were imprisoned and many of its lay members and clergy died in concentration camps.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937, Bonhoeffer argued that to follow Jesus, “The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity.”
Bonhoeffer himself decided after much prayer and discernment to take up political resistance to the Nazis, despite his lifelong struggle to reach peaceful solutions. This decision ultimately led to his torture and hanging in April 1945—just as Jesus warned, “They will put some of you to death” (Luke 21:16).
Are we willing to be prophetic, like Bishop Basil and Pastor Bonhoeffer? Can we choose to testify against specific practices in our churches and society that harm God’s people—poverty, racism, sexism, and all forms of personal and systemic evil? Are we able to define ourselves and how we follow Jesus differently from other Christians who may also claim to follow Christ, but who support corrupt leaders and are afraid to challenge them? Or are we fearful of those who might disagree, risking the loss of our church members and their financial contributions?
Rejected for who we are
As a child, I had to deal simultaneously with abandonment and persecution. My father had been an outstanding college baseball player at Vanderbilt University. When my older brother and I came along, he taught us the basics of the game when we were very young and living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Unfortunately, my father was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in his early 30s.
For two years, we watched him gradually lose control of his muscles, although he was always very alert. Not only was the disease devastating, but his father—my grandfather, a physician—did not provide either emotional or financial support. Dad’s legacy to me was to give me a glove and a bat just before he died, telling me I would be a good baseball player.
When he died, I was six years old and my brothers were eight and three. With our mother, we moved quickly to Clemson, S.C., my mother’s hometown. Experiencing my father’s death at an age when I could barely grasp it, feeling abandoned also by my grandfather, moving to a new home—a small university town in the South, where life was nothing like my early years in one of the largest cities in the world—all that was difficult enough.
On top of all that, I was not expecting the reactions of my second-grade classmates. “Go back home, Yankee!” they said. I began to learn that the Civil War was a major factor in the South, whose states were not just defeated but humiliated by the North. I felt like a leper, isolated, rejected, and laughed at for my nasal accent.
At first I soon found myself hating the ones who shunned me, but my mother wisely said to have patience and look for opportunities to befriend one or two classmates. I became determined to overcome the stigma of being different. My mother reminded me that we belonged in Clemson; her father and brother were proud graduates of Clemson College, so I had a family heritage to claim.
After a while, however, I realized I had a way to overcome the stigma of being Northern and to gain my classmates’ respect. As I developed into a fairly good softball player, I took a position at shortstop during recess at school. It took quite some time, but I began to make a promising impact as someone who was wanted on a softball team.
Instead of calling me “Yankee,” one classmate began to call me “Honus” for “Honus” Wagner, the famous shortstop for the early 20th-century Pittsburgh Pirates. To this day when I return to Clemson to watch the college baseball team, a few old acquaintances will sometimes say, “Hey, Honus, what’s up?” Instead of being a Yankee, I became a “Southern-fried Yankee.”
Unlike Bishop Basil and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I did not fear for my life, but I did experience a form of persecution and have to rethink my very identity—a tall order for a child. My Sunday school teacher told us that Jesus is always with us to the end, and indeed, I found that Jesus’ promise in Luke 21:19 took root for me: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In the face of social issues
Today we have myriad examples of tribulation and chaos across the globe. We feel utterly out of control, yet Jesus calls us to stand firm and speak his truth. We may face principalities and powers that push back against the effective solutions we advocate.
Take the problem of increasing gun violence, for example. As of September 1—the 244th day of 2019—there had been 283 mass shootings in the United States, or more than one per day. Where can we be safe today? Mass shootings have happened in so many ordinary locations: schools, churches, shopping malls, concerts, theaters, and food festivals. These are surely “dreadful portents” as in Luke 21:11.
In response to the back-to-back August mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, a New York Times reader in Montreal responded: “I am as shocked by this tragedy as you are. How will Americans respond to this constant bloodshed? Are your guns that important?”
Another Times reader in Denmark said, “I hope American people do not grow numb to the pain caused by guns, and that they will start to regulate gun ownership.” Did the writers of the U.S. Constitution really want this scenario? If they had foreseen so much death by gun attacks on their own citizens, would they have written the Second Amendment as they did?
In the face of dreadful upheavals, Jesus told his disciples, “Keep your head and don’t panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end.” (Luke 21:9, The Message) This is easier said than done! However, this strategy helped alleviate high anxiety in the fearful aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in 2012, according to the Rev. Susan Olsen from Yale Divinity School.
Teachers and others reminded parents and children to repeat Fred Rogers’s instruction to “Look for the helpers”—look for the doctors, nurses, police, and volunteers of all kinds—those who are working to provide comfort and care. Look for helpers in churches, where you may find worship and comforting spaces to vent your anger, grieve, and pray for victims and their families.
As Jesus warned his disciples about future persecutions from authorities in high places and betrayals even from friends and family, he also encouraged them to use the upcoming upheavals as opportunities to testify or speak truth to power. He said he would guide them with wisdom to address their opponents (Luke 21:12–16).
What is the Christian response to those who would block any legislation on gun control? To those who believe owning all kinds of guns is a God-given right? How do we testify to our legislators when they resist common-sense steps such as expanded background checks, bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and “red-flag” laws?
When Grammy-winning country singer Kacey Musgraves, a native Texan, called for gun control laws in August at Lollapalooza, she was confronted by a fan who said: “Stick to your singing, Kacey. You do realize that most of your fans are packing at your shows, don’t you?” After some thought, she responded that she usually stays out of politics publicly until something “dangerously encroaches on fundamental human rights. It’s then not a political issue anymore. It’s a matter of heart. Of humanity. Of survival.” Here is one courageous voice speaking truth to power.
Our call to stand firm
Our call to follow Jesus brings no promise of easy answers or evasion of suffering. We may experience tribulation at the societal level or at the personal level, from friends and family who have supported us. Unexpected chaos may strike and our prayers may not be answered as we hoped. Life continues to be full of uncertainty and unsettling suffering. We wonder, where is this God who loves us?
However, Jesus promises us that if we trust him, he will give us the words and wisdom to refute our enemies, and that if we stand firm and endure, we will gain our souls (Luke 21:15–19).
Out of the chaos and tribulation of the civil rights era in the 1960s came the powerful voice of Dr. Martin Luther King. He spoke of standing firm during the long fight for racial equality and his hope that love will conquer hate.
In his 1967 speech to the 11th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” King said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Whatever chaos envelops us, we are not alone. Chaos and tribulation will happen, and we will sometimes be called on to confront the powers of darkness. The ground may shake, but we are called to stand firm. Those times might be exactly when we need to listen for Jesus’ words and wisdom, when we find the opportunity to share the Good News.
About the author
In 50 years of ministry, Ben has served pastorates in Kentucky and Virginia, including eight years as founding pastor of a covenant church in Richmond, Va., modeled on the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. His most recent full-time position was 12 years as pastor for spiritual formation at the Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va. Recently he “flunked retirement” after moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., when Knollwood Baptist Church called him as part-time minister of welcome and engagement, to work with visitors and new members.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ben grew up in Clemson, S.C. He holds degrees from Furman University (B.A., history), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Princeton Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and is a certified life coach. He is married to Dorothy, a retired nonprofit magazine editor and church communications specialist, and together they have a son, daughter, and son-in-law. For relaxation, Ben is both active—doubles tennis, senior softball, and golf—and reflective, participating in an Anam Cara (“soul friend”) group and a dream group.
Scripture and Music:
Isaiah 12 ,
Psalm 98 ,
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ,
Jerusalem the Golden
Come, Ye Thankful People Come
We Gather Together
For the Fruit of All Creation
Now Thank We All Our God
Marching to Zion
Lord Speak to Me That I May Speak
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life
It Is Well with My Soul
Give Thanks (Martin)
The Master Hath Come (Davis)
Now Thank We All Our God (Bach)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Young)
Earth and All Stars (Johnson)
I Want to Thank You, Lord (Hogan)
The Lamb (Nygard)
My Tribute (Crouch)
The Holy City
For the Fruit of All Creation
It Is Well with My Soul