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Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Daniel 12:1-4; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:31-39; Mark 13:14-23
When my grandfather died, I was 16. I had spent months of that year at his home up north, helping care for him as he tried to recover from an injury that left him immobile. I was quite close to him. He taught me some woodworking and metalworking, told me stories of his life and how I should live mine, showed me how to make hot toddy’s, and listened to me talk about the things I cared about. His condition over that year worsened, and while at first they thought it was an infection from his injury, it became clear eventually that he had cancer. It had progressed significantly and was through his whole body. When he died, I was torn up. It was one of the hardest things I ever dealt with, the first person death that truly affected me, was close to me. His relationship with God was ambiguous, and so I also was not able to be confident at the time with what I had been taught that he would be with God on the other side. If ever there was a time that my faith was challenged, it was then.
The temptation to abandon our faith is always present. We may not always sense it to be so, recognizing that temptation, but it is there. Typically, it is the moments of highest pressure in our lives, moments of crisis, that the tension, the pressure upon our faith is revealed. It could be because of an intellectual crisis, where one finds they struggle to believe that these things could be true, like the supernatural, or the resurrection of Jesus. It could be relational, as when abandoned by a friend, or hurt by people in the Church. You could find out you or someone you care about contracted a terminal illness. It could be that you found yourself unemployed. It could be that you have a chronic ailment, or have worked hard to achieve something for years that never materialized.
Our culminating passage from Hebrews gives us a final exhortation to keep the faith, not just despite our suffering, but cheerfully. How can we do this? What makes it possible for us to endure with joy that which makes our lives a hard struggle? Because we know that what we can lose is never greater than what we will gain. We know that our perseverance in faith will result in receiving eternal life.
The author of Hebrews exhorts these Christians to remember what they had gone through before. They had sometimes been abused and persecuted, or close to those who were suffering, walking with them. They had their possessions taken from them. Yet, it says, “you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting.” That parallelism is interesting; losing one thing we possessed, but able to lose it joyfully, because we possess something that cannot be taken from us, something we can throw away but no one can wrench from us.
What they possessed is what Hebrews has been teaching us these last weeks: A permanent, perfect High Priest, who offered up a sacrifice that was sufficient for all time. Both priest and sacrifice are Jesus Christ, and we are united to him by faith, so that wherever he goes, we go. His priesthood is to intercede with us because he understands our weakness, and his sacrifice was to cover our sins, making us pure, cleansing us so that we can and will enter the Holy Presence of the Father in glory, forever and ever.
That is what we have. That is what we stand to gain. That is what we endure for, cheerfully enduring suffering because we know that a joy deeper than our comprehension, a joy that infuses us and permeates our entire being awaits us. Like the Temple and priests and sacrifices were copies of heavenly things, mere representations of what is truly real, so our cheer, our joy now is but a copy of the true joy we attain in heaven.
This doesn’t mean we go looking for suffering. It also doesn’t mean we don’t have times of sorrow and tears. Remember, it also says “you had compassion for those who were in prison.” You can’t be compassionate without sharing suffering. Surely when we suffer we will have pain, tears, anger, sorrow, even depression and anxiety, as is so amply displayed in the Psalms. But these are infirmities, expressions of our finiteness, our weakness and frailty. They are natural and acceptable reactions to suffering, but only when understood as temporary.
We must be able to shift our perspective, to see the world rightly. When we experience hardship and respond with only tears, only sorrow, then we are not living as people who know where they are headed. That struggle is hard, I know as one with chronic anxiety. Christians are pilgrims, in a place that is not our home, on our way to our place of rest, the Presence of God. Along the way we will want to give up. But the necessary outcome of our faith is that when we experience suffering, we are able to do so eventually coming to a place of joy, not joy in the suffering, but because we know that suffering is nothing compared to what we will inherit.
St. Paul, in Romans 8:37-39 tells us the truth. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is, if we keep the faith. “My righteous one will live by faith,” vs. 8 says. “We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.”
I eventually came through the sorrow of losing my grandfather, among many others along the way. Many more await me, I am sure. We all will. And we will all be tempted along the way to stop, or take a different road. I have several friends who have chosen those paths, for a variety of reasons. But the inheritance we have in Christ, our High Priest, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, is greater than any suffering or loss we can face here, hard as it is to believe.
Belief, faith, is what we need to be able to look at the suffering after our tears have dried and say, “My God is enough.” When others suffer, we must be people who show compassion, who walk alongside. Christians, we are called to face what comes with faith, reflecting however dimly the joy we will have in heaven with the joy now of knowing it will one day be ours. Let us be people of endurance, people of cheer, people of faith, and let us attain the promise that was secured by Jesus Christ. Amen.
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