Nov 12, 2016

33rd Sunday: "Not to worry!"

"Not a hair on your head will be destroyed . . . you will secure your lives."

Malachi 3: 19-20A
2 Thessalonians 3: 7-12
Luke 21: 5-19

Over the past years, in the various pilgrimages that I’ve gone on to Europe with a good number of folks, we were blessed in several of them with a wonderful guide whose name was Deborah. She was from England, had that delightful British accent, and we all agreed went well beyond her job description as a guide.  She was always exceptionally helpful and upbeat. 

However, as plans sometimes change unexpectedly during such trips, she had a wonderful way to simply go along with the flow of things. In order to calm everyone if certain tourists seemed a bit anxious she would famously say to us: “Not to worry.  Not to worry” and through her example, things would adjust easily.

However, in light of our readings this Sunday it seems we have much to worry about!  Both the prophet Malachi and the Gospel of Luke use some powerful and disturbing images to describe not only what God is like but also how he will act. From the prophet Malachi we hear of a “blazing oven, fire.”  In the Gospel we hear of the destruction of the holy Temple of ancient Jerusalem, of natural disasters and persecution, of “wars and insurrections” of “nations” fighting against each other and “plagues and famines.”  So, now that we all feel great about the future our assessment of God may quickly turn sour – I thought he was mercy and forgiveness or love and peace so I find myself a bit anxious and worried about all of this.

Always this time of year as we approach Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year, we hear these readings with this ominous end of time imagery. We may wonder, at least on some level, if the truth is that God really may have this side of his personality – that is to frighten us into obedience. I may likewise look at my life and easily find moments of worry about many things related to family, health, safety, finances, or the future.

In the 18th century there was a famous puritan preacher named Jonathan Edwards.  His sermons became very popular but one of his lasting sermons was entitled: “Sinners in the hand of an angry God.”  Through fear instilled in the heart of his listeners he promoted that vision of what God is like; ready to pounce and punish us into submission. Why not worry about that?

Yet, today, our culture is very different.  We reject all images of violence and fear related to faith.  In particular, as the Church is about to officially end the Jubilee Year of Mercy, such a fearful image of God is hardly going to be popular.  So how do we embrace the themes we hear today from Malachi and from Jesus as we read in Luke? 

Historically, what Luke describes in his Gospel as the destruction of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans has already taken place.  Here he has Jesus predicting that coming tragedy and the Jewish people and early Christian converts who are confused if not discouraged hear these words. They thought God would fight off the enemy or better yet, that Jesus would return in their day.  But he hasn’t so they find themselves in the midst of rubble and destruction to wonder where God is? While the Gospel reflects the tough social realities under which the early Christians found themselves they still easily apply to us.   

These apocalyptic images are strong language used to illustrate a great truth to a people who are worried about both their present and their future. The other side of them is a reason to trust: that faith in God is our rock.  Listen to the words of Malachi as today’s passage ends: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

And in Luke, Jesus states: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed . . . you will secure your lives.” These are not words of warning and threat but like our calming guide Deborah, we can hear God saying to us: “Not to worry.”  These are readings of hope and a call to faith.  In spite of great tribulation, God is ultimately in control and for the faithful, he will be their Savior.

But, the real take away for this Sunday, I think, is a great lesson in the uselessness of worry. We would all love to wave the magic wand and have all those who were raised in the faith but now no longer practice to suddenly reappear and fill the pews or to stop time and cease aging. Maybe even have a guarantee that we will live in perfect health for at least 100 years.  But such things that we worry about are beyond our control.

So, the call of this time, then, is to be at peace and to not fear.  To trust in the end that no matter what may come our way, we are called to do good.  If we should worry about anything it might be that I am so worried about things that I am doing nothing good or productive either for others or for myself. That I may not carry out the work the Gospel calls me to do. Rather, I must trust the words of Christ that if I am faithful to the Gospel “not a hair of my head will be destroyed.”

If I am doing good for others, I don’t have time to worry.  Rather, I find that I am grateful that God put me here in this life, that he has given us the Holy Spirit, called us to a rich faith community, his Body the Church, and given us many opportunities to live out the Gospel in his service day by day and that he loves me more than I can imagine. That he shares his living presence with us in the sacraments and in particular the Holy Eucharist which is himself - food for our journey through life.
Now, that’s good news no matter what other forces may come my way.  The best antidote to the illness of too much worry is to do the opposite, the work of the Gospel. We all have the time and ability to live the Gospel out with joy and trust if we only stop the worry.

So, we are reminded as to how God wants us to live our lives.  To keep going and to do good and in the end, “not to worry.”   

Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God, 
the constant gladness of being devoted to you, 
for it is full and lasting happiness
to serve with constancy
the author of all that is good. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Sunday)