Almost twenty years ago, there was a disorganized rebellion against the government in the island nation of Haiti. At the time, I was a campus minister at a university where a small number of Haitian students were enrolled. Some students had relatives and friends who supported the government; others had relatives and friends who sympathized with the rebels. Each side would ask me to pray for their families and friends. As I wouldn’t refuse the request, I found myself praying for both sides of the conflict.
Those Haitian students made the appropriate choice, despite the fact that they supported opposite sides of the conflict. The ones who asked for prayer did so because they supported their friends and families but put their faith in God. This is what Jesus had in mind when he assured his disciples that “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Lk 21:19)
Today’s Gospel reading is a typical example of a form of biblical literature called apocalyptic. Biblical apocalyptic appears to talk about the end of time and the consummation of the world but instead refers to the challenging event(s) in the present time of its original audience. The fantastical images used in Biblical apocalyptic, such as armed conflict, natural disaster, and astronomical portends, are intended to focus the reader’s attention on God’s power at work in difficult or threatening circumstances. The Haitian students who asked for prayer for the two opposing sides of a political conflict provide an example to help us understand how God can be present to us in tragedy or loss. They put their trust in God that some degree of good would result from the social ill of conflict. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Lk 21:19)
It’s easy to imagine that perseverance in difficult times might mean keeping a low profile, avoiding getting too involved, and waiting for the situation to improve. Alternately, perseverance might be taken to mean that one should bide one’s time until an opportunity arises to take vengeance on one’s enemies. The fantastical images employed by Biblical apocalyptic might appear to support these notions, but Jesus had something very different in mind when he counseled his disciples to persevere until their lives were secure with God.
The tendency to interpret social conflict, natural disasters, or inexplicable events as signs of the end of the world is popular but quite misguided. Human history is largely the history of war and its consequences. From its inception, our planet has undergone cataclysms and catastrophic changes. Much of what occurs in the universe is the result of chaos rather than design. The fearsome events that provide the images used in Biblical apocalyptic are normal rather than extraordinary. If “wars and insurrections . . . powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs from the sky” (Lk 21:9,11) were signs of the end of the world, the world has ended countless times already. As the world has not really ended yet, we can rest assured that these trials and tribulations do not portend the end.
I chuckled to myself every Sunday, those many years ago, when I was praying for both sides of the conflict in Haiti. I chuckled, not because the situation in Haiti was the least bit funny, but because I was being asked to pray for seemingly opposed goals. Or was I? Both sides wanted peace. Both wanted civility and prosperity. Most importantly, both groups which requested my prayers wanted God’s will to be accomplished in the midst of tragedy and suffering. Both groups wanted the same outcome because both groups saw God present in the midst of their struggles. Obviously, God was not party to the conflict and suffering; rather, God was made manifest in the hope for a resolution beyond what human efforts could accomplish.
Today, many people suffer injustice and lament tragedy. There doesn’t seem to be a way to resolve the war in Ukraine. It’s been less than six weeks since Hurricane Ian and many Floridians are again in the unenviable situation of coping with more storm damage. There are very few people who are completely satisfied with the outcomes of the recent elections. How are we to live with these, and other, tragedies? Jesus says that we are to persevere in our trust of God.
The recurring tragedies that are unavoidable in this world are stark reminders of the created world’s inability to guarantee us life, hope, and mercy. When tragedy occurs, it is an invitation to make certain that we have placed our trust where it belongs, namely, in God alone. There is no way to avoid social ills, natural disasters, and tragic loss, but there is a way to avoid having such events seem like the end of the world.
Failing to persevere in trusting in God will unavoidably feel like the end of the world because placing our trust in something other than God leads inevitably to disappointment and despair. Jesus instructs us to persevere in faith because doing so allows us the blessed opportunity to remain in God’s presence – even in the worst of circumstances.