I Will Fulfill the Promise
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
I Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36
I build on Christ, the rock of ages; on his sure mercies described in his word, and on his promises, all which I know are yea and amen. –John Wesley, 1703-1791, English Clergyman and Founder of Methodism
Viktor Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychiatrist whom the Nazis imprisoned in Auschwitz. Frankl survived and used his experience to develop his therapeutic method known as logotherapy. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he tells us what he learned from life and death in Nazi death camp. What he learned came down to is that those who can find a larger meaning to their lives can often find the resources to survive when others would give up. Another term for finding meaning in life is hope. Those who have hope can find incredible internal resources that can sustain them even in the most drastic and horrific circumstances.
But the hope has to be larger than oneself. It has to universal, it has to be overarching. He pointed for instance to many of his fellow prisoners who believed the Nazis when they told them that they would be free by Christmas. When Christmas came and went with no sign of freedom, many of them lost hope and death came upon them speedily.
On the other hand, he tells the story of prisoners who, though they were starving themselves, would give their last piece of bread to another starving prisoner. Those generous prisoners often survived when those they’d fed died. He attributed this to their understanding of the meaning of life, that is, that generosity and serving others is an overarching, universal value that is worth living and even dying for. That, my friends, is hope. Hope is based in finding a larger meaning to life, something that is worth living for and worth dying for.
Frankl observed that, for better or for worse, it is times of crisis that most truly sharpen or even define our hope. He writes:
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation-just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer-we are challenged to change ourselves.
As a pastor, I have been at the side of many people who had to deal with tragedy in their lives. Maybe, as Frankl says, it is bad news about themselves or their health; maybe it’s bad news about family members or people they love. On occasion I have seen people lose their faith because of it—but far, far more often I have seen people rise to the occasion, to find a stronger, deeper faith, even to change in their assumptions about life and God, adapting so that they can maintain their hope even in crisis.
I often think of our former organist and music director Mark Scott. When Mark received a diagnosis of not one, but two simultaneous cancers, and realized that after years of being sick and bouncing back he wasn’t going to be able to bounce back this time, I was worried that he would collapse into a deep depression. Those of us who knew him well knew that this was a risk. Likewise I was concerned that Mark’s need to be in control would make it difficult for him to do something that I have learned over the years is most important when dealing with this kind of crisis: that one needs to let go of control, and put the situation in the hands of God. Could Mark do that?
Remarkably, I saw that he could, and could do so with dignity, poise, and good humor. Oh, he didn’t ever completely let go of control: several of us experienced how he controlled his circumstances. And also he remained a workaholic,working hard, very hard on planning his own Service of Witness to the Resurrection. But what was striking was really how he changed. Yes, changed. Mark, who was our music director for 39 years, came to accept with joy that St. Stephen would not only go on without him, but thrive without him. And Mark, who had spent his whole life saying that the center of worship is to glorify God and enjoy God forever, really did give the glory over to God. He wanted to make sure his own death gave glory to God and gave evidence to the world of the resurrection of the dead. Mark came to trust more than ever in the grace and mercy of God. Optimism overrode any tendency to depression Mark might have had. And so even as he was dying his hope in Christ shone through.
Our Gospel reading today is Jesus’ prediction of the end times. It sounds pretty dire, as dire as can be imagined. Signs in the sky, distress among the nations, fear and foreboding. It is something we should be ready for, Jesus warns. But ironically, it is in the midst of this crisis that our hope comes. We will see the Son of Man arrive in glory.
What Jesus is telling us is what Viktor Frankl experienced firsthand in his own personal apocalypse, the Nazi death camps. It is in crisis that our hope, what gives our lives their meaning, is most truly tested and proven. There are a lot of things that on a daily basis seem to us so important we don’t know what we’d do without them. Maybe it’s our job, or our families and friends; maybe it’s the political leadership of our country; maybe it’s whatever we do that gives us pleasure; maybe it’s our health or our youthfulness or our beauty. Perhaps we view all those things as gifts from God, which is what we should do. But Jesus warns the day is coming when all that will get taken away. Then the real test comes: was our hope that God loves us, and that God is good, actually based on these other, secondary or even tertiary things? Can our hope enable us to weather the crisis when it comes? Is it so strong that it can even enable us to change and adapt to survive a radical change in our circumstances?
This is what Jesus means by watch. This is what scripture means by reminding us to set our hearts on eternal things, not temporary things. It means simply, you can enjoy your life now, but know that the ultimate purpose of life does not lie in those things you enjoy. Those things can and will be taken away at some point, likely many times throughout your life. Watch means to keep your eyes on the prize: the prize of the Kingdom of God that is still to come. Live your life now as if that is what counts: live life generously, kindly, humbly, sacrificially, and with love. Live your life trusting God’s grace and mercy and showing that grace and mercy to others. Live according to those transcendent values in good times, and you will have the resources you need to get you through the bad times. As the psalmist says: hope in God.