Yesterday, I spoke with two different colleagues about the things that are happening in Ferguson, MO, and the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:24-37). All three of us feel a connection there and think we might have something to say about it, but all of us are also wary about weighing in on a tragedy that is still in the process of unfolding.
One of them, Steve Pankey, wrote a beautiful, moving, and haunting piece about it in his blog yesterday. As I read his words, my own heart broke afresh. I commend his post to you, and it has helped me get my own thoughts about Ferguson.
The other of them, Jack Alvey, is working on a sermon (I think) about what our response to this event and others like it should be. His take is bold and powerful yet sensitive and not overreaching. His words have helped me gain some insights for my own sermon on Sunday, and I look forward to reading what he writes and preaches.
Today, though, I’m still in that same place where I found myself yesterday: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus encourages his disciples to judge by the signs of destruction and torment that the Son of Man—the figure of God’s great and final judgment—is near. He even urges them not to lose heart since “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But how can God’s people, who continue to experience these signs of conflict, have any hope when the setting-right of all that is wrong still seems so far away?
Steve repeatedly asked the question, “How long?” in his post yesterday. How long, indeed? That’s the question with which the faithful have wrestled for thousands and thousands of years. How do we maintain hope that things will get better when they seem stuck in a place that is so bad for so long? How do we have faith in God to deliver us from all that is evil and broken in this life when generation after generation seems plagued by the same ills?
How did God’s people remain faithful during their slavery in Egypt or their wandering through the wilderness? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not lose heart when the temple was destroyed and they were carted off into captivity in Babylon? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not give up when the Romans destroyed the temple a second time? Or when a new European empire subjected God’s people to torture and imprisonment and genocidal execution? How long, O Lord, indeed?
Into this cycle of apocalyptic destruction, Jesus speaks, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” That is a promise of deliverance. That is a promise of salvation. But how are we supposed to put our faith in a God whose salvation seems so far away? How can we trust what Jesus says when one generation after another faces its own moment of terror?
That is where I fall silent. I cannot tell a people who are hurting as those in Ferguson now hurt how to have hope. I cannot explain to them or to anyone else in such a position of defeat that there is a clear and easy answer. Because there isn’t. Any preacher who claims to know how God will work all of this out is lying. No one knows.
But I still have hope—even in things I cannot see or understand. Do I hope that the “rule of law” will guide us through this time of chaos and produce a result that will satisfy everyone’s hurt? No, I don’t. Do I hope that the “good of human nature” will win out and that peace and calm and understanding will spread even to those who are so bitterly wounded by these events? No, I don’t. But that’s because my hope has never been in this world. My hope is in a God who takes the very worst moments in human history and guides his people through them, leading them always into that new and abundant life that waits for us.
Jesus’ image of salvation in Mark 13 is a tricky one. It presents an end-of-the-world theology in an immediate timeframe. For that, we must admit, we are still waiting. And the waiting is the point. We keep awake because we refuse to lose hope. We look for salvation even when it seems so far away. The desperate cry of God’s people—How long, O Lord—is not a sign of hopelessness but a return to the watch for hope itself. We cannot see it yet, but we wait and watch for it. How else will we survive?