On a road through a desert in Arizona, a preacher named Nathaniel Evans walked every day, preaching to the many people who just would roar past in their cars. “Repent, the End of the World is Near!” he yelled. One day, as he was walking, he came to a big lever in the middle of nowhere, just by the side of the road. It had a sign next to it that read, “Pull this lever to end the world”
Nathaniel saw this as the perfect spot for him to preach, and soon many automobiles were parked nearby. All was well, until there were so many people, and so many cars, that the road was nearly blocked. It was then a big 18-wheel rig came down the highway, and it couldn’t stop in time. The driver had a split second choice: run over Nathaniel, or to hit the Lever, the lever that would end the world. As the driver later explained to the Highway Patrol, he had no choice. Pointing to the place where Nathaniel Evans had been standing, he said, “Better Nate than Lever.”
The gospel reading also deals with the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as far as a first century Jews was concerned because Jesus talked about the destruction of the temple. And the Jews could not imagine the world going on if the temple was destroyed. Jesus said a number of things would happen before and after the destruction of the temple. And everything Jesus said in our passage today that would happen has in fact happened. The temple in Jerusalem was totally destroyed and not one stone was left on top of another when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70. There have been many who have come saying they were the Christ. There have been wars and insurrections all around the world. Nation has risen against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There have been great earthquakes and famines and plagues. There have been great signs from heaven as well with comets, meteors, and eclipses. Further the followers of Jesus have undergone great persecutions. They have been brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’s name. People have been betrayed even by parents and close relatives. Christians have been put to death. Christians have been hated and are still hated in some parts of the world today.
So what Jesus foretold has indeed come true. But the world has not ended. It did not end when the temple was destroyed though certainly the world for the first century Jews changed enormously. Throughout history great changes have occurred. Change occurs through wars, through natural catastrophes, through health crises, and through political shifts. Change comes and change has continued up to this very time. Jesus said, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
This seems a bit cryptic doesn’t it? By endurance we will gain our souls? Some translations say ‘By your endurance you will gain your lives.’ What exactly is Jesus talking about? Jesus is talking about enduring, about hanging in there as a person who is His follower. When things get really tough, when bad things happen and we cannot understand why, when we are tempted to say to ourselves that maybe there is not a God who really cares about me, maybe if there is a God He is not doing a very good job at watching out over this world and it is at those times we will be tempted to give up following Jesus. During those times of great stress we may decide that we do not want to believe anymore; we don’t want to be a Christian anymore. It is during those times we are tempted to stop enduring. We need to understand that Jesus knows that things are going to get pretty hard for us. Even those of us who live in the United States and have all sorts of wonderful things in our lives go through times of great struggle. These struggles may include health, or bills, or loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, or any of the many other crises that happens to people. Jesus doesn’t ever promise that his followers are going to have an easy time of it. To be a Christian it will take endurance.
So why bother? We endure for a number of reasons. First we endure because of what is promised to us. Jesus tells us that we will gain our souls, our lives. There is a lot at stake—we are talking about our eternal life so obviously it is worth any struggle that we go through here on earth to gain that.
But, even though eternal life would be enough reason in and of itself to endure whatever struggle we go through here in this life, there are more reasons. Another reason we endure is because of the love that God has shown to us through Jesus. Jesus told his disciples that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. And Jesus laid down his life for us. When we are loved and when we understand how much we are loved, the natural response we have is to return that love. Paul tells us in the letter to the Ephesians to try to comprehend the love of Christ—though it is beyond comprehension—and we will be filled with the fullness of God. As we begin to get how much God loves us—we are filled with his fullness, with his presence. There is nothing greater than that. In fact, it is in search of that presence that draws us to church over and over again. All of us hunger for his presence. So we endure because we are so loved and we love in return.
Another reason we endure is because we are becoming like Jesus. When Jesus gives us new life through faith in him, he begins the work of putting our human selves back the way we ought to be. God made humanity in his image but through selfishness and bad behavior we have twisted and distorted that image of God that we have. And Jesus through the Holy Spirit is slowly straightening us out. Just like an athlete needs to practice and practice and practice in order to be able to play so that his or her playing looks effortless, we need to practice how we live. We need to practice living patiently so that when things happen being patient is our first response. We need to practice living kindly so that when circumstances occur and someone is ugly to us our first response is to be kind. We need to practice self-control so that when the opportunity to over-indulge in eating or drinking or whatever our first response is to be self-controlled. Learning to live like Christ is not just a matter of following rules—no, it is a matter of becoming new people, people who naturally live in a loving way. This is another reason we endure.
So what is the message for us today? The end is coming! For us, Jesus may come today, this week, next year, or in 100 years. The prophecies have all been fulfilled. Life for us will have good times and it will have really hard times. The Christian life that is set before us is not a one hundred yard dash. No, it is a marathon. What are we to do? We are to endure—we are to endure to the end. Why? We endure because through endurance we will gain our souls! We will gain eternal life! But that’s not all; we endure because we are loved with a love that is off the charts wonderful. God loves you and me with an abiding and fiercely strong love. And because of that wonderful love He has for us, we can love him back and even love others. And finally we endure because we are becoming like Jesus himself. Slowing but surely He is making us back into God’s image so that we are becoming once again, just like at creation, God’s image bearers. So that we reflect God’s image to a broken world so people see us and see how Jesus would act.
As Jesus pointed out to his disciples, the end of the world is coming. We do not have to choose between Nate and the lever; no we must choose whether or not to endure. Let us choose to endure. Amen