As a boy, like some children I would see shapes and figures which would be called apparitions. These would be figures of peasant farmers from medieval times working on the farms near where we lived; or family members standing in places where they couldn’t possibly be. In one dream, I came across two men bent over a path working very hard on something. They quickly covered up what they were doing. I took this to mean that they were working on the future.
If this envelope had your name on it and contained a detailed outline of your future – would you open it? There are many instances when you wouldn’t want to know the future. But I am many times daft enough to forget that life is all about the future God wants and not about me and my future at all.
Suppose you’re an extra in an upcoming film. You will probably scrutinise that film for the one scene where hundreds of people are milling about. Just waiting for that 3/8th of a second when you can see the back of your head. May be your mum and dad or children get excited about that 3/8th of a second with you in it. But no one else will realise that it’s you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care. Let’s take it further. What if you hire the local cinema on the film’s opening night and invite all your friends and family to see the film? People will say, you’re nuts, how can you think this film is about you?
So many of us think the movie of life is all about us. But from start to finish the movie is obviously about God. I really want my 3/8th of a second to be about my making as much as I can about God, to point others to Him, to bring Him the glory.
So, don’t the disciples’ words to Jesus pack a punch here: ‘teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ Probably many of us would be on the arm of the disciples asking that same question of our Lord. Especially when we are so anxious about our own personal futures. Jesus isn’t condemning us for asking mind. Because by asking, we get to the heart of his message this morning. Let me explain.
Perhaps our problems come because we think that nothing we do can change what happens to us, that there’s no point in kicking against it or making any kind of effort. This prescription for passivity is poisonous and infects relationships between parents and children, infects marriages, infects the way we treat our elderly and mentally unwell and so on.
On the other hand, Jesus is saying that there is purpose in all our living, even when the times of testing arrive, especially when the time of testing arrives, when we suffer for our love for him. Missionaries remind us that persecution will make you think very deeply about what you believe.
We may not know testing or persecution for what we believe, but we do know personal persecution of other kinds, like the cruelty of seeing parents and grandparents suffering, bullying within a marriage or long-term depression. Which brings us to a key turning point mid-way through the Gospel where Jesus doesn’t say, ‘never mind you will pass through these trials with me to protect you’, as you float along on a kind of holy eiderdown. The opposite, in fact. He says: your suffering ‘will give you an opportunity to testify.’
I wonder – does this take us closer to the heart of suffering, in that our own persecutions (which may be completely unfair) are in fact like small hand-mirrors, carrying tiny yet accurate reflections of the immense suffering of our Lord Jesus? More than this, might our own persecutions be times when we don’t wallow but instead proclaim how our suffering gives us the chance to shout about our Lord?
Of course, this is deeply against the spirit of our age where the cleaning up, even making invisible of messy pain is a healthcare priority. The trouble is that this cleaning up, means we forget those who suffer for their faith and robs us of the power of their example. Those martyrs, the rebels against the times they lived in and the people they were led by, who were worshipped for their example by many of our former generations but whose lives are now forgotten. Gloucestershire has many sites where saintly men and women were martyred but who among us knows who, why or where they died today? I promise a shiny new 50 pence piece to anyone who can take me to the site of a martyr’s death here in our own county.
Your own suffering is never unimportant. In your own suffering you become part of the great suffering which our Lord goes through. When he sweats blood at Gethsemane, he invites you to mix your tears with his tears, your blood with his blood. If you feel life has crucified you, your cross stands in the shadow of his. The arms of Christ’s cross bar become wings to shelter and protect you.
The greatest thing for us is the Gospel urging us to make connection between what we are going through and what Jesus has gone through. As is usually the case, we get obsessed with ourselves, the cruelty and unfairness done to us, the backbiting or bitching about us which deliberately distorts our best of motives. Our own movie! Yet Jesus doesn’t want us cowering in the corner. Instead, he turns all this round and makes it part of his own pain, loving us in what we are going through but reminding us we join him in whatever it is we are going through. Because through our own personal stories of suffering, we are part of his suffering, and we gain our own souls by guiding others from us to Him. What a prize for our pain.