My Monday morning devotional reading was from Mark 13. Scholars call this passage "the little apocalypse." In it, Jesus foretells one disaster after another--the destruction of Jerusalem's splendid temple, natural disasters, warfare, and the betrayal and persecution of his disciples.
Tuesday's devotional reading was similar material from Luke's gospel. Luke's version includes a unique detail: "distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves."
I am not one of those pastors that draws straight lines from biblical prophecies to current events. That said, we do seem to be living in apocalyptic times: the clear and present danger of climate change, increasing tensions between nuclear powers, the crumbling of religious institutions.
How do you live faithfully when it seems as though you're living on the edge of the apocalypse? Jesus warns his disciples not to lose themselves in hard partying or career advancement. These seemingly opposite lifestyles will leave you equally unprepared for hard times. He urges his disciples not to be taken in by "false Messiahs." I suppose that warning could apply not only to religious charlatans but to any individual, ideology, or organization that would demand our ultimate allegiance. His name for these coming cosmic convulsions is "birth pangs," a phrase that evokes both suffering and hope.
As I reflected on these verses, I found myself remembering a scene from the movie Apollo 13. Tom Hanks starred as the commander of the ill-fated mission to the moon. Hanks's character had to execute a course correction to get the wounded spacecraft and its crew home safely. If I recall correctly, the only means of navigation Hanks had at his disposal was keeping the planet Earth in his field of vision through a window.
I wonder if that is not an apt symbol for Jesus's counsel. He calls us to keep singularly focused on him when our lives and the world feel like they're spinning out of control. How do we do that? We offer our wounded lives and the pains of the world to him in prayer. We praise him in worship and seek his presence in the sacraments. When we serve people in need--the hungry, the sick, refugees and strangers at our borders, prisoners--we remember his assurance that we've served him too (Matthew 25:34-40).
Jesus Christ is at once our destination and our indispensable means of getting home. When we stay focused on him, our difficulties and the travail of the world are transformed into fruitful labor.