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November 17, 2019

“A Good Ending” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, November 17, 2019, Year C / Pentecost 23  –  Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12  •  Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98  •  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  •  Luke 21:5-19

THEME:  Have hope and trust that God remains present in our lives, even in the midst of hard times. 

Would you close your eyes for a moment.  I want you to think about your favorite movie.  Do you have one in mind?  Now, picture in your mind the ending of that movie.  Got it?  Now open your eyes.

I’m willing to bet, whatever movie you’re thinking of, it has a good ending.  But what exactly is it that makes a good ending?

The movie I have in mind is, of course, Casablanca.  The ending is what makes that movie the classic that it is. 

Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart are walking away from the camera across a foggy airport runway at night.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll bet you know the last line.  Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine says, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

By the way, that line that was not in the script.  The Director came up with it after filming ended and then he had Bogart record it.

        Without this ending, Casablanca would be nothing more than a melodramatic tale of a disillusioned and bitter expat saloon owner trying to win back the woman he once loved, who left him high and dry and who’s now married to another man.

 

But, as the movie reaches its climax, Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, reveals his true colors.  He’s not a cynical, opportunistic bystander looking to profit from the war against the Nazis.  He’s a committed foot soldier in the fight against fascism.

We know that, because in that closing scene he does the noble thing:  he puts Ilsa, the love of his life, on a plane with her freedom-fighter husband so they can continue the struggle against tyranny and evil.

After years of emotional anguish, Rick’s selfless sacrifice gives meaning to the whole movie.

        That’s what good endings do. They give meaning to the story.  And the most powerful endings of all give us hope in the midst of despair and the inspiration to persist. 

That’s what Casablanca does for us.  It’s also what Jesus does for his disciples as they marvel at the Temple in Jerusalem.

 

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the Temple to the Jews.  It was the center of their religious, social, cultural, intellectual and economic life. 

50 years earlier, Herod transformed the Temple from a humble, archaic structure to a gleaming jewel of architectural achievement.

It was a massive project.  It took 8 years just to store up the materials.  But the effort and expense were appropriate, because the Temple was central to Jewish life. 

It was the only legitimate place where sacrifices could be offered to God.  According to the law, every Jew was obligated to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the three major religious festivals.

As a boy, Jesus did that with his parents.  When they went looking for him, they found him learning at the feet of the scribes.  The Temple was more than just a place to learn about God:  it was the place to experience God.

The Temple was where God lived.  Back behind the sanctuary, separated by a beautiful blue brocade curtain was a darkened space known as the Holy of Holies.  It was so sacred that only the Chief Priest was permitted to go there, and then only one day a year.

The Holy of Holies was where the Ark was kept.  Inside the Ark were the tablets of the Covenant.  On top of the Ark, between the wings of two giant seraphim, was the mercy seat where God sat.

So, we can imagine how shocked Jesus’ disciples were when he told them the day was soon coming when the Temple would be turned into rubble.  That’s the equivalent of someone telling you and me all the institutions that sustain us – our school, our church, our municipal building and our town center – would disappear into dust. 

But even worse was to come. There would be apocalyptic signs everywhere:  wars, natural disasters, ominous events in the skies.  And false prophets would play on the people’s fear, leading them astray.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, he warns his disciples they themselves will be persecuted, and by their loved ones no less. 

Yet even in the midst of this apocalyptic mayhem and suffering, Jesus tells them they must not give in to fear.  They mustn’t lose hope. 

On the contrary, they should see their persecution as an opportunity, a chance to testify to their faith.  And he promises he himself will provide the script.

Their trust that God remains with them in their suffering is the sure sign and guarantee that they will be with God even after death.

In other words, have hope, no matter what.  Trust in God - because God’s promises are trustworthy.

 

One of the hardest things for us as Christians is to trust God in the midst of hard times.  We ourselves are unlikely to be violently persecuted, but there are places in this world – especially the Middle East – where Christians are persecuted just as they were in the days of the early church.

But even without persecution, we certainly know a thing or two about pain and suffering, both our own and others’. 

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of being with one of our members who had lost a loved one.  In between the tears, the anguish was palpable.  That led to the question we often ask in the midst of suffering, at least silently if not aloud, why does God permit such pain?

The only honest answer to that question is, ‘we don’t know.’  What we do know is we never suffer alone.

God is there, even if we can’t feel his presence at that moment.  And even if we can’t see it, God is working in the midst of that suffering. 

Equally certain is the ultimate outcome.  In the end, God’s plan for you and me and this world is what will come to be.

In the meantime, our hope becomes our testimony.

Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of giving our testimony.  We think the only valuable testimony is a dramatic tale of a life turned around, and the more sensational the better.

But that isn’t what Jesus intends.  In fact, the most powerful and persuasive testimony isn’t even a story – it’s an example.

It’s the way we live our lives – especially in hard times. 

It’s the way our faith endures, not because it displaces our doubts, but because it coexists with our doubts.  Simply put, our testimony is our persistent hope, based on our trust in God’s promises, as we know them through Jesus Christ.

As Roman Christians in the early church wrote to their fellow Christians in the letter you and I know as I Peter, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Friends, that is testimony.  I daresay, for each and every one of us in this room, somewhere along the way, there was someone we looked to – a parent, a friend, a pastor, a colleague – whose example of persistent hope in hard times inspired us to persevere in the faith.

That’s what we do for each other here in this community of disciples.  We trust God is with us, now and always.  That’s the basis of our hope.  And our hope inspires us to be Christ’s hands and feet for others, inspiring that same hope in them.

For folks who are suffering – and Lord knows there’s no shortage of them in this world – our presence is a soothing balm for their pain. 

Beyond the tangible help we provide, simply the fact that we are there with them reassures them God’s there, too.  He hasn’t forgotten them – and nor have we.

It’s a reminder to trust his promise that they, too, live in his perpetual presence, in this life and for all eternity.  That’s the reason for their hope, just as it is for ours.

The point here is not to trivialize suffering, either ours or others.  The pain and suffering are real, but so is the hope – the hope of a really good ending.
 

Earlier when I asked you to picture the ending of your favorite movie, did any of you pick The Shawshank Redemption?   If you did, I’m not surprised.  It’s a modern classic.

If you’ve seen it, you recall how two former inmates, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, are reunited at the end on a Mexican beach.  The two of them have gone through hell together in a notoriously brutal prison. 

Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, has managed to escape, but he doesn’t forget his friend Red, Morgan Freeman.  When Red is finally released, he goes to the spot Andy has told him about.  There he finds a note from Andy, along with money and an invitation to join him in Mexico.

The note reads, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”  Like Casablanca, it’s one of the great movie endings of all time.

 

But, as good as these are, the greatest ending of all is what lies ahead for you and me.  That’s what Jesus promises, and that promise has no expiration date.

For all of us, the day will come when we meet God face to face.  In the meantime, he’s with us now - today and always, no matter what we go through. 

 

That is the source of our hope.  Let’s reflect that hope in the way we live our lives.  

 

There is no more powerful testimony than that.

 

May it be so.

Last Published: November 19, 2019 10:52 AM