Hebrews 10:11-25; 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-10, 18 Nov 2018
I remember when I as a young country kid first went to the big city of Sydney and saw the wonders of the city buildings. I looked with amazement at the Sydney Opera House, and I travelled with great excitement to the top of what was then the tallest building in Sydney – Australia Square.
Since then I have travelled the UK and some of Europe and have seen some magnificent cathedrals. They are truly awe inspiring in the magnificence of the stone work and decoration, and in their size as they sour towards heaven. I can imagine that my feelings upon first seeing these buildings must have been something like the awe of one of Jesus’ disciples, a young country man from the region of Galilee, as he gazed at the wonders of the city of Jerusalem, the religious centre of his people. ‘Look, Teacher (he excitedly said to Jesus) what large stones and what large buildings!’
But, Jesus’ reply was not what he was expecting. As large and impressive as this building might be, Jesus said, it will not last! The time will come when it will be just a pile of rubble! Well, we can imagine how this prophesy must have got the disciples’ curiosity going. So, at the first opportunity, four of them asked Jesus their burning questions: “When will this destruction of the temple occur?” and “What will be the signs preceding it?”
Jesus’ response redirected the disciples to what is important for us. Things as we know them will pass away. And further, there are times of trial that lie ahead of us. The important thing is not to be trying to predict when such things will occur; but rather, to focus on how we are to respond. Jesus’ message is that when faced with trials in life, we can find hope in Christ. To understand how trials can lead to hope we firstly need to understand that …
I. Trials are a part of living
After the excursion to the temple, Jesus sat and talked with his disciples about the times of trial that are to come. In addition, he warned the disciples that they themselves would suffer persecution, arrest, imprisonment, and beatings because of their beliefs in Jesus.
The reality is that trials and suffering are an inevitable part of life. And, the trials that we face in life can take many different forms.
In the reading from 1 Samuel we read about the trial that Hannah had to go through. For many years she was unable to fall pregnant and bear an heir for her husband, Elkanah. The importance to the ancient Israelite women of being able to bear a male child to carry on the family name is something that today we cannot fully comprehend. It was so important that her husband took a second wife to try to ensure the birth of a son to be the heir.
Being barren carried with it a social stigma in those days – women unable to bear a child for their husband saw themselves as being failures in the prime role in life. And to make matters worse, the second wife, Peninnah, who had children, daily taunted Hannah.
It was such an important issue that even though she was married to an apparently wealthy man who loved her dearly and daily expressed his love and affection, Hannah went into deep depression over her inability to conceive a child.
The suffering endured by Hannah as she was daily taunted by Peninnah, and the persecution for their beliefs that the disciples were later to suffer may well be something like the suffering experienced by a young person who is daily bullied at school. At distressingly frequent intervals we read in the newspapers about some young teenager who has committed suicide because the bullying, and their feelings of inadequacy has become too much for them.
And then there is the suffering that is caused through illness and disease; whether it be the suffering that arises from crumbling arthritic bones, or the distress that results as we watch a loved one being slowly taken by dementia.
Whatever our experience, trials in life are inevitable and the suffering that we may have to go through can take many different forms. So, these passages from the Bible are relevant to every one of us.
But the message here is not one of gloom, because, whilst suffering is a part of life, it need not lead to despair. In fact, in the midst of trials, we can still find peace and hope.
II. Trials can lead to hope for those who enter into the presence of God.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain that kept people out of the inner sanctuary of the temple where the Israelites believed that God dwelt, was torn in two. This signified that, because of the completed work of Christ on the cross, we can now enter into the very presence of God. Hebrews 10 tells us that we can do this because we have been sanctified (v.14,29).
This word ‘sanctified’ means to be set apart to be made holy for God. Having been set apart for God, our hearts are ‘cleansed from an evil conscience’ and perfected for all time through Christ’s blood. It is because of this sanctification that we can draw near to God ‘in full assurance of faith’ (v.22)
Years ago an S-4 submarine was rammed by a ship off the east coast of the US. It sank immediately and the entire crew were trapped in a prison house of death. Every effort was made to rescue the crew but all ultimately failed. Near the end of the ordeal, a deep sea diver, who was doing everything in his power to find a way to release the crew, thought he heard a tapping on the steel hull of the sunken sub. He placed his helmet up against the side and realised that it was Morse Code. In his mind he was able to spell out the message from within. It repeated the same question over and over “Is … there … any … hope?
Well for those who are trapped within their self-centred natures, there is no hope – they will eventually perish in sin.
But for the Christian who has been cleansed and released from the power of sin through sanctification, we do have hope for eventual salvation. And in the midst of a trial, this hope can give us peace. Philippians 4:7 tells us that even in the midst of turmoil we can come into God’s presence and receive a peace that surpasses all understanding. So, in any moment of trial Heb 4:16 urges us to enter into the presence of God in prayer and seek his support and his peace.
This peace arises from our knowledge that we are sanctified and that Christ’s work of sanctification is a completed work. Hebrews 10:12 says that ‘when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God” …’
We can therefore approach God in the midst of trials with confidence knowing that if we have Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we are sanctified. Moreover, we are encouraged to come into God’s presence in prayer, and as we do this we can know the hope of forgiveness and salvation that Jesus holds out to those who are sanctified.
But there is a danger that exists in our experiences of trial, and this is why Jesus then went on to warn his disciples about some of the difficulties that lay ahead of them. In times of trial we need to hold fast to our faith and remain focused on how we live our life rather than becoming distracted by the things around us. Our readings today indicate that …
III. Trials can lead to hope for those who hold fast.
It is easy to become distracted by our trials and to loose our focus on the main thing, i.e. how to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our daily walk as people who are sanctified.
During times of trial we are more susceptible to being easily led astray by false prophets who distract us with false teachings, or materialistic concerns such as the magnificence of the building and the size of the stones. Some cease meeting together in fellowship in our church community to encourage one another. Some become so focused on worldwide events that they neglect their own personal responsibility for how we live our lives in the midst of such turmoil.
It is not easy to hold on while awaiting God’s salvation. There is a story that appeared in a newspaper while I was living in England that illustrates the difficulty of hanging on while awaiting rescue.
A French mountain shepherd tended sheep in a steep and difficult terrain. He carried a mobile phone in case of accident and in the area there was an SOS helicopter available for rescue work.
One day the shepherd slipped and fell down a very steep slope. He landed a little way down the slope and was able to get his mobile phone out and dial SOS – but the number was engaged!
Before he could ring again he slipped further. He ended up hanging over a cliff and was prevented from falling further to either death or serious injury only by his hands clutching vegetation. He knew that he could only hold on for a short time; but he had dropped his mobile phone and could not let go to pick it up without falling.
After a while he realised that he could press ‘redial’ with his nose and this time the number connected, and he got through. The operator was at first a bit sceptical as to how he could dial while hanging on with both hands – but soon a helicopter was dispatched. The shepherd was rescued only moments before he would have lost his grip.
I would often say to the young cadets that I counselled at the Defence Force Academy that the important thing is not that we may be experiencing some difficult time in life; but, how we respond to the difficulties. For the large part, we cannot control the events of life; but, the thing that we always do have control over is how we respond.
In the midst of a trial we are encouraged to come into God’s presence in prayer, to seek his peace, to continue to daily live as one who is sanctified, and to hold fast to our hope of salvation. In this we are not on our own. We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us and to give us his peace. And we have each other - Hebrews 10:24,25 tells us that we can hold fast through mutual encouragement of one another.
For those who hold on in the midst of trial there is hope to be found. If we read on in our Gospel reading for today, in verse 13, there we see Jesus’ words, ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’ (Mark 13:13).
Hannah did not turn away from God despite suffering year after year through her inability to give birth. Instead she sought out God in the temple and God was faithful and delivered her from her suffering. Not all of us will see the answer to our prayer as specifically as Hannah did; but, Hebrews 10:23 encourages us to continue to hold fast because God is faithful and has given us a promised salvation for those who are sanctified.
My friends, I cannot even begin to understand the trial that you may be going through, or have ahead of you, because we are all different and our trials take many different forms. Nevertheless, we know that trials in life are a part of life and must be endured. As we pass through such difficult times, we are encouraged to know that those who enter into the presence of God and who hold on fast can derive hope. To repeat Mark 13:13, ‘The one who endures to the end will be saved’.