“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:19
Growing up in the 1960s, television seemed full of heroic figures. There would be police drama series where the coppers were always straight and the crooks were always caught; there would be war films in which the central character would triumph against overwhelming odds and make a Shakespearean-style tribute to his dead comrades at the end; there would be cowboy films in which the good guys wore white; medical dramas where no-one died; science fiction series where aliens always lost. Hardly a programme, or a film, would pass without the good guys winning and the bad ones getting their comeuppance. Robin Hood was best at extracting victory from impossible situations.
Perhaps it came from watching too much television, but there developed a habit of looking for Robin Hood characters in life; people who would know how to cope in every situation and would know how to extricate the right result from whatever plight it was in which one found oneself. Of course, there were no heroes who would gallop up on white horses.
Maybe everyone has had moments in life which have been very difficult and they have looked to a friend or to a member of their family for help; what is really wanted is for someone to take over, for someone to take all responsibility. But there are few problems in life that can be solved instantly and few problems that can be solved by someone else, sooner or later everyone has to face their own responsibilities.
How good would a friend be who came and took over someone’s life when they were having difficulties? A good friend would help them overcome those difficulties themselves. A good friend is not someone who makes a situation vanish; a good friend is someone who helps someone cope with a situation, so that next time they can handle it themselves.
The Gospel passage is from the closing stages of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples and Jesus is warning them in very blunt terms that things are not going to be easy, and that they are going to have to cope with things themselves, “they will lay hands on you and persecute you”.
Jesus has spent some three years working with this group of people. I suppose he could have said, “You sit and watch me and I will do everything in a miraculous way”, but he doesn’t. He calls together this slow and plodding and awkward group of people, an unpromising lot if you ever saw one, and he makes something special of them.
They do indeed face all the things that Jesus says will happen. “They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name”, warns Jesus, and all those things happen, and many worse things besides. Yet this motley group becomes an extraordinary group, in three hundred years they will have changed the entire Roman Empire.
Perhaps the trials and tribulations of those early times were essential in moulding the church. It seems that it sometimes takes the worst of times to bring out the best in people. Reading Scripture there are people with huge problems who work through those situations with God’s help and through their experiences become wiser and holier people.
Jesus’ followers are volunteers: “So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance”, he says. They are under no compulsion; they have to decide for themselves. “Make up your mind”, you choose; no-one is forced to follow Jesus. The Spirit is there to guide and to inspire, but the Spirit never forces anyone to do anything.
Jesus does not promise to do things for his followers, what he does promise is to work in partnership with his followers, “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict”. There is a promise there that God is present in difficult times, consoling in moments of sadness, guiding in moments of uncertainty; what is not promised is a magic wand to conjure away all troubles and problems.
When people look for God’s help, it may not be what they expect. It is very easy to have a plan in their minds and to say, “Look, God, this is what is wanted and your help is needed to get it”. Sometimes people try to make bargains with God, if God answers prayers in the way wanted, people will do something in return. However, Jesus offers no prospect of a magic wand to make everything right and easy; God’s ways are not human ways, and like those first disciples people have to trust.
God takes the initiative, but people must respond. Jesus warns the disciples that there will be times when life will be very difficult, but God will be there to help. There will be no Robin Hood, no hero to carry people along. Instead, there is Jesus’ promise, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Jesus says to his followers, “Not a hair of your head will perish”. It is not a literal promise, but is an assurance that ultimately people are in God’s hands. Being in God’s hands, there is no need of a hero.