"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” Shakespeare writes, reminding us that through the ages this has always been true. It was the worst of times for Hannah, whose story we hear in the first reading. Hannah has lived for years as a barren woman, consumed in tears and so sad she could not eat. Her husband loved her deeply, favored her with double portions of food but nothing he did comforted her; she desperately wanted a child.
She presented herself before the Lord--begged, prayed, pleaded for a child, promising, should she bear a male child, she would dedicate him to God in a life of holy discipline. "Go in peace," said Eli, the priest, "may God give you what you have asked of him."
Filled with joy she returned home and within a year gave birth to a son, naming him Samuel. This little boy served God faithfully as priest and prophet, and years later he anointed David as king. Hannah is a model of faithfulness as she stands with and insists on her prayers. For Hannah, the birth pangs of labor were an answer to prayer, a baby boy bringing joy and renewed hope to her life. As a woman with a child she would now be held in honor and respect by all in her household. Hannah was blessed with an infant son, but she remembered her promise to God. She knew she had the power and authority to give God a good gift, her precious child.
In our Gospel story we find Jesus with his disciples standing outside the Temple and admiring this magnificent stone structure. He says to them, "You're impressed by this grandiose architecture?? Let me tell you, not a single stone of this entire building will not end up in a heap of rubble."
How could this be? It took a huge workforce seven years to construct this amazing temple. The original temple had helped establish King David's monarchy, this second one was now the place of religious sacrifice, and it was regarded as the very dwelling place of God. The people must have expected it to stand forever.
At a later time, Peter, James, John and Andrew questioned Jesus, "Tell us, when will this happen? What signs will there be that these terrible things will happen?" Notice that Jesus dodges their question, but says they must stand firm and don't be lead astray-- even when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation-- there will be earthquakes, there will be famine but the end is still to come.
Looking back through history there have been countless reports of wars, chaos, disruption, hardships, and social decay but that will not be the focus of today's message. We will not be left in the pit of despair. Remember Jesus' gift to us is the Gospel, the good news.
So what do we make of these words of Jesus for today? He tells us don't be led astray when you hear people speaking of disasters and destruction and interpreting that as a sign of end times. These stories have been generated throughout history yet the end did not come.
Historians wrote of their pessimistic view of society. Confucius wrote, “there is in the world no moral social order at all,” and he deplored the behavior of teenagers. The Roman orator, Cicero, began an address with these words, "O what a time, what a state of things!” In the early 19th century England held widespread disrespect for authority. The monarchs were laughing stocks, the political system was seen as corrupt, and the Church of England was widely regarded for its clergy abuse rather than religious devotion.
We know well that in society today there is still suffering and injustices, there are personal earthquakes within our families and friends, there are financial crises and employment worries, illness and loses. During the past 6000 years of civilization there has been darkness and despair, indeed, biblical "signs of the end" have engulfed nations and individuals. Knowing this many people view life pessimistically in regard to family life, jobs, or just about everything else.
Negative words seem to affect us at a deeper level. Criticism, fears and terrors live in our brains for years. Jesus' Gospel acknowledges the darkness. No smiling preacher this Jesus! He experienced human darkness from birth to death. He was persecuted and ridiculed but grew in inner strength and peace. He was economically poor yet so very rich. He was humiliated and executed for his preaching and even overcame that.
Experiencing darkness, Jesus life and ministry revealed light amidst the evils of the day.
At least Dickens words gave a balanced view, he named both the negative and the positive. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." And we live in a world with both.
Remember Jesus' last words for us today, "this is but the beginning of birth pangs." After the pain of birth there is a baby, new life, new beginnings, new hope. This is not the end, this is the beginning. We are to be alert and expectant for God is continually bringing new life into our world.
As soon as the predicted massive storm hit the east, the TV cameras were there filming the effects of wind and record high water crashing through sea walls. And the worst happened as local residents reported they had never seen such a storm in their lifetimes. What followed next were the stories of the heroes saving the lives of many.
Firefighters, police officers, first responders, nurses, doctors, neighbor helping neighbor. Nurses at a New York hospital slowly carried tiny, premature babies down the dark stairwells, hand ventilating as they moved.
Medical teams from Seattle spent two weeks in the storm ravaged areas relieving the weary workers so they could get some rest. Three young men from Montesano, employees of our PUD, spent days assisting with the effort to restore power in those damaged cities.
Mennonite women came from Pennsylvania and were shown on TV, in full length dresses cleaning and scrubbing the inside of homes that had been flooded. Flood waters are muddy, sandy waters requiring heavy duty scrubbing.
With the intent of bringing some measure of normalcy to the city, NY worked feverishly to prepare for the annual marathon yet at the last minute canceled the event. It was decided their energy and resources needed to be concentrated on the thousands without shelter, water, food, dry clothing or power. Then came, from the stranded runners with no race to run, an outpouring of offers to help. They donated their hotel rooms, carried supplies, cleaned debris and pitched in as needed.
There have been countless acts of heroism, millions of dollars donated toward clearing and rebuilding yet it doesn't minimize the loss, it does make it bearable. Crises and hardship know no boundaries, kindness and generosity know no limits, all exit together in the messiness of life.
We are Christians, we believe in a God of goodness, mercy and love. We are people with good news to share, we are called to be the ones bringing hope to others. The words of scripture give us assurance of God's promise of presence and hope. In the opening pages of our Bible we are given the story of creation. "God created all things, it says, and God saw it was good it was very good." All life began in goodness and love.
The Gospel according to Matthew ends with Jesus words, "Lo, I am with you always even to the close of the age." We are never alone.
From the words of Zephaniah, "The Lord your God is in your midst, he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will quiet you with his love, he will exult over you with loud singing." We are cherished by God.
From Romans, "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose." Let me tell you, those words lived in my head through the years of parenting three teenagers. Even now I repeat them often.
Another from Romans, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." We are given hope in abundance.
And in today's scripture, "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering." We are to hang in there.
Those reassuring words comfort me in times I find myself worrying about things over which I have not control. Someone once said, "Worry and fears are like wrestling with pigs. You get hurt and really dirty while the pigs love it."
When I remember again all the many times I have experienced God caring for me I can be at peace. I remember again what God has already done in the world and in my life. I remember again when I trust in God, somehow things always work out.
There will always be the best of times and the worst of times, for God has not promised sun without rain or joy without sorrow. Yet God has promised strength for the day, light for the way, and unfailing hope and love, now and forever. AMEN