“In the crucible of adversity…” What is a “crucible?” Webster’s
dictionary defines it as “a ceramic or metal container in which metals
or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high
temperatures.” … “Why would someone wish to melt such substances?” you
might ask. Well, to make something you need out of that substance.
Without a crucible, there would be no automobiles, or skyscrapers, or
bridges, to name just a few things which make use of iron or steel.
There would be no jewelry, at least not if it is made out of silver or
gold. In fact, the coins in our pockets would not be possible without
All these items are made out of a metal melted and poured into a mold.
From there, pressure is applied in some fashion to further form the
metal. We think of a blacksmith, who in days of old poured molten
metal into a shape and pounded that shape into something useful – like
nails, or door hinges, or horseshoes, or swords. The whole process is
made possible by the crucible in which the metal is melted.
The word “Crucible” can also be metaphor. It can refer to something
into which we face. It can be “a difficult test or challenge,” or “a
place or situation that forces us to change or make difficult
decisions.” In the crucible of adversity – hardship, danger,
roadblocks, difficulty – we are melted and molded into something
different from what we were before. We find ourselves changed. Not
immediately, however, nor without pain.
Thinking of that hot substance in the crucible, I am reminded of the
pain I have recently been experiencing in my back and leg. Last
Sunday, I made the mistake of beginning my pastor’s report to our fall
council meeting by talking about this pain. Our treasurer Gary Miller,
who followed me, then began his report, saying, “Well, I guess I now
need to start out discussing my aches and pains,” so he
proceeded to speak briefly - with a grin - of his gout. The chain
reaction continued for the remaining reports, adding a bit of humor.
We learned, for instance, that Nurture chair Lori Erdman’s biggest
pain in the neck is her husband Ed. I forget the others, but I think
you get the picture.
Seriously, though, pain can be a crucible through which we are remade,
reformed, refashioned, changed. Of course, the question becomes, will
that change be for the better or for the worse? I have witnessed
previously happy and optimistic persons change into gloomy pessimists,
on the flip side of a painful experience. In the middle of some of my
own pain-filled moments (such as last night) – you know, those 7-10
points on the scale of 1 to 10 the nurse always asks. “Mr. Haynes,
what level is your pain?” … I don’t care! Just fix it!” In the middle
of pain-filled moments, I have pondered if there is anything
redemptive about pain. It can change us, though, for better or worse.
However, this crucible of adversity, whether or not it is filled with
pain, is not just a moment in time when we are at our worst. It is a
journey, a path that leads somewhere. We may not see what lies on the
other end of this journey. It may all be in a fog. We just know along
the way that the getting from here to there, step by step through the
pain or whatever adversity it is we face; when we reach that place
beyond what we can see, we will be different from what we are now. We
will be changed.
With this in mind, we turn to the words of Jesus in this morning’s
Gospel lesson. In Luke’s account, these words come right after the
brief story of a poor widow in the Temple. Here was someone living on
the edge, without a partner and with but two small coins to her name.
We know nothing more of her crucible of adversity than that her future
was a big question mark. Jesus watches from the side as rich folks
approach the treasury receptacles, funnels made out of metal into
which offerings were placed. A big bag of coins makes quite a lot of
noise when they all are tossed in, advertising the generosity of the
giver, a sound no doubt pleasing to God, as most probably thought. But
Jesus heard the melody of that poor widow’s offering drowning out the
racket of the rich, for she had given everything. That should be our
first clue that everything is not as it seems. God does not see or
hear as we do.
The scene continues in Luke’s gospel with someone nearby remarking
about the beauty of the Temple. Jesus replies with a dark prediction,
“the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.”
Now, instead of hearing Jesus as being a gospel party-pooper, a first
century “Debbie Downer” seeing every glass as only half full or less,
we need to remember that Luke wrote his gospel story for people living
through their own crucible of adversity. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was,
indeed, destroyed. Caesar had had enough of those pesky Jews and sent
his legions to wipe their capital off the face of the earth. In the
process, the Temple was torn down stone by stone, and its riches were
carried off to Rome. Any Christians there still living became refugees
among the scattered believers around the Mediterranean Sea, along with
the diaspora of the vanquished nation of Israel. Sort of like Syrian
refugees fleeing Aleppo today.
Those who first heard Luke’s account were still reeling from this
earthquake of an experience. Knowing that Jesus had seen it coming
must have brought some sense of relief. In the rest of this morning’s
scripture lesson, Jesus was encouraging more than just his small band
of disciples in those days leading up to his date with destiny in
Jerusalem. He, through Luke, was speaking to the early church. He is
also speaking to us today. His message: “Don’t be afraid.” Those
words speak, loud and clear, a message that is repeated over and over
throughout the entire Bible. “Don’t be afraid.” Fear, you see, is a great killer of faith. It
strips us of our courage to face into what we’ve got to face into. It
prevents us from stepping forth into what we can’t see with our own
Imagine sitting in a dentist’s office being prepped for a root canal.
You know some of what is going to come. You’ve either read about it,
or people have told you, or you’ve had previous dental work done. From
the next room, you hear the high-pitched sound of a drill. It sets
your teeth and everything else on edge. All the sights, sounds, and
smells ahead of time can serve to make you afraid of what is to come.
Anticipatory fear may lead you to jump out of that chair and run away.
Or, it can prevent you from even stepping into the dental office to
start with. Have you avoided going to the dentist, or the doctor, or
the therapist, or (you fill in the blank), all because of
anticipatory fear? Fear is
a great killer of faith.
Our gospel reading this morning could serve to make us afraid.
Jesus, after all, mentions all sorts of fearful things: war and
insurrections. Remember what I said about the early church hearing
this account from Luke? They had seen or heard about what happened to
Jerusalem. Just like we have heard of terrorists and bad things
happening elsewhere. “Don’t be terrified,” Jesus said to them then,
and says to us today. These things will happen, but it’s not the end –
nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines, diseases, and
stuff we won’t understand. Don’t let fear get the better of you.
Remember, faith drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
Be careful, Jesus also said to the early church and still says to us
today – be careful that you aren’t led astray, through all of what
might happen in the journey ahead, by those who pretend to have all
the answers, who seem to know exactly what lies beyond our sight
through the mist down the road. It isn’t faith if you know all the
answers. Faith isn’t about having the answers, about knowing where the
end is, about knowing every step on the road ahead. It’s about, as our
gospel dramatization revealed: who you depend upon, who you listen to,
who you turn to, where your loyalties lie, and – when you wonder what
to say in the crucible of adversity, where your words come from.
Now, Luke is also credited with writing something else in our
New Testament – the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the followers
of Jesus in those first years after Jesus rose from the dead and then
left to be with God. In Luke’s telling, an amazing thing happens.
Those bumbling scaredy-cats whom Jesus called to be his disciples –
they changed in the crucible of their adversity. It wasn’t an easy
journey they undertook. Many times they faced into what would earlier
have sent them running away. They were themselves arrested. But a
funny thing happened. When brought before magistrates and religious
leaders, they spoke up with a courage and an eloquence that baffled
their opponents. They had been common laborers, after all. It was like
the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel lesson were being
fulfilled – “don’t prepare your
defense in advance, for I will give you the words.”
Please understand, this is not a license to skip the hard work of
being a disciple, as if, “presto, chango, voila!” you’ll have
everything you need without even trying. If you think that … well,
I’ve got used car to sell you – only driven once by a little, old lady
from Pasadena… “Beware that you
are not led astray,” said Jesus. You will face your crucible of
adversity. But the good news is this, Jesus says: I’ll be with you
every step of the way. I’ll be on the road ahead, leading you onward.
I’ll have your back. I’ll be beside you whispering the words you need.
I’ll be there when you stumble, to help you back on your feet. And
when you can’t take another step, I will carry you. In this crucible,
we are not alone. And, we have the power to endure!
That word, “endure,” is an interesting word. The dictionary says that
to endure is to “suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently.”
It also means to “remain in existence; to last.” Our crucible of
adversity, whatever it may be, can be difficult and painful. Through
this journey, we have been given the ability to endure. Now, please
understand that“patiently” does not mean that we do nothing. Quite the
opposite. Someone in a hospital bed, for instance, is often called a
“patient.” What is the job of such a patient? To heal. Healing is
never a “presto, chango, voila!” process. If a “patient” is not active
in his or her own healing, it will not happen. Sometimes it involves
everything we’ve got to “remain in existence, to last.” We will
endure. Or, as that old civil rights song put it, “Deep in my heart I
do believe we shall overcome some day.”
Endurance… Another thing about that word. It is derived from the Latin
word, “indurare,” which means “to harden.” Now, some folks come
through their crucible of adversity times hardened to the point of
being unable to let anyone else in. It’s hard to be compassionate when
you’ve been hardened by suffering or pain. On the other hand, going
through that journey, walking down that path can also make us better
able to understand and respond to the suffering and pain of others.
It’s up to us which we are going to be. Will we be tough and uncaring,
or hardened and compassionate? May hope is the latter. You?
Our final hymn this morning is not one we’ve sung all that often.
Which is a shame, for it is a wonderful song about endurance and hope,
about living through the crucible of adversity. Written in the early
part of the last century by John Rosamund Johnson, “Lift every voice
and sing,” # 579 in our hymnal, became the official anthem of the
NAACP (the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People), which is based here in
Baltimore. Let’s rise, hardened but compassionate, and sing this great
song of faith.