In the crucible of adversity

Message preached on November 13, 2016
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 21:5-19

Order of Worship

Listen to this message


             “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 a crucible.

             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 two eyes.

             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.

©2016  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page