But If Not – MLK Day reflections

“The ultimate test of one’s faith is his ability to say ‘But if not.’” – Martin Luther King Jr.

On Sunday, our pastor challenged us to listen to one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons. So, I listened to and read through the transcript of his sermon “But If Not” from 1967. In reading through it, I realized I had succumbed to a temptation, and I might not be alone in it.

The temptation is to think the hardships we’re facing are like nothing we’ve ever experienced before. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been exhausted in reference to the pandemic and yes, while Covid is a new hardship for this generation, what is NOT new is the existence of hardship. The political division, racial injustice, pandemic’s consequences, etc. may feel “new” but they are really just new iterations of the same brokenness that has been a part of this world for essentially all time.

While we’re certainly called to do our part in bringing about justice and restoration and hope, as MLK Jr. courageously did, we’re also called to trust in God’s goodness if things don’t go the way we had imagined they would. As an illustration during this sermon, MLK Jr. reflected on the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who at risk of being thrown in the fiery furnace, still refused to bow to the king. They acknowledged God was fully capable of delivering them from the furnace, while also acknowledging that even if he didn’t, they would still refuse to worship another god.

Aside from the parallels between this story and MLK’s own societal defiance, countercultural leadership and obedience to a higher law, it’s also a powerful reminder of how we are all called to stand in the tension between “God can” and “God can, but might not.” God can deliver us… but even if he doesn’t, he is still good and he is still God.

I will never fully understand the courage it took for MLK Jr. to say that. No doubt his “if not” was declared in the face of potential consequences and risks that I’ll never know. Because about five short months after preaching this sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – the ultimate “if not.”

Today, as we remember what a champion for equality, hope and justice he was, I want to also be inspired by what a champion of the faith he was. Faith that wasn’t just exercised or boasted in the easy times but faith that was clung to in the difficult, painful, dare I say unprecedented times as well. What an example.

If Martin Luther King Jr. could confidently say “but if not,” then how could I not?

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