Pentecost 26, Year C
Readings: Isaiah 65:17–25; Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13; Luke 21:5–19
What is in your picture of the ideal life? Is it like the car ads, where a single vehicle swoops along perfect, empty roads through gorgeous scenery? Does your picture involve a beach, with palm trees? Are there other people in your perfect picture? One? A few? Many? Or does your picture keep things much the same except no more…fill in the blank here: no more waiting in line? no more telemarketers? no more packages that are impossible to open? no more worrying about calories? no more trips to the dentist? no more illness? no more fossil fuels? no more war? no more food banks? Is the music of your ideal world loud and in your face, or a pleasant background to other activities?
Futuring has a checkered history. Popular Mechanics used to predict that we’d have flying cars by now. Thank goodness that hasn’t happened. But all the symptoms of climate change scientists have been predicting for decades seem to be coming true, except soon than they thought. Today we’re being asked by our bible readings to think about the perfect future. The bible gives it a try. The results are mixed. Things are going to be amazing, says Third Isaiah. Things are going to go to hell, say Luke’s gospel. Everyone will be blessed, says Isaiah. Believers will suffer most, says Luke. Peace and love! Conflict and suffering!
What to do when the bible is contradicting itself? Toss a coin? Let’s slow down and have a more careful look at what we’ve got here.
The last few chapters of Isaiah were written much later than the first thirty-nine chapters. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the time of Isaiah the man, the prophet who prophesied in Jerusalem seven hundred years before Jesus. Chapter 65 seems to come from five hundred and twenty years before Jesus’ birth, about two hundred years later. By that time, the rocky situation in Israel has more or less settled down. The later writer still focuses on the ethics of the nation, but then there is this soaring poetry about how it will be when everything is transformed by Love.
No one and nothing will suffer. Predators will change their ways. Lions will somehow be able to digest straw. Tears? No. Infant death? No. Premature death of older adults? Not any more. Houses, food, a sure reward for work, safe child-bearing, security. Every good thing will come to pass.
This vision is still moving, even though it still seems far away. Especially if you are being exploited, oppressed or left homeless and starving right now. If the predator in your young life is not a lion but has a camera running and forces you to do all kinds of painful and demeaning things to make money for him. If the predator is not a wolf, but own a factory and forces you to spend your childhood earning very little while generating profits for him. If the predators on both sides of the fight have vicious weapons and send you and your family fleeing for your lives to some dusty refugee camp. If the predator is wild weather never before seen. You get the picture. Then the Isaiah vision is like cool water to a thirsty person.
The vision in Luke could hardly be more different. Social collapse, environmental collapse. And before those things, persecution of believers. A dreadful succession of calamities and horrors. A powerful vision if you are already being betrayed, persecuted and put on trial. This was the case for some of Jesus’ followers in the decades after his death. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The message from the founder was prophetic, even harsh at times against unfeeling authorities who had given up on the Isaiah vision. But Jesus imagines a world of sharing, not a world of suffering like this for those who share his convictions.
Here’s what’s happening. The young Christian movement has its ups and downs in the years and decades following Jesus’ death. People flock to it in anticipation something wonderful is going to happen right away. An end to the terrible tension caused by Roman rule. A new rule of peace and light. But things happen. Or more accurately, things didn’t happen. God did not intervene to clean up a messy human situation. Not soon after Jesus’ death, and then not after different predictions of when it would happen. Some people drifted away from the movement, some betrayed it. But despite many disappointments, it kept going, kept growing, eventually causing tension with some Jews as the two faiths slowly diverged from each other.
What we find in passages such as this one in the gospels, especially the later ones, is evidence not of what was Jesus was predicting in the year 30 or so, but of what was going on for some Christians in the sixties, seventies and eighties of what we call the first century. In Luke 21, we’re not hearing Jesus predict these things, we’re hearing the Jesus’ movement trying to make sense of a judgment day that had not come like it was supposed to, division and betrayal within the movement, and growing hostility from others.
But all is not gloomy. Even this scary cloud has a silver lining. You probably got that. “…you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict… You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:12-15, 17-19)
Endure. Get ready to witness to your faith just by hanging in there. You shall not perish, but gain your souls. This is the kind of teaching that so influenced the Civil Rights movement in the fifties, the 1950s. Don’t fight back. Be completely peaceful. Their violence against you is going to look bad on them. And the powerful thing for us is that both the Isaiah vision and the Luke teaching are aiming at the same thing: a different kind of world for everybody, a world where people don’t live in fear, traumatized, numb, and in fact, only plants are consumed. No one preys on others. We don’t spill blood anymore. We’re all vegans, it seems.
What’s the takeaway for a person today in a place like this, where food abounds, worship of all religions is protected by law, and the climate is still our friend? We’re coming to the end of the Christian year with Reign of Christ Sunday next week. At this time of year, we’re looking at the end of everything, the goal, the vision of our faith. Then we start over in Advent, another year of intense conversation with scripture, tradition and current events to figure out how we can be here in a creation way, a redemptive way, how to bear our own witness to the faith in us.
And this is when we celebrate our congregation’s anniversary, too. A hundred and seven years of a witness in this neighbourhood, a tradition of putting faith into action, reaching out to others, making a place of real welcome for everyone. A good time of year to review the past, and also look forward. And on this anniversary, it’s possible that we will choose a purpose statement for ourselves after church; a short way of summing up this congregation’s understanding of its call as the body of Christ here, now.
The invitation of scripture passages such as we have today, and of our anniversary, is to go into our relationship with the holy in a deep way, and a far-reaching way. Is there something here that calls me to a greater wholeness as a person, a greater sense of connection to others, especially others who are vulnerable? Am I hearing an invitation here to grow spiritually, to die to self as scripture puts it, so that I can live for the larger vision of Christ? And as a people, as a congregation, do we get the sense, on good days, that we are more than a collection of individuals, that the Spirit blows through here, doing something we could never do by ourselves?
Let’s not invest a great deal of our time in trying to figure out exactly what the ideal future might be. Instead, let’s take our cue from the letter to Thessalonians, especially the line at the end of today’s reading. Paul has heard that the congregation is experiencing a division. He upbraids believers who have persuaded themselves that the day of God has come and therefore they can just sit back and do nothing. At the conclusion of the finger wagging comes an instruction that transcends its original setting and time: “Friends, do not be weary in well-doing.” This must be a key verse for this congregation, one you have taken to heart long since. We can always discuss what well-doing looks like, what exactly we are going to do here. And we can admit that we do get weary. What we won’t do is sit on our hands because we haven’t yet figured out exactly what a future full of godliness looks like.
We can hear our scriptures asking us to think about change, too. The Isaiah vision imagines changes to the very essence of predators, of wolves and lions. We’ll come back to this next week. But in the meantime, what is stopping us from becoming vegans, so to speak? Changing our ways? Giving up our tendency to bite others, and chew them up? See ourselves as always in a win-lose situation, eat or be eaten? By “us,” I mean humankind. We have taken out the top predators in many settings—sharks from the seas, wolves from the land, and seen things get out of whack. What do we do about the predators among us? Surely we don’t need vicious people to keep a balance in the world, like the moose population needs wolves. So how do we get towards God’s vision for the planet? More on this next week