NRSV ISAIAH 65:17-25
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD–
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent–its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.
NRSV LUKE 21:5-19
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
With all of the crazy stuff going on in my life pretty much matching the crazy stuff going on around us – from snow in Virginia in November to impeachment hearings taking us to heaven knows where – I went to my barrel of sermons seeking to find some inspiration. Or perhaps something to rehash.
But all I found was a sermon I preached on these texts three years ago at the time immediately following the last Presidential election. Nope, don’t want to go there again. Though we know we will have to. It can be kind of depressing to think of another election for President coming up in less than a year, unless you are a big political science fan.
In the midst of all of that we have these words from the last part of Isaiah and the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. Kind of appropriate, seeing that this is the next to last Sunday in the Liturgical Year. Also, these texts talk about the last things, when the world comes to completion. But they also have some things to tell us about living right now.
Taking the Old Testament text first, these are words from what is called Third Isaiah; someone who wrote in the years when the people had returned from exile in Babylon, and things were not quite what they had expected. As I mentioned last week in the reading from Haggai, it was a time when the rebuilding was going slow, and people were wondering where God was in the midst of all of the messiness they saw around them.
To which Third Isaiah speaks of transformation – God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth. But neither they nor we like change. It takes too much effort, too much energy. Can’t you just let us have it the way it used to be, Lord? But that is not the way God operates. God is on the move, and God invites us to move with the Divine Presence. We can sit on the sidelines and wish things were the way they used to be, but God keeps moving ahead, transforming people and places and events, whether we cooperate or not.
In the crazy world in which we live, these words should come as a relief. God is telling us something comforting. We can wonder how people living to old age can be such a blessing when we have heard from so many senior citizens about how their golden years got tarnished. But the images of people living to be a hundred are seen here as God’s blessings for this life, every bit as much – if not more – than the next one.
Not only will people live a long life; it will be a full life, too. The people of Isaiah’s time could remember back when their land was overrun, when foreign armies took over their fields and vineyards. God is moving toward the time when people will have their own farms and fields; where people will plant their own vineyards, a very powerful image to those people that their hard work will be rewarded and not given to someone else.
In our crazy time it can be easy to be in despair and wonder where everything is going. But Isaiah tells us that God has something special in mind: A peaceable kingdom, a place where all of creation will dwell in blessings innumerable. A place where all will be connected, where all will live in harmony. It may seem like an idealistic vision, but it is God’s vision; not just for us, but for all of creation.
That kind of image is also there in the New Testament lesson. One of my favorite writers, Debi Thomas, brought some clarity on what this text means, and what it has to say to us on this 17th day of November in 2019:
According to the first century historian, Josephus, the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day was an awe-inspiring wonder. Newly reconstructed by Herod the Great, the temple’s retaining walls were composed of stones 40 feet long. The temple occupied a platform twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who gazed at them in bright sunshine risked blinding themselves.
No wonder, then, that Jesus’ followers in this week’s Gospel reading are so dazzled by their house of worship. As Luke describes the scene, the followers fawn over the adornment of the temple, remarking on the “beautiful stones” and “gifts dedicated to God” that make up the edifice’s splendor.
But Jesus isn’t impressed. Instead, he responds to their admiration with a chilling prediction: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
In other words, even though Jesus and his followers look at the same temple, they do not see the same thing. What the disciples see is an architectural marvel, yes. But it’s also the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence they’re capable of imagining. For them, the massive stones of the temple hold religious memory. They bolster a colonized people’s identity. They offer the faithful a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride and worthiness. In short, what takes the followers’ breath away as they gaze at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.
That’s what Jesus’ disciples see. But what does Jesus see? He sees ruins. Rubble. Destruction. Fragility, not permanence. Loss, not glory. Change, not stasis. Jesus sees all that must break and buckle and end before new life and new hope will emerge. He sees the necessity of death before the promise of resurrection.
This passage from Luke is often described as apocalyptic. If you’re like me, your cultural references for “apocalypse” probably include Marvel superhero movies, the “Left Behind” fiction series, and the Book of Revelation. When I hear the word, I think of interplanetary warfare, the four horsemen, vacant-eyed zombies lurching through decimated neighborhoods, and the wholesale nuclear destruction of the planet.
But in fact, “apocalypse” means something quite different. An apocalypse is an unveiling. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.
In this sense, what Jesus offers his disciples in the remainder of this week’s Gospel reading is an apocalyptic vision. He invites them to look beyond the grandeur of the temple, and recognize that God will not suffer domestication. The temple is not the epicenter of (God’s) salvific work; God is not bound by mortar and stone. God exceeds every edifice, every institution, every mission statement, every strategic plan, and every symbol human beings create in God’s name. Moreover, God is not enslaved to superlatives; we’re the ones easily seduced by the biggest, the newest, and the shiniest objects around us.
In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”
As I envision myself in the disciples’ place, Thomas writes, listening in bewilderment as Jesus pops my spiritual bubbles, here are some of the questions I’m asking:
• What lies and illusions do I mistake for truth?
• In what memories or traditions do I attempt to “house” God?
• On what shiny religious edifice do I pin my hopes, instead of trusting Jesus? (My denomination? My church? My spiritual heritage?)
• Why do I cling to permanence when Jesus invites me to evolve?
• Am I willing to sit with the fact that things fall apart? (Things I love, things I built, things I cried and prayed and strived for?)
• Can I embrace a journey of faith that includes rubble, ruin and failure?
“Let us pray to God that we may be free of God,” the 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, implying that our conceptions of God and faith must always fall short, always fail. Let’s name honestly, he suggests, the imposter gods we conjure because we fear the mystery who really is. Let’s admit that we shape these gods in our own image, and that they serve us as much as we serve them. In other words, let’s endure apocalypse so that truth will set us free. Let’s dare to see what Jesus sees.
In the second part of the Gospel story, Jesus teaches his disciples what to do and how to live when the walls come tumbling down. Contrary to what our hysteria-hungry, “if it bleeds, it leads” culture so often encourages, Jesus insists on calm strength and truthful testimony in the face of the apocalyptic.
“Do not be terrified,” he says, when the earth shakes, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred. Don’t give in to despair. Don’t capitalize on chaos. Don’t neglect to bear witness. God is not where people often say God is. God doesn’t fear-monger. God doesn’t sensationalize. God doesn’t thrive on human dread.
So avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments. Be perceptive, not pious. Imaginative, not immature. Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes. Expect things to get hard. And then expect them to get harder. Endure even when they do. Know that God is near, no matter what the world looks or feels like. Speak the truth, trusting that God’s Spirit is alive and present in our acts of bearing witness. Be faithful until the end, because God is still – always and everywhere – a God of love.
For me, Thomas writes, this is the great challenge of the Gospel. Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well. To bear it with the courage, calm, and faith Jesus calls me to practice in this passage.
For many of us, this has been an emotionally and spiritually exhausting few years. We need look no further than the daily news to see apocalyptic images scarier than any Hollywood might produce. From thousands of acres burning due to wild fire, to the plights of millions of people trying to escape violence and carnage, to the ongoing and frustratingly present evil of racism to our own political disputes on public and prime time display.
In this troubling context, it’s easy to despair. Or to grow numb. Or to let exhaustion win. But it’s precisely now, now when the world around us feels the most apocalyptic, that we have to respond with resilience, courage, and truthful, unflinching witness. It’s precisely now, when the systemic evil and age old brokenness threaten to bring us to ruin that we have to testify without fear and without shame to the Good News that is the Gospel. What’s happening is not death, but birth. Yes, the birth pangs hurt. They hurt so appallingly much. But God is our midwife, and what God births will never lead to desolation. Yes, we are called to bear witness in the ruins, but rest assured: these birth pangs will end in joy. By our endurance, we will gain our souls.