”Warnings and Opportunities”
November 17, 2019 – 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
A group of young gymnasts, having just completed their practice on the uneven bars, gather excitedly around their coach. “What’s next?” they ask. Their joy in what they are doing is conveyed in the eagerness of their question. That same question in different circumstances, however, can indicate fear and apprehension. Both the joy and the apprehension of what’s next underlie today’s readings.
The question of what was next pressed upon our ancestors who had returned from exile. The homeland they had left behind 70 years before had a Temple in ruins and a tattered economy. Those who worked to rebuild during the years of drought and times of conflict struggled to maintain a vision of what they were doing. Many yearned to return to former things – either the comfort of Babylon or the clarity of their grandparents’ ideals of nationhood.
Isaiah preaches a new vision. Former things will not compare to the glory of God’s transformed and transforming world. God’s intention is the restoration of all of creation – long life, peaceful harvests, and cities that never know invasion. In the world as God intends it to be there will be no hurt or destruction. Old enemies will find a way to co-exist and all that is harmful will be removed. Coloured with the extravagance of a dream, this vision nevertheless is grounded in the reality of a broken world and holds up the promise of a world made whole. Its purpose is to transform those who see it into those who faithfully work to make it real.
In many respects the Isaiah 65 passage reminds us of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Isaiah’s proclamation of God’s intent to create a new heaven and a new earth sounds downright idyllic. In this glorious new creation, we are all going to live longer, happier, and more peaceful lives. All of that sounds wonderful.
The image is one of wholeness, healing, and reconciliation. I believe this is God’s deepest desire – to live in right relationship with us. And despite our wild absurdity and warring madness, I believe human beings have a primal desire for that relationship also. Along with that desire comes responsibility. Wholeness in relationship requires that all parties are engaged and active in making it work. We are not passive recipients of God’s dream – rather we are active participants in bringing it to fruition.
I believe that God is doing a new thing, continuously. I also believe that the glorious new creation is not something that will happen to us, but rather, God’s glory will be revealed in time by us.
Lest I sound like a naïve, idealistic New Age thinker I remind us that scientists tell us that the world began with a “big bang” and the world will end with a big bang. There are few contemporary people who doubt that our world will come to an end someday. If modern science proves nothing else, it proves that the world is already in the process of dying. This living and dying is part of any living organism or system. Whether its ailment is terminal or reversible is open to debate. The signs are ominous and frighten even the most optimistic. The thinning ozone-layer, the shrinking of the polar ice caps, the pollution of the air and the oceans are but symptoms of diseases that eventually will prove fatal. Species of plants and animals are disappearing constantly. Great mammals like the elephants in Africa and the deep-sea whales are now on the endangered list. Deforestation threatens the Amazon Forests, called the “lungs of the world” because they produce so much oxygen. “The earth is dying because we are killing it.”
Knowing all this, I still hold onto the belief that if we take our part in caring for the planet then, God’s new creation offers great joy for the people of God. God’s new creation offers a place of peace and prosperity. As God initially fashioned a paradise for all creation to enjoy, now God creates again an idyllic circumstance. Certainly, peace and respect among people is paramount. However, the new order in nature itself will also be included. May each of us do our part. May we stop the proliferation of plastics. Let us carry our cloth bags to the grocery stores. Let us stop using plastic bottles of water. Tap water is great. Let us reduce our water usage. Let us use our dishwashers the minimum amount each week. Better yet, let’s hand wash our dishes. Let us boost our air conditioners up and lower the temperature of our furnaces. We must save energy.
Luke wrote his gospel after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Like all of the gospels, Luke’s reflects the persecution which the early church experienced, as well as the people’s strength and continuing commitment. Luke tells us of Jesus declaring at an earlier time that “the days will come when not one stone of the Temple will be left upon another.” Those around him want to know times and signs for this great event. But Jesus offers only a warning: those who claim to know that the time is at hand are false messiahs and not to be followed. The desire to know the future is human but the attempt to determine it is misleading.
Jesus encourages his disciples to trust, rather than to look for signs and predictions. To follow Jesus includes arrest, trial, and betrayal. They will have many opportunities to testify to the truth they experience about God’s reign. They are encouraged not to worry in these anxiety-provoking situations because Jesus will give them both words and wisdom to answer their accusers. Luke’s first hearers were experiencing conflict and persecution because of their faith and were buoyed up by these powerful words. They don’t need to worry about what comes next, because they always have Jesus with them.
Todays’ scriptural texts assure us that God continues to create the world even in the face of war, famine, plagues, or conflict. We may not know the specifics of what is next, but we do know that God meets us there. We are also reminded that we experience God now and we are working with God, co-creating the future.
Our Gospel text is heard alongside the awareness that it was 30 years ago on November 9th that the Berlin wall came tumbling down. “The Wall” was a concrete symbol of what Winston Churchill described as the “Iron Curtain”, which for almost 50 years had divided Europe into 2 ideologically hostile camps. It was the era of the “Cold War.” Some people, at least the more optimistic, believed that Europe would be reunited again, and this wall of shame would crumble. When these evens happened, however, it seemed to surprise everyone. Even Communist dictators like Erich Honecker in East Germany had little time to clear their desks and flee before the day of retribution was upon them. Now, even souvenir-hawkers cannot find “a single stone left on another” to sell to eager tourists at the annual commemoration.
Our world is a strange mixed up place. But, if we as people of faith listen carefully to God’s call to be hope-full co-creators, then the future need not be fearful. If we hold onto the belief that God continues to create new heavens and a new earth, then we need not lose faith. May God lavish us with blessings, in this fearful time. Amen.