Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65:17-25
I’m going to begin on a very personal note. I was glad the gospel passage was the designated one for this Sunday. I first heard a sermon on Mark’s version of this passage when the United States was initiating Operation Desert Shield. I was at a national conference – and everybody was on edge.
I can’t remember who the preacher was. We were at Princeton Seminary, so I think it was a professor. He called our attention to the world in which we found ourselves immersed. He called attention to our deep fears. The stones were coming down. We were on the brink of war.
We may not be on the brink of war, but we have been confronted by the deep divides in our country. The vote was pretty evenly divided. In fact, one candidate won the popular vote and the other the electoral college –and, therefore, the presidency. I heard someone on NPR say that “partisan divides” are stronger than race, sex, or any other factor. So, we seem to be locked in a perpetual gridlock where people talk past one another and there is constant fear and anxiety. The fears are different. Many in the nation fear the changes that they see threaten their way of life. Many others fear the push to look backwards and are afraid that hard fought-for rights will be taken away.
Many preachers speak about the “end times” which are upon us, about the coming of the anti-Christ, and all the signs that God’s wrath will soon be unleashed upon the world. We hear folks speak of Muslims and population shifts and the danger looming that will destroy life as we know it.
A message of fear always preaches well. It preaches well in some churches. It preaches well in some political circles. It draws large crowds. We can look back in history and see its power, the power to rally people and face a common enemy. “Be afraid! We have been threatened. What we hold dear is crumbling!”
We live in troubling times. Our sure foundations are crumbling. Images of destruction and decay are constantly before us: towers falling in New York City; New Orleans underwater; seashores devastated by oily goo; soldiers falling on battlefields in remote lands; poor nations wracked by natural disasters; and our own cities and neighborhoods with empty houses and storefronts and people begging for food and shelter. We hear stories of what we call terrorism within our own nation – shootings at night clubs, schools, workplaces, and malls.
In these troubling times a message of fear is an easy one. It gets a quick response. “Beware. Beware. The end is upon us. All we know, all we value and cherish is passing away.”
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “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.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 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. 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.”
The original context for these words, during Jesus’ earthly ministry, is forward looking. But, when Luke’s gospel was written the temple had already been destroyed. The first hearers of this gospel were living in the midst of the difficult days to which Jesus had pointed. The Roman Empire had decided to crush Israel and its faith. Rome was tired of the rebellions that arose within that tiny nation. So the temple, the very center of their religious life, had been completely destroyed.
The Israelites’ self-understanding of their relationship with God demanded that the temple exist so that the High Priest could offer a daily sacrifice on their behalf. When it was destroyed the people must have thought, “Surely, the end has come upon us.” Even those who believed in Jesus assumed that the end was imminent. They expected Jesus to return at any moment. They were living in troubling times and their sure foundations had not only been shaken, it had been obliterated.
Let’s go back to Luke’s gospel (remember, gospel means Good News!) Jesus’ words are heard differently by those who have already seen the temple destroyed than they would have been heard by those who could still see it standing. The focus is not warning, but reassurance. “Do not be terrified!” That isn’t advice for some distant future, but for the days in which they found themselves. There is a promise that God is present within the chaos. They have not been abandoned. As the familiar crumbles and fades away God is working.
The message in Isaiah is also from troubling times. The Israelites had returned from exile – but even coming home was difficult. The temple had been rebuilt, but it was only a shadow of the temple they had once known. The city was still in ruins. Homes and markets had not been rebuilt. Many lived in desperate situations. The realities of the day were hunger, thirst, illness, early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil. In the midst of those troubling times the prophet spoke God’s word: “I am creating a new heaven and a new earth.” In the midst of chaos there are the seeds of something new, something life giving. In the midst of chaos there are the seeds of peace: peace among people; peace among the nations; peace with the creation itself.
It was not time to disengage, but time to engage, time to sign on to what God was doing, to join in God’s rebuilding project. To engage in God’s project means looking for ways that heal rather than ways that divide, seeking yeses that connect people to God’s life-giving ways and ending the “noes” that harm and destroy. It means seeking ways that alleviate fear rather than using fear as a tool to divide people from each other. Isaiah’s imagery is powerful and positive. God is working for a new creation where children don’t die prematurely – from illness, or (to modernize) from car accidents, gun violence, starvation, or abuse. God is working for a new creation where workers are able to afford housing and good, healthy food for their tables. God is working for a new creation that celebrates the diversity of human life. God is working for a new creation that is so filled with peace that even natural predators live side by side.
It sounds impossible. But God’s people are called to work on this God project – to seek to bring pieces of it into reality, new creation from the present chaos. It is a powerful dream for all to find life in fullness – the widowed, the orphaned, the stranger, the alien, the friend and even the enemy.
The prophet in Isaiah is telling of a new creation story. We hear echoes of Genesis. And we are to remember, from Genesis, that chaos is not God’s absence, but God’s clay. God’s spirit continues to blow across the chaos of the world and God continues to say, “Let there be light and let there be life.”
Jesus, through Luke’s gospel, reassures us. Troubling times are not end times. God has not abandoned us. Troubling times are filled with opportunity – opportunity to live fully into God’s call and align ourselves with the values of God’s in-breaking realm. In troubling times we can testify to the opportunities before us to seek new paths of justice and mercy, of peace and wholeness. Jesus tells those who would listen that God is with us. We do not need a faith of pat and ready answers or one that is bound by the past and our traditions. God calls us to a living faith that seeks and welcomes God’s wisdom in the midst of turmoil – wisdom that testifies to the loving, redeeming, healing ways of our Creator God.
M. Scott Peck said, “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.” Those who heard Luke’s gospel found a faith that could testify in the midst of chaos – a faith that worked to bring Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free into life-giving community. Out of the chaos of their day came the seeds that have compelled Christians throughout the centuries to work on behalf of the world’s poorest and most oppressed. The church has helped to birth justice and bring mercy and comfort. That is the church’s call for today.