New Earth or Signs from Heaven?

November 17, 2013
Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21:5-19

It’s been a year of Luke. I don’t know if you have noticed but the lectionary gospel readings this year have been from the gospel of Luke.  All year we have been reading parts of Luke, and now we have gotten to the end, not the end of Luke, that would be death of Jesus and his resurrection. We are at the end of the liturgical year which starts anew in advent. December 1 we will begin reading Matthew.

As you may, or may not, know the lectionary is a series of prescribed readings that give us a Hebrew bible text, a Psalm, an epistle and a gospel reading for each Sunday. Here at HMC we are not obligated to use the lectionary so we often pick and choose from these readings, using some, all or none of the readings for the day. Sometimes the readings seem to hold together and be all of a piece. Other times it is a mystery to figure out how the assigned scriptures relate to each other.

So it is today.  The Isaiah passage is a beautiful vision of what will be; it is what the people of Israel hoped for, what we continue to hope for. It is a picture of peace given to people who are all too familiar with poverty, slavery, hunger, a crumbling world. We can tell what they lack by what they look forward to – babies that are born alive  and live to an old age, a family that has multiple generations, a house built with their own hands that they live in, a crop planted, cultivated and harvested for their own family.

The prophet doesn’t promise jewels or outlandish wealth, just that people will live in peace. Even those who seem to be natural enemies will find themselves sharing food. All people and all creation will live together peacefully – except for the serpent.  Like in Genesis, the serpent will eat dust.

Right alongside the comforting picture from Isaiah we are given this troubling scene from Luke. Thank you, creators of the lectionary, for this challenge.

Jesus has just watched as a widow gave 2 small coins into the temple offering and he observes that she has given the most – compared to everyone else. We can only hope that the people who are then overheard admiring the temple and its craftsmanship, the massive wealth it took for Herod to build it – we can only hope they didn’t just hear Jesus talk about the widow’s great gift.

But maybe they did and that is why Jesus minces no words.  Yes, it is beautiful, immense, a symbol of power, but even this will fall, stone by stone just as it was built.

Jewish followers of Jesus would not be eager for their temple to fall.  –  But on the other hand since Herod had built it, it represents his repressive and cruel reign. They want to know, when, when, when will this happen? Jesus doesn’t give them an exact time (though the early readers of Luke would have known the date since the gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.) What Jesus does say is that the destruction of the temple is part of a series of disasters. Wars, earthquakes, floods, famine. These are all coming, along with temptations and persecution.

Jesus says his followers should not prepare some big explanation or polemic, when they are hauled into court. Just speak what they know; they will be given words. Jesus assures them they will endure, with every hair intact.

And yet he goes on, with more grim details that we didn’t even hear this morning; fleeing from home, then captivity, tsunamis, add in what terrifies you the most. It seems that the list is not exhaustive just descriptive of all the worst of our fears.

These kinds of descriptions are not unfamiliar to us. We need only to pay attention to the news: what is happening in the Philippines, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt. As for other natural disasters Mennonite Disaster Service is working any number of places to repair destruction. Violence, poverty, imprisonment. It is all too common. Even pop culture seems to thrive on the gruesome: zombies and vampires. Do we have to hear Jesus talking about it too, in church?

So, are these signs from heaven that the end is near, as some preachers proclaim – and have been proclaiming for generations and generations? Are natural disasters and war signs that the heavens will soon break open and a terrifying Jesus appear? And it is not just the remote far off signs. Here in Luke Jesus makes it sound awfully personal: betrayal by family members, court appearances, fleeing from home, going to prison…

So it is a comfort to know that this is not the only picture of the end we are given.  Perhaps the creators of the lectionary were onto something after all when they paired this fear-inducing passage from Luke with the peaceful passage from Isaiah.

We need to keep both pictures together. It is not a matter of just one of these visions – Luke or Isaiah – being true. Both are visions of the future (as well as the present.) We know from our own experiences in life that bad things happen, very bad things. Some of us have lived through or are even now living – the nightmare. No era has a corner on corruption and tragedy; evil and misfortune are part of the human condition. And we look to the prophets to hold out a picture of a better day, to remind us that peace will come.

If you have lived in the DC area for any length of time you probably have heard of the violence that seems all too frequent in Southeast Washington DC. Sometimes it doesn’t even make the headlines, it is so common. Not only is it dangerous but it is an area of the city that has struggled economically for decades: hardly any sit-down restaurants, only one grocery store – and that is new. Convenience stores and liquor stores, crumbling schools and sub-standard housing. This, we are told, is what lies East of the River. From what we hear in the news it sounds like the largest employers in that quadrant of the city are the drug dealers and gun sellers.

We know that this is not the whole picture, but it is what we hear, what we read. We can hold onto that incomplete view of Southeast Washington, if we want to buy into the belief that there is no hope for the people that live there. And by buying into the hopelessness we begin to feel hopeless ourselves.

What if there is more to the story of Southeast DC? What if there is not only the Luke vision of the story but the Isaiah vision too?

Eight years ago our friends Kristin and Becca moved to Minnesota Ave SE, where they seemed to be the only white people, two women living in a corner row house. You know Becca and Kristin; it didn’t take long for them to get to know their neighbors, as friends and even as family. They knew the violence was present, they witnessed it, but instead they focused on the love and family that is also there, that could grow there.

Now as Becca and Kristin’s family has expanded, they have invited many of us to visit, to help care for Keziah and Ella.  They are inviting us to see a home that is in direct contradiction to what we are told is found East of the River. We find not violence and discord but love and peace. And if we look through the eyes of Becca and Kristin, we will see that there are other households, where parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, love their children, where neighbors look out for each other, where God is present and at work.

So it is with the reign of God. We can look for signs and portents, for violence and tragedy as signs that soon God will break in, for surely God can break through terror. And we can look through the violence, behind and around the temple falling, the earthquakes, typhoons and train wrecks.  We can look and see the reign of God already happening in places and ways we think are impossible. Wolves and lambs eating together? Vegetarian lions? People testifying to the presence of God amidst destruction? Inconceivable.

To seek the reign of God in unusual places it takes more than an occasional glance around. It takes persistent practice. It takes a change in our thinking and in our behavior. It is not easy to change thinking and behavior, especially when we have always thought one way.

I grew up to hate camping; I got it from my mother. She hated camping so I thought I did too. And then I married Eric whose idea of the perfect family vacation is a three week camping trip. Several years ago I finally decided to retrain my neural pathways. I needed to learn to love camping. Every time I thought about the upcoming camping trip I spoke aloud, “I love camping.” I even put this motion with it for some reason. Maybe it was my (unconscious) signal to my brain to make a shift.

I tell you, by the time we got to that State Park in Michigan I loved camping – even if some have minimized it because it was in a tent, with an air mattress and sheets, next to the bath house, for only 4 nights.  It was a big step for me.  The next summer we camped again, farther away from the bath house.

It is powerful, this God-given brain. We can choose to focus on the impending horrors – a closed in tent, sweaty, sticky and sandy. Or we can learn to look for the way the reign of God is already breaking in – cricket and bird song, cool breezes, laughter around the campfire.

Retraining our brains to look for the places God is at work does not negate the difficult things in life. It is not a way to avoid the very real pain that is part of what it means to be human. Because it is true – those of us who hold onto our power need Luke – to be reminded of the ways that we can lose it all and very quickly. Those of us who love our “stuff” and have a lot of it, need to remember that it can crumble and be gone in an instant.

Those of us who can’t imagine God anywhere in the depressing details of our day to day lives, for us it is a huge risk to even hope for something different, to dream with Isaiah. It seems impossible to find that one small crack that lets in God’s light. When we live under a cloak of darkness it seems impossible to even find a gap through which hope can seep.

I hesitate to even suggest it because I do not want to minimize the tragedy that any of us has experienced, is experiencing. And I certainly don’t want to act as if this is an answer beyond Western (or Eastern) medicine.  But a practice of looking for that gap, for hope, may be additional approach. Isaiah invites us to try.

I don’t think this is a way to step back from reality. It is way to look around, and name a new reality, a new possibility. We see the bad, name it, describe it and do not let it have power over us. By naming what scares us, we hold onto a part of ourselves that cannot be touched by it. It is that small part of ourselves that will look for the impossible reign of God, for the vegetarian lion even in the midst of horror.

As we approach advent each year the lectionary reminds us of what is to come, the terrifying signs of “the end.” Let us also be reminded to look for the reign of God, even amidst the fearful and the tragic. Let us practice holding hope together, and for each other, until each of us can see it and live into it.

May it be so.