Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21:5-19
Since just after Pentecost, last June, we’ve been in the season of the liturgical calendar, the church calendar, called “Ordinary Time.” I think I’ve told you before that ordinary time isn’t meant to specify what it might seem like – that this is the time of the church calendar that is without special religious holidays, like Advent and Lent, and therefore is plain, ordinary; rather, it is called ordinary time because each Sunday is numbered, and those numbers are ordinals – this is, in fact, the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. By now, twenty-five Sundays after we celebrated Pentecost, and the confirmation of several of our young people, perhaps we are all ready to move on – to Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sunday next week, and then onto Advent and Christmas. And our last several Sundays have been full and busy too – after a speedy September, we celebrated World Communion Sunday, a Stewardship Campaign, and then All Saints Sunday last week. Today marks the only Sunday in sometime past, and in the weeks to come, that is “ordinary” in the more traditional sense of the word. Today is just an ordinary Sunday.
I think sometimes we see our lives in the same way – we anticipate the big events – the special occasions, birthdays, weddings – even the events that bring pain or sorrow mark our lives – loss and grief of all kinds. But even if we spend our time counting down days until the next big event, our life is spent in the ordinary time. Who we are, how we live, what we do – it is spent over Mondays and Tuesdays and everydays that have no other particular significance. Just life. Just living.
Some years I am not ready for Advent. Last year, I’ll admit, I had a hard time experiencing the season. But this year, I’ve been itching for Advent to begin for some time. I’m ready to wait – wait for the Christ-child that we’ll celebrate in the blink of an eye. But a day like today, a so-called ordinary Sunday, reminds me: We would not be so fascinated with how Jesus were born if it weren’t for how he lived. It is his life, in great measure, that makes his birth so important – how he lived, what he taught, how he called us to do likewise. Today, as we look at two texts that mark no particular occasion of event, I hope we’re reminded that discipleship is extraordinary because of its ordinariness – it is our everyday life.
We start with Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet. Today when we hear the word prophecy, we don’t always know what to do with it – we don’t have a lot of prophets wandering around today, at least not that we know of or recognize. And so we’re most likely to think of a prophet as a fortune-teller of sorts. Someone who predicts the future. But that’s confusing psychics and prophets. Prophets were truth-tellers. Perhaps after just completing a particularly brutal election-cycle, one in which I read there were a record number of “attack ads” in the campaign, we might be able to cultivate a better appreciation for the prophetic voice of truth telling. Prophets were truth-tellers particularly when no one else wanted to say how things really were. You know what I mean – we do it all the time. Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes. A prophet would tell it like it was, say how bad things really were, talk about where the path they were on would lead if things didn’t change. But a prophet didn’t necessarily want what he or she speculated to come true. Instead, a prophet wanted people to stop and repent before things had gone too far.
But in our text today, Isaiah has some good news to speak of. This part of Isaiah, the last chapters of Isaiah, take place after one of the most trying time’s in Israel’s history – a time of exile to Babylon. When Isaiah is writing these words, he knows that the people are just about to return home from exile, after many years of being forced out of their own homes, lands, cultures, and customs. So Isaiah’s words are words of hope and thanksgiving. He hears God’s voice laying out a new vision for a new day. “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” says God. The text is filled with words like joy, glad, delight, and rejoice. This vision of a new world Isaiah paints is a world were no child has a short life, when to live to a hundred will still be considered youth, where the land is rich and productive, where no one hungers or lacks shelter, where one’s children and grandchildren and so on are blessed by God. So perfect will this new world be that even the wolf and lamb will feed together in peace. That’s Isaiah’s vision of peace, his vision of hope. It probably isn’t so different from the perfect world we might imagine – enough for everyone, long life, blessings for our families.
And then there’s this text from Luke, these words from Jesus. A vision of a different kind. Our scene takes place near the end of the gospel of Luke. His words to the disciple have been changing. He’s spending less time teaching in parables and more time talking about what will come next, and usually the disciples aren’t excited to hear what Jesus has to say. He speaks of his death, or leaving them, of a huge change coming to their world. Our passage today is one example of this type of conversation with the disciples. While near the temple, Jesus mentions that it will someday be destroyed. The disciples want to know when this will happen. They get more than they bargained for in response from Jesus. Jesus is certainly speaking as a prophet here, too. His words are truth but truth that no one wants to hear or speak. He talks about being led astray by false teachers. He talks about war and insurrection, earthquake and famine, plagues, and dreadful portents. He describes for the disciples how they will be persecuted and arrested. They will be hated and betrayed by all, even their families, and some will be put to death. But, Jesus concludes, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.” Perhaps a seemingly small comfort with all Jesus describes.
Isaiah’s wolf and lamb feeding together, or Jesus’ description of chaos and persecution. Which of these two visions for the future do you prefer? The rejoicing and delight Isaiah describes? The new heavens and new earth he speaks of where weeping and distress and violence have no place? Or the earthquakes and persecution and wars and terror that Jesus describes? Which vision do we think will hold true?
We have a strange fascination with the end of the world. In the same way that we as individuals may have in our minds the reality of our own mortality, our own certain death, we as a global community have a fascination with our collective end. Think back to the chaos surrounding the year 2000. Y2K and all of the terrible things we knew would go wrong. These days we’ve moved on to an obsession with the year 2012 and what a Mayan calendar might or might not say. Tally up the number of movies that have to do with the end of the world or the near-miss of the world’s end. Armageddon. The Day After Tomorrow. Deep Impact. War of the Worlds. 2012, of course. Think of the cult groups who meet their own end because they’re convinced they know of the world’s end. We’re afraid the end is coming, and we’re strangely fascinated by it too. We just can’t turn our eyes away, even though we’re looking into what we dread, our greatest fears, our uncertain future.
But we’re hardly new to this preoccupation with our own end. For as many years as people have read Jesus’ words, they’ve interpreted his words to signal the end in their own time. For thousands of years, people have looked around them and seen false leaders, wars, famine, earthquakes and plagues. For thousands of years, people have been convinced that the end was near, and been filled with an anxiety about the fate of the world. And so far, we’re still here. So far, what Jesus spoke of hasn’t come to pass, has it? Or has it? Didn’t the disciples already face this suffering and persecution Jesus describes? Indeed, the early Christians faced persecution, torture, and death in ways we can hardly imagine. Weren’t they indeed brought before rules and leaders to testify? The Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, is full of stories of the disciples being arrested and tried for their faith. And, as Jesus says, they were indeed filled with the Holy Spirit when they testified, as we read in Acts. What Jesus spoke of the disciples already experienced.
So do we even worry about this text then? Does it refer to things already done and gone? I don’t think it’s that simple either. We do desire to see Isaiah’s vision come to fruition, I think. But for that to happen, the world has to change, doesn’t it? To have Isaiah’s vision be a reality, things would need to change. Can we work with God to bring about what Isaiah spoke of? What I find interesting is that even though we’d readily admit that things in the world now are pretty screwed up, we’re still unlikely to welcome any drastic changes to the world we know. If we had to characterize the state of affairs today, if we had to give a sort of ‘state of the world’ report, we’d have a lot to say about what’s wrong with things. We want a world at least something like Isaiah describes. The vision of peace he has isn’t what we have now. What, then, would be so bad about the end of the world as we know it? Why do we cling for dear life to the way things are, when we’re not even sure things are so great?
Jesus is certainly talking about the end of the world – the end of the world we know now. And that’s something to be hopeful about, I think. I’m ready for a new world. With our doomsday outlook, we tend to skim through what Jesus is saying and pull out only certain pieces, and think of his words as predictions of fearful and terrifying situations. But we miss other verses and sentences altogether it seems. Jesus says false leaders will rise up and talk about the end times being near. But Jesus says not to follow them, not to go after them. Jesus talks about wars and insurrections, but he tells us not to be afraid of these things, and that, again, these things don’t mean the end times have arrived. Jesus talks about persecution and suffering, times of great trial, but he says that God will be with us in these times, that God will fill our hearts with knowledge and wisdom and words to speak. Jesus says that we’ll feel completely abandoned, but reminds us that our most precious possession – our very souls, will be completely safe from harm. His words, his vision, this truth he speaks – it’s about hope even in the midst of chaos and turmoil.
I am ready for the world to change. I pray for a new world. I pray for a world like Isaiah describes where poverty and hunger and disease and death are no more. But if I pray and hope for this world, the world I know now has to come to an end. The world must change, and we, Christ’s disciples, must work with God to change it. Jesus doesn’t promise an easy path to changing the world. But he promises his constant presence in the midst of change. A fulfillment of all God promises means the end of the world – at least the world we know, and end of things being exactly the way we are now. These endings can be scary, and unsettling, and confusing, and disruptive. It can seem like the end of everything. But really, Isaiah says, it is beginning of everything. The beginning of hope. The beginning of peace. The beginning of discipleship. The beginning of God’s kingdom, right here, right now.
What does the future hold? Just as we suspected: The end of the world! And just as we forgot to hope: And the beginning of our abundant lives in Christ.