Old Testament: Isaiah (65:17-25)
I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 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. 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. 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. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 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. 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. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 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.
The Response: Canticle 9 [Isaiah (12:2-6)]
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say, *
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples; *
see that they remember that his Name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, *
and this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, *
for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.
The New Testament: 2 Thessalonians (3:6-13)
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
The Gospel: Luke (21:5-19)
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus 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.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “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. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer
Last Sunday, our first reading was taken from the book of Haggai. I pointed out the way that that prophet’s words seem directly to contradict the words of better known prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But then I explained that it is essential to consider carefully the context of each part of the bible if we truly want to understand what it is and is not saying. The bible, I pointed out, is not a collection of eternal, immutable truths that can simply be pulled out of context and used for any occasion, however one chooses. Instead, it is essentially a story: a great love story about God and the human race and the totality of God’s creation. And in that story, the many different biblical authors provide a rich variety of images of God and insights into the ways of God in the world. Those images sometimes seem to contrast or even contradict each other.
Today’s first reading and gospel likewise seem to contradict each other, especially in their overall spirit. The passage from the third part of the book of Isaiah presents an uplifting vision of Jerusalem, transformed and remade as part of God’s new creation. But Luke’s words in the gospel set before us a description of the coming destruction of Jerusalem: a scene of suffering and persecution and utter devastation.
In listening to that reading, people could and often have focused on what, on the surface, seems to be a very prescient prediction of coming tumult, and of the horrific destruction of the holy city, and of the persecution and sufferings of the followers of Jesus. It all seems “spot-on” in describing in advance what actually happened.
But a closer look at the context changes our understanding and elicits a deeper reading of what Luke is trying to say. Key to that transformed perspective is the realization that the author of this gospel is most probably writing these words some thirty years or so after the destruction of Jerusalem had already taken place. And as for the persecutions and arrests and imprisonments to be faced by Jesus’ followers, Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, describes the way that leading disciples like Peter and John and Paul had already experienced those afflictions decades earlier.
Those who first listened to this gospel passage would already have known the story of the persecution and of the faithfulness of the early apostles. And they would have known, either from their own experience or from stories told to them by their parents and grandparents, accounts of what had happened to Jerusalem when the Roman armies destroyed it. These events were in the past not the future. So why did Luke bother to write them at all? What was his intention? What was he trying to say to his audience?
A key to understanding Luke’s purpose just might be the final sentence: “By your endurance you will save your souls”; or maybe better, “By your endurance, you will be faithful to your very self: you will live with integrity, you will be who God made you to be, who God calls you to be.” Continued faithfulness, in all circumstances, is critical.
Seen from that perspective, Luke’s intent in writing this passage is not really so different from what the author of our Isaiah reading was trying to do. His or her audience was living in a time of severe struggle, a time in which the powers that dominated their lives stood directly in the way of the welfare of the Jewish people. And so, the unknown author of this glorious scene held this vision up to them in order to urge them to that same endurance, to that same faithfulness. He reminded them of God’s ultimate intent for them and for the world, and of God’s faithfulness in fulfilling that vision of what our Jewish heritage calls “shalom.” “Shalom” does not refer just to peace as the absence of war. The concept of shalom includes the fullness of God’s life and blessings.
Many people over the centuries have ridiculed such uplifting visions as providing merely an escape from “the real world.” Nineteenth century Marxists dismissed such religious images as “the opiate of the people.” Much of their criticism seems justified when one considers the message promoted by some believers and some of the churches to which they belong. Their proclamation seems limited to putting up with whatever happens in this life so that you can have “pie in the sky when you die.”
But Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson (Isaiah 40-66, pp. 245-6) insists that we must “draw a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination. One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf of God’s order of justice. The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose. The former leads to resignation and despair. The latter engenders hope. The former undermines social reform. The latter gives reform a clear focus by refusing to sacrifice justice to the logic of expediency.”
It is to that second approach to religious imagination that today’s readings call us. The beautiful images that we encounter in passages like the one from Isaiah are not there to lull us into a sense of complacency, to an attitude of keeping a low profile, to a willingness to allow the world to go on the way it is, assured that someday, in another life, things will be better. Instead, they are there to hold up to us a vision of the world as God intends it to be and to spur us to action on behalf of that vision.
Like those early Christians whom our reading from Second Thessalonians sharply criticizes, we cannot just sit back and wait for the world to change and for God to fix everything. Instead, we are called to embrace those portrayals of the dominion of God in the world and to recommit ourselves to making that dream of God a reality in the lives of all God’s children.