November 17 – One of the wonders of nature that can startle into new visions is how the elements can sometimes artistically shape a landscape into something beautiful. Consider a desert rock carved into a sculpture by centuries of wind and sand, or a small piece of glass rounded and smoothed by pounding waves into a jewel of sorts, or a moonscape stone surface pounded into this alien form by the cataract above it, or a tree bent into an odd configuration by nature or human interference that nonetheless grows in this new position and thrives green and lush. Nature can take our breath away.
The reign of God can have a similar shaping effect on the lives of those who choose to enter it. The lectionary texts for this third week of our series offer us a glimpse into that changed life. In fact, change is at the heart of our text from the Hebrew scriptures this week. From the more obscure prophets of the previous weeks, we turn to the most familiar, Isaiah. We may hesitate to dip into this seemingly bi-polar prophet, never knowing whether we get judgement or hope, warnings or promises. There is plenty of both in Isaiah, and necessarily so. Like any parent raising head-strong offspring, at times the law must be laid down and the failings pointed out, so that the grace can be more fully experienced and the growth properly celebrated.
This week, we are at the end of chapter 65. Some scholars call this final section of the book, “Third Isaiah,” signifying the shifts in time and mood and content throughout the book. Third Isaiah begins in chapter 56 with dire warnings and an overwhelming mood of pessimism, as the people wrestle with wickedness and violence, injustice and meaningless worship, and leaders whose lives are an embarrassment to the people they lead. It’s a messy world to which the people of God have returned from exile. Yet in the midst of it all, there is a call for hope. In this section of the book, we have the words that Jesus claimed when he launched his ministry, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me!” And then we have this amazing vision here in our text for this week that has echoes all the way to the Book of Revelation: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth!” Only here and repeated in the next chapter does such a designation appear in the whole of the Hebrew scriptures. What a gift! And in the New Testament, only Revelation and Second Peter repeat the idea.
God is rebuilding, remaking, reworking the creation that was considered good when everything began. Within this description of the activity and plan of God is an invitation to participate in the rebuilding and being shaped by the reign of God into a holier people. And the mark of this participation? It is joy. Surprised? Yes, joy. The people of God should be people of joy. God’s people should be a delight to the world in which they live because they are working in hope of a new reality—a reality in which weeping in distress is a thing of the past. God’s vision for this new reality is surprisingly current. He talks about infant mortality rates and references elder care, home ownership, and fair wages in these verses. Some of the most crucial issues facing people who work for justice in our nation come to light in this vision of God’s reign.
At the heart of it all is this sense of God’s presence throughout. God’s people call upon God, having already heard from God. And there shall be peace. Long-standing, some would say predisposed enemies – like wolves and lambs, or lions and oxen (might we add donkeys and elephants?) – shall set aside their differences and work together for the good of all. We are called by these verses to not just hope for this new world, but to begin living in it. We are called to let this image shape our behavior, our choices, and our priorities. This isn’t pie in the sky, no one believes it is even possible stuff. These are marching orders, blueprints of a new creation—the reign of God in which we can choose to live now.
The Psalter, which again this week comes not from the Psalms but from a chapter in Isaiah, (Isaiah chapter 12, with an option for Psalm 118, if you so choose) continues this theme of being shaped by the reign of God. Except here, as in many psalms and songs of praise, it is our singing that helps to shape us and the culture around us. We are invited to shout aloud and sing the praises of God, continuing the theme that God’s people are people of joy. And this isn’t simply about singing God’s praise in-house, behind closed doors. No, we are told to let this be known in all the earth—not as a way to knock down those who don’t yet believe, but as a way of lifting up the God who is creating something new. And the motivation for all this isn’t evangelistic zeal, but simple gratitude. Because we are thankful, because we are gracious, we sing and give thanks in all the earth. How might that shape those around you if you and the whole church became gracious people of bubbling gratitude? The possibility staggers the imagination.
The epistle, on the other hand, feels like a poke with a sharp stick! II Thessalonians 3:6-19 seems bent on rousing the lazy into better and more fruitful action. This text easily fits into the week’s theme of being shaped by the reign of God with its call to fruitful and active living. But in an era of rampant workaholism, do we really want to pound a pulpit to get people to do more—as if they aren’t busy enough? True, there are some idle ones among us who need to be encouraged into action. But for the most part, the issue isn’t about people being lazy as much as it is people being like Martha, worried and distracted by many things. So, how can this text help us with that?
Abraham Smith (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, exegetical perspective section, pp. 303 -307) suggests that perhaps “idleness” isn’t the best translation of the word used by the writer of II Thessalonians. The word Smith prefers is “disorderliness” (a not unexpected interpretation for a professor in a United Methodist seminary). We are nothing if not ordered. A disorderly worker might not be idle, but he/she might be focused on the wrong things. Or the worker might not be committed to something for the long haul. Or the individual might indeed be engaged in an active pursuit of how to avoid an important task or meeting a crucial need. Therefore, our text begins with a warning to avoid hanging out with such people. They are likely to pull you off track too. Instead, find mentors who can lead you into a more fruitful way of living. Let their reign-of-God behavior shape you.
We now come to a delicate point in this text: “You ought to imitate us” in the second verse feels a little arrogant to many of us. It has a tone of self-aggrandizement, seemingly the opposite of Christian humility and therefore not the kind of attitude we want to promote in the church. We live in an arrogant and narcissistic age, and we are rightly concerned about such attitudes infiltrating the body of believers. Yet there is also a grave need in the body for mentors who are willing to let their lives be a pattern for others to follow. At a simplistic level, this is in the realm of “walking the talk,” to which we often refer. But on a deeper level, it is the nature of the Christian community to let our lives be woven together for the good of all, to learn from and likewise hold accountable each member so that we might grow into a body with the grace and power to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We have to break out of the mindset of our age that says religion, or faith, is a personal matter and promote the idea that faith is, in fact, a communal enterprise. The African concept of ubuntu is a helpful marker to remind us that “I am because we are,” and we are woven together in profound ways, deep and intimate and life changing.
You are being shaped by your involvement in the reign of God, and I can learn from that shaping. Likewise, I am growing and learning as a willing participant in God’s reign, and I can help you along your journey. You can help me, and I can help you find the focus we need to concentrate on the right things, the fruitful things, and learn to set aside the things that distract and diminish.
Focus seems also to be the call in our Gospel text for this week from Luke. These apocalyptic words toward the end of Luke’s Gospel should give us pause. We can too often become complacent (idle?) with the way things are, and we need to be shaken into an awareness of a need for change. Indeed, change comes frequently, and it is often the marginalized people who most suffer from these catastrophic changes, whether of human origin or natural disaster (and many will argue that natural and human-caused disasters begin to blur in our changing global climate). Jesus is inviting us to consider how we will live in the midst of overwhelming change.
The conversation begins through a moment of tourism. Some of the disciples were agog at the beauty and wonder of the temple around which they moved. Jesus rather abruptly responds to this open-mouthed wonder by declaring that all that beauty will be rubble very soon. The disciples are shocked, probably because they hadn’t been watching the evening news for some time and hadn’t paid attention to the movements of nations and of the war machine that was all around them. “What are you talking about?” they gaped at him. And Jesus, never one to let a teachable moment pass him by, tells them what he sees and how opportunists of various kinds will seize on the unsettled nature of the cataclysmic change and say, “Only I have the solution. Only I can fix this.” “Don’t go after them,” he warns. Be smart; be aware and alert. And most of all, be ready. A frequent call from our Lord throughout his ministry on earth was to be ready. But in fact, the two main takeaways from this text are nothing, if not surprising.
Well, one of them is anyway. The other, the final one, is a call to hold on. A common refrain in apocalyptic texts, endurance is an important trait for Christians in troubled times. In fact, one could argue that the whole purpose of the genre of apocalyptic literature is not to chart a course for the culmination of history, but to issue a call to the faithful to hold on. And by hold on, what is meant could be two-fold. On the one hand, there is a call to the belief that God is in control and that no matter what might happen in this life, eternity is firmly assured. “But not a hair of your head will perish” is not a promise for physical safety (or a full head of hair forever! Darn it, anyway), but a promise that life is bigger than what our eyes can see and that death is not an end, but only a moment in a greater reality.
On the other hand, the call to endure is a call to continue to work for the reign of God even when it seems hopeless. Holding on is not just holding on to your personal faith, but holding on to a larger vision, a more divine reality. And because we hold on to the vision, we continue to work, continue to be shaped, and continue to shape the world we influence so that it can begin to resemble something more like the reign of God and not the fallen world that claims dominance today. We carry the banner of hope and acceptance; we sing the praises of a God who loves and transforms; we order our work along the lines of the community of faith and not our personal preferences. Holding on is not a passive stance, but an active lifestyle that moves forward toward the new heaven and the new earth. In this way, Jesus says, we gain our souls.
But it is the other implication of the Gospel text that seems startling. It is there in verse fourteen, following some harrowing verses about persecution and suffering for the cause of the faith. This description might seem outrageous to those of us in the U.S., who at best have to put up with the kind of “persecution” that views us as somehow out of step with an intelligent and mature society. Despite those who sound alarms about an intolerant society in United States, most of the intolerance comes from within the community. The rest of society views us with bemusement and not disdain, by and large. For Christians in other parts of the world, however, this description that Jesus gives us in our text is not a future prediction, but a daily reality. It is offensive when Christians in the U.S. compare their inconveniences to the life and death persecution perpetrated against our sisters and brothers in many places around the globe. They know far better what Jesus was describing and how best to live into his shocking advice.
What does he say to them and to all of us? “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.” Wait, what? That seems like the opposite of what we ought to be doing. We need to think about what we would say if push comes to shove. We need to develop our mission statements, our reasoned defense of what it is that drives us, that makes us what we are and do what we do. Don’t you think? Isn’t that a smarter way to go; isn’t that a part of being prepared? What in the world does Jesus mean by this?
I’m not sure, to be honest. But maybe what he meant was stop worrying about yourself so much. Stop lining up your convincing arguments for why you should be allowed to practice your faith in the way that makes sense to you, with the people who agree with and think like you, in the way that makes you happy. Stop looking inward to find security and comfort. And start looking out for those who don’t yet know that they are loved with a powerful love. Stop making this about you, and hear Jesus’ call to see all the people around you and love them as he loved them. Wisdom will come, Jesus says, words will come, not from your teleprompter and prepared speech, but from your life shaped by the reign of God and lived in communion with the hurting people of the world.