Twenty-fifth after Pentecost
November 14, 2010
Let us pray: O God, we live in a world which seems perched on a fence – on one side a feeling of loss, reminders of what once was, perhaps even despair; and on the other side – incredible opportunity, amazing creativity, and hope and possibility. Turn our glances to the side of hope, O God, not forgetting the lament which comes from looking the other way, but reminding us of the promise you hold for us, as Creator, and which you have invested in us, as Creator. Amen.
There is a certain compelling aspect to apocalyptic writing. Perhaps it is the idea of a reset button that makes it appealing, or the sense that things are so out of control that they can only be fixed by a cataclysmic event. Apocalypse in the Christian world has been so co-opted by the millenialists and others of a more conservative and charismatic bent, that it is almost too hard to even talk of apocalypse without being tarred with a brush that is not of my liking or desire. Of course the theology touted by that segment of the Christian faith is one that would claim that the world is so messed up, so unfaithful that it can only take the aforementioned reset button to fix it, except that it's not really a reset button – more like the the big red button that ends it all – with only the chosen few being able to escape and find salvation.
As you just heard there were two examples of apocalyptic writing among the readings assigned to this day in the Revised Common Lectionary. The first was the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. It''s actually a bit misleading to say the book of the prophet Isaiah, because it is widely held among biblical scholars that the book of Isaiah is actually the work of three different authors. This morning's reading is the work of the so-called Third or Trito Isaiah. This is writing addressed to the post-exilic community in Jerusalem. In other words, the people of Judah – one of the nations in the divided Hebrew community had returned from captivity and exile in Babylon to live in Jerusalem. Their return, while celebrated as a release from captivity was also one which had sadness and lament attached to it – the temple had been destroyed and life as they had once known it in their land was in shambles. They needed a word of hope and they find it in the apocalyptic writing of this third Isaiah. The promise is for a new heaven and a new earth. An important aspect to note in this promise is that it is not a limited promise, it is not one that is prescribed, or exclusive, it is for everyone. This truly is a reset button. Unfortunately for these people the destruction had already happened, but God's promise to them is that a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, everything will be re-created, everything will be rebuilt. A new order where even predator and prey can live in peaceful co-existence will be created. It is this final vision of lion and lamb lying down together which seals it as apocalyptic writing for me. I've talked before my discomfort with the image of lion and lamb lying down together as anything more than a fantastic and visionary metaphor. I am uncomfortable with it because in reality it goes against the ways of the world. It truly would require a change in the laws of nature for this to happen – something which is way beyond the capacity of humankind to change – something which can only be part of a promise from God the creator.
The second example of apocalyptic writing in today's readings comes from the Luke passage. As mentioned in the introduction, Jesus is not quite as prescient as might be assumed from just reading this passage. His prediction that the temple would be destroyed was pretty easy for Luke to write given that it had already happened by the time Luke put the words in Jesus' mouth. But of course the point is that things that seem permanent and immovable can be changed in a moment. Rather than a prediction of cataclysm, despite the way it starts out, Jesus is actually issuing a word of caution to the disciples about the doomsday preachers and end-of-the-world hucksters. Jesus effectively is saying – hold your ground, stand for truth, even if if means standing against people you formerly trusted. Don't give in to the false predictions and bogus claims of those who come preaching destruction.
What are we to make of these two examples of apocalyptic literature? Should we, as I suggested earlier, leave talk of modern day apocalypse to our conservative Christian sisters and brothers – warning against them as required, but holding fast to the idea that the world is a place where all people can live in harmony? Should we treat them as Jesus asked the disciples to treat those who would come among the early Christian communities, with caution and with a healthy degree of skepticism towards the truth of their claims. Jesus suggested that even if some of the dire consequences predicted by the doomsday crowd seemed to come to happen, they should not be considered omens of the end, but rather just the regular occurrences and consequences of a world inhabited by humankind – full of brokenness as well as wholeness – able to respond with compassion, creativity, and insight one moment and self-interest, narrow-mindedness and disdain in the next moment. In one of the translations I read this week, Jesus put it this way: “ When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end."
During the historic run-up two years ago to the American presidential election, Barack Obama often talked about a reset button. I think in fact that many people were drawn to this image – something needed to change in the way things were done, and as a result they were drawn to vote for this new vision, this new order in the way things could be done. In the heady days following his election to the presidency, there were many pundits and commentators who talked of the mighty task he had put himself to. Now, two years later we are seeing how true their words were. He did make a hard road for himself. He did set lofty goals. And as a result the hope and promise that some people placed in his election has waned. It is not happening fast enough it seems, and yet almost everyone said that it could not happen quickly. The sad part of all of this is that the difficulty he and his administration have encountered has spawned a new set of reset button responses – the so-called tea party movement. This is the small government, radically conservative reaction which is inventing the spectre of all kinds of scary scenarios related to ideology and ulterior motive of the Obama administration.
I think in many ways we are seeing the contrast between the two readings we had today being played out in the American political environment. Third Isaiah was preaching hope to a beaten down, disillusioned population. Despite their recovered freedom, they had returned to a society that was in ruins – physically and psychologically. How could they ever rebuild their lives to be anything like they remembered? Into this Isaiah three injects a vision of hope, of changed order, a vision which says that every person counts, every person will live a long life and will live in a house that no one else will take over. They will plant fields and grow food for themselves without the possibility of it being taken away to feed an overpowering oppressor.
On the other hand, Jesus was warning against those who preached a doomsday scenario. That did not mean that things weren't going to be tough. In the face of the naysayers and the end-of-the-world predictions it would be difficult to stand against them. But Jesus promised that there would be support to stand against the deceivers, the ones who used natural disaster and wars and rumours of war as proof that the end is near.
I began by saying that there is a certain compelling aspect to the promise of apocalypse. Believe me, there are times when it feels good just to imagine that things might start from scratch, that we would get an opportunity to build things anew from the ground up. Wouldn't it be nice to build the world the way we want it to be – of course until we realize that it probably would like a lot like the world we already inhabit! And I say that with a healthy mixture of hope and despair. And then I realize that we already live in a world which is ready for the making. God is not just creator, but creating. God has invested in us a tremendous power to continually make things new, to change the world in ways that are respectful of human life, respectful of creation as it already exists, respectful of the justice that God desires as a goal for all of humanity. New heaven and new earth? Why not? But as the Thessalonian Christians were reminded – it's not something we just sit back and wait for, it is something that is going to require some work on our part. Why not indeed. And with God's help, it can and will happen. Amen.