Sermon transcript for November 17, 2013
A New Order
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Belmont UMC—November 17, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
The bumper sticker on the car in front of me read, “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy.”
The texts from Isaiah and Luke today are considered apocalyptic texts. We always have one of these texts on the first Sunday in Advent and during Advent we will be exploring Isaiah texts, using the theme “What Isaiah Saw!” which draws our attention to see what Isaiah saw as he looked toward the future. The text today is filled with some of those same vivid images.
Apocalyptic literature is about God creating a new world. In Isaiah it is about a new order, a new heaven and a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. Apocalyptic literature often contains troubling and frightening images, like the ones in Luke’s gospel.
Apocalyptic literature often uses symbols and imagery which were understood best at the time they were written. Those images and symbols are difficult to decipher hundreds of years later.
Apocalyptic literature often describes the epic battle between good and evil. Apocalyptic literature points the way to the ultimate victory of good over evil and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.
The truth is that we don’t think about these things very much. We don’t talk about the second coming of Christ, about end times or a new heaven and earth. And most of us would not interpret those texts the same as others have interpreted them. When I had a heart turning experience at the age of 18 many folks were reading a best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, in which he predicted the literal second coming of Christ.
And at a time when I needed to be reading the gospels, I read that book. Then I read The Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel because if Jesus was coming again soon I needed to know what to expect. Reading those books of the Bible did nothing to clear that up. I was more confused than ever.
Many modern images of end times come from popular novels and movies like Tim LaHay’s and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series. These ideas assume a rapture where Christians are called up to meet the Lord and those who are not Christians are left behind to face years of scary tribulation. When I was in college I was part of a small prayer and study group. One of the persons in that group believed literally in these images of the rapture and the second coming of Christ and talked about them often. One day he had spent several hours trying to find the members from our group and could find no one.
So he came to my room and stated that he feared we had been left behind. He didn’t seem surprise that I was still there, however.
I recall one of the pastors of our church saying, “The church is held together by two things: hope and fear. Hope that Jesus will come. And fear that Jesus will come. And fear is winning out.”
Standing in front of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus described a time when the great stones of the temple would be toppled, and this would come to pass in 70 CE. He described times of unrest and uncertainty, times of earthquakes, famines, plagues and betrayal. People of every generation have looked at their own troubled times and wondered if the time of the coming of Christ was near.
Some find it problematic that the promised coming of Christ has not happened. Many of those early Christians believed it would happen in their life time. In 1 Thessalonians Paul chastises Christians who have been idle because they believe that Jesus is coming soon. Scholars differ on their understanding of these texts. Some believe the second coming is a metaphor for the building of the kingdom or the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
But whatever we believe about this, we are still here and the new order has not been ushered in. So what do we do with these texts?
I hear the words of Luke and I’m reminded to pay attention to the world around—even when the world around me is turbulent and troubled. I hear these words as a reminder to pay attention to those God moments that come to us every day. In one meditative practice we learn to stare with the “dull eye,” which means our eyes are open but we are not seeing anything in particular. I suspect you and I often go through our days seeing with a dull eye, eyes open but not seeing the encounters with Christ that come our way.
We are called to be expectant and watchful for the God of the unexpected to reveal God’s self to us throughout our days—our stormy and turbulent days and even our mundane and boring days. I looked back on the past week and recalled the places I encountered the holy: Looking at creative photographs in a wonderful exhibit and learning the spiritual practice of visio divina, sharing a meal with friends at their dining room table, hearing the music of our choirs last Sunday, talking with a young pastor friend who lives in Colorado, sharing conversation with a couple who wants to join our community of faith, and mentoring a young friend over coffee at Starbucks. In all of these moments I was drawn out of myself, my selfish preoccupations, my needless worries, and I was invited into the presence of God. How many more encounters did I miss?
Jesus in Luke is saying that paying attention to the world around us and seeing God at work in it, will help us endure when our worlds turn shaky and uncertain. He invites us to trust God who will be with us and will give us what we need, event the words to say, when are faithful.
And we have been given these beautiful images from Isaiah, images of home and health, the end of infant mortality, the end of hurt and destructiveness--a new order, a new world where there is peace, where predator and prey get along and eat out of the same feeding trough. These are concrete images that would be anybody’s dream world. Sounds beautiful and hopeful, doesn’t it. But this is not a pie in the sky idea.
Nelson Rivera writes, “This is the very stuff of a new reality as conceived within the prophet’s vision of God’s willful ability to create new things. This is what God intends for all things and all relationships to be. According to this prophet’s vision, the very stuff of life as we know it needs to be changed.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4 p. 292)
This is what God intends. If this is what God intends for the world, is this not what God intends for me and you to be about. Maybe it’s time for us to be preoccupied with the first coming of Christ. Jesus has come into the world bringing the message of good news for the poor and liberation to the oppressed and imprisoned, and vision to those who blind. Is this not what God intends for us to be about? Isaiah’s words call us to be agents of these changes in the present world, not in some future world that is out of our reach.
These texts are full of urgency. And my friends, there is something very urgent about the world in which we live, too. Twenty thousand people dying of starvation every day is an urgent matter. The situation in Syria where war and genocide have killed so many innocent citizens is an urgent matter. The crisis in the Philippines is an urgent matter. The growing gap between rich and poor in our nation is an urgent matter. The increase in senseless gun violence in our country is an urgent matter. The condition of our environment is an urgent matter. Our unwillingness to engage in civil discourse and understand one another in our differences is an urgent matter, for our country and for our church. The wolf and the lamb will eat together out of the same trough, but the liberal and the conservative cannot or will not engage in holy conversation. Instead they continue to create walls of division that harm all of us.
With all of this urgent need in our world, how can we have hope for this new order, this new way of being in the world? It helps that our hope is in God who creates and recreates. Our hope is not in flawed and failing institutions, but in God who can create a beloved community of those who seek to live as God intends.
My friends, it has been a week of frustration and disappointment for many in our United Methodist Church, myself included, but I kept finding my way back to Isaiah and reacquainting myself with the God who wants to do a new thing among us. I kept hearing afresh the call to build bridges and opportunities for holy conversation. I kept hearing afresh the call to be a part of that new thing God intends to do in the world.
In these words of the Gospel and the Prophet today I hear God saying, “Do not give in to despair and do not be overwhelmed by the failings of systems, but hear again the call to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, to the God who loves us all as God’s children, who calls us by name and sees all of us as people of sacred worth. Be a part of the new order I wish to usher into this world.” Amen.
Sermon transcript for November 10, 2013
Belmont UMC—November 10, 2013
District Superintendent Harriet Bryan, preaching