Sunday, December 16, 2018

What can we say Nov. 17? 23rd after Pentecost

   Isaiah 65:17-25 is so profound, the dream of the ages – and so hard to expand upon or explain, and maybe even harder to believe. Before you preach this, you’d best wrestle deeply with whether you somewhere in the marrow of your soul believe and expect that God really is “about to create new heavens and a new earth.” Even the best and most faithful among us tend to wring the hands, and expect little from God – and so we meet, strategize, plan, or retreat, divert, or spiritualize or individualize faith. I get it. Why not name how little we really expect or believe in God really doing some huge new thing?

   Part of our trouble is we suffer from a shrunken timeline. We’d bet God won’t do the new heavens and earth thing this afternoon or next week either. Israel knew about waiting, not a week, month or year but decades, gosh, even centuries. And yet the expectation kept them alive, fresh, eager, hopeful – but that “even centuries” might dawn soon. And God has begun the new thing already, even if unseen. I’ve heard preachers compare this to D-Day or some other military victory that was only partial and yet implied total victory to come. I’m not sure how those analogies really play out. How about my first conversation with Lisa? I knew we’d marry. Any better? Where are the signs, the proleptic little dawnings of new heavens and earth right now?

   Father Greg Boyle spoke for us in August (in a talk that far exceeded my soaring expectations!). He spoke not of doing things for gang members, but of seeing what God is doing in them, of seeing beauty in them, of celebrating God’s wonder. That echoed what I heard in an amazing podcast about John Garland’s ministry at the Mexican border (“Maybe God: Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls, part 2”). He said it’s not so much doing something for someone, but just being there to bear witness to the beautiful thing God is doing. Is this how we discern, notice and come to embrace firm belief in Isaiah 65’s gargantuan vision of what God is on the verge of doing?

   I love Isaiah’s order. “Heavens” and then “earth.” Heaven is first, now and forever, the true reality of which earth is but a shadow, a temporary way-station. I love what seems impossible: that the “former things shall not be remembered.” We joke about not being able to un-see something like an embarrassing photo. I can’t un-remember much. But perhaps it’s the guilt or regret being stricken, and being so overwhelmed and blotted out by gratitude and forward-looking hope that the guilt and regret seep away unnoticed.

   The joy in this text flabbergasts me. It’s not that we feel joy, but we will – and thus can now. It’s that Jerusalem, a city, walls and buildings, is “a joy” (to the people but also to God!) and the people “a delight.” What people today are a delight? But they are. That’s some of Fr. Boyle’s secret with gang members. They aren’t evil in their core. They are a delight – to God, and then to Fr. Boyle. And seeing themselves seen in this way, they get and do better.

   How dumbfounding must it have been for Iron Age people to hear that all infants will live into old age? Walter Brueggemann rightly points out that infant mortality is “an index of the quality of community life.” Where in our country or in the world is infant mortality on the rise or simply too high? Is that where we go to see what God might do while we are witnesses and co-laborers there? Another index is housing. Isaiah dreams of a day that the people will build houses and live in them – which sounds obvious, but Abraham Lincoln denounced what went on in slavery and still goes on in our tiered society: some build, others enjoy; some plant and harvest, while others reap the benefit. This is not of God. No, God dreams of an egalitarian, and frankly non-capitalist kind of community.

   I’d preach this whole text like a docent in a museum. Look what Isaiah said next! Wow! “They will be like the days of a tree.” Firm, deep roots, lasting, beautiful, providing shade and home for others. And prayer, when God’s kingdom is realized? Garth Brooks won’t fret over “unanswered prayers” any longer. No, “before they call I will answer.” Doesn’t this happen in human life? Before Lisa asks me to vacuum, I vacuum – which is too trivial to mention. What about Before Lisa asks for tenderness I’m tender? What if I know her so well I run ahead to provide what she’ll adore? What if I did this for the people nobody else loves or wants, the shunned, the wounded?

   Brueggemann’s summary of our text is spot on, calling it “a glorious artistic achievement. It is also an act of daring, theological faith that refuses to be curbed by present circumstance. This poet knows that Yahweh’s coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible.” God really is bigger than our imaginations. God really is more compassionate than we dream God might be. God really delights in us, which doesn’t seem so possible, does it? Isn’t Scripture all about what isn’t possible (as in Genesis 18 or the Annunciation to Mary)?

   I just can’t preach 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, where Paul (and we might want to stand with those scholars who say This isn’t from Paul; I like Paul too much to think he’d write this!) is in one of his nyet nyet nyet moods.

   Luke 21:5-19 reminds me of the gawking disciples in Mark 14: “Lord, look at these stones!” Herod’s ashlars were startling, and still are; google photos and data on how many feet long and tons heavy they are if you’ve not been to the Holy Land. Josephus described the temple as “built on stones that were white and strong, each of their length 25 cubits, height of 8, breadth about 12. The Temple had doors adorned with embroidered veils, with flowers of purple, and pillars interwoven. Over these was spread out a golden vine, with branches hanging down from a great height, with fine workmanship, a surprising sight to spectators.”

   Spectators then and now. We spectate in church… and the future for a spectator church isn’t bright. Jesus denounced the fake piety and grandeur of the place, predicting (was he predicting, or calling down the doom itself?) “not one stone will be left upon another.” Spectators viewing the self-evidently impregnability of the massive structure must have laughed out loud. And yet, in a short time, Jesus was right. Titus and the Roman legions dismantled the place and burned everything. How would you preach this though without appearing to threaten the church with destruction? Where’s the Good News in that? Or do we simply mention it as a real thing while moving toward the hope, the love?

   The buildings are less of a phony distraction than the phony messiahs. I am sure our problem today won’t be some messianic pretender or a popular religious leader who misleads (we have plenty though). Since political ideology is today’s idolatry, it must be that political ideologues are our fake messiahs now. Just look to Trump, or Warren or Biden: he’ll or she’ll save us!

   I think there is some hope, and some good pastoral, congregational thoughtfulness in verse 13, where the suggestion is made to “prepare your defense.” How do we help our people articulate what they believe? How might they speak to somebody on the fence, or an outright atheist at work or in the neighborhood or family? Surely not by handing a tract or pronouncing judgment or cocksure certainty. How do we bear testimony to what I believe, what has mattered to me, humbly but with some joy? How do they answer questions – from children, skeptics, siblings or a wayward child? Maybe the preacher models this by telling her or his own story – not the official preachy story but your real story of how and why you believe – and because of whom you believe. Not that this will necessarily go well or win the day. Jesus speaks of betrayal within families, or being hated. St. Francis was spat upon by his father every time he passed him in the street.

   Interestingly enough, the pairing of Isaiah 65 and Luke 21 inverts the popular but mistaken viewpoint many Christians have about the testaments – that the Old is about wrath and the New is about grace, the Old is about doom and judgment and the New is about hope and resurrection. The terrible days of judgment and misery declared as dawning by Jesus himself are to be healed, redeemed and transformed by the beautiful days of new life and immense joy the Jewish prophet declared!

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