Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ordinary 33C, November 17, 2013

Not The End of the World

Isaiah 65:17-25

17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But 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. 19I 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. 20No 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. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They 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. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The 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.

I know that not many of you are fans of social media, but I am very grateful that such things as Facebook and Twitter exist because they give me the ability to stay in touch with friends and colleagues I seldom get to see, and sometimes I find myself becoming acquainted with people I haven’t even met. 

One such person is my Facebook friend, Joe Linden, whom many of you remember fondly as a member of Emsworth U.P. Church until he and his family moved to Alaska some years ago.  It was devastating for many of you last year when we heard that Lane, Joe’s wife, committed suicide after battling severe depression for many years. 

A couple months ago, Joe commented on a sermon I posted on the church’s Facebook page (yes, Emsworth U.P., we have a Facebook page), and within a few weeks, Joe and I became Facebook friends.  I really enjoy reading what Joe writes.  His posts are always filled with wisdom, insight, and humor that are both surprising and reassuring considering what he and his family have endured in the last year.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed that Joe is participating in the 30 Days of Gratitude project on Facebook.  During the month of November, Joe and many of my Facebook friends are posting daily about all the things for which they are thankful.  And Joe’s post this Monday was entitled, simply, “Thankful It’s Not The End of the World.”  In the post, he told the story about thinking that Monday was a day off school for his son, Max, due to Veterans Day.  They slept late, ate pancakes, and then Joe drove Max somewhere.  Joe returned home only to find an email from Max’s school awaiting him.  The email said that Max had been marked absent from school that day. 

Uh oh. Somehow, over the course of the weekend, Joe had forgotten that although he had the day off from work, Max did not.

Joe totally lost his parenting gold star last Monday.  But what Joe wrote about his reaction to Max’s unauthorized absence from school was really sort of beautiful.  He wrote:  There were times in this family’s history when Monday’s tale would have occasioned great drama:  heated accusations, denials, arguments, hard feelings, weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And here’s the part that got to me:
“I’ve seen the end of the world, peered over the edge, and it does not look anything like this.”

And you know what?  Joe is absolutely right.  Missing a day of school doesn’t look anything like the end of the world.  It isn’t the end of the world. 

But then I got to thinking – what does the end of the world look like?  And how does our perception of the “end of the world” line up with how we see God and Jesus speaking and working in scripture? 

That was a particularly hard question to ponder this week while seeing and reacting to the incredible destruction and loss of life in the Philippines. The typhoon that hit the country was the most powerful storm in the history of recorded weather events.  The photos from the hardest hit areas are truly heartbreaking.  Beyond the death and destruction that have already occurred -- which is certainly horrible enough -- I read that doctors there are bracing themselves for outbreaks of more disease and death because of no sanitation, shortages of fresh water and the inability of emergency health teams to get where they need to be quickly.

The situation in the Philippines is horrible.  And I’m sure even those who managed to survive the storm may feel that they have come to the end of the world, certainly the end of life as they’ve known it. 

But even devastation on that kind of scale is not the end of the world.  We know that in time there will be rebuilding and renewal.  People around the world, Christians and non-Christians alike, are rushing in to aid the survivors, and in time, rescue will morph into recovery, and recovery will morph into rebuilding, and rebuilding into flourishing.  The flourishing piece will take time.  It might take a generation or maybe even two for the terrible memories of the storm to heal.  But even the worst of what can nature can do is not the end. 

The situation in which the prophet Isaiah speaks into in our text this morning probably looked a whole lot like the Philippines.  The people and land of Judah had been overrun by the Assyrians.  You know the story.  Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, the temple demolished and many of the people dragged off into exile. 

But Isaiah is speaking to the people who coming back after all that.  After nearly 50 years in a foreign country, YHWH’s people are finally going home, but it’s a home they scarcely recognize.  Indeed many of people in the first wave of exiles have never seen Judah at all.  For a generation who had heard nostalgic stories about their parents’ and grandparents’ country, their first glimpse of the wreckage that once was Judah must look like what?  The end of the world.  But it wasn’t.  It wasn’t even close to the end of YHWH’s ongoing project with these people whose story began when God scooped up their ancient ancestors from slavery and sent them into the wilderness to wander around, but finally find the Promised Land.  

In the midst of what looks like a whole lot of nothing, the prophet Isaiah tells the people that it they are to get back to the business of being the people God created them to be – a blessing and joy to the world.  Isaiah speaks God’s word saying, “I’m about to create a new heavens and a new earth.”  And you notice that what Isaiah goes on to describe is not something totally new or different, but a description of YHWH’s imagination for what Judah is supposed to be and look like.  No weeping.  No distress.  No infant death or lives ended before their time.  No theft or misuse of someone else’s property.  All of these terrible things that have happened were not God’s dreams for God’s people.  As Isaiah directs the people to look to the future, he also points back to God’s blueprint from the beginning – a blueprint that we recognize from the book of Genesis. As it was in the beginning of time, so it is to be for the returning exiles.  God’s imagination points to the goodness of Eden, the peace of the original creation.  God is still creating – and recreating – God’s people for God’s purposes all of which lead to life, not death.

In our gospel text today from Luke, Jesus presents a devastating monologue -- wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, false leadership, violence, suffering, arrest, persecution and the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.  The disciples hear all this – including that part about being betrayed by trusted family and friends, then being put to death – and think this must be the end of the world.  It can’t get much worse than what Jesus is describing.    

In a few days, Jesus will be crucified, and as he draws his last breath, the skies will darken and the curtain of the temple is torn in two.  And for those who witnessed what happened in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection, including the destruction of the second temple as Jesus foretold, it sure seemed the time was ripe for the end of the world and a second coming.

But it wasn’t the end.  As Jesus said, “The end will not follow immediately…Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance of all these experiences that feel like the end of the world, you will gain your souls.”

Every Sunday we say it.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done.  On earth as it is in heaven. What sort of kingdom are we looking for? And what is God waiting for?

Where I was in seminary, I studied with New Testament professor Dale Allison and it was his teaching that really formed my ideas about the end of the world.  As we worked through all the scriptures that seemed to speak to end times and the second coming, Dr. Allison said that his conclusion was that the end of the world will probably look like the beginning.   We can only intuit God’s original intention for what the world should be based upon the on-going witness of scripture.

But one of the things he said that have really struck with me is that the end of time, the fullness of God’s Kingdom come to earth is contingent…meaning that kingdom building requires participation by both God and human beings.  Even prophecies cannot be read as promise.  They are also contingent on human events. 

God does not need to get involved in the destruction of the world.  Destroying things is something we can do all by ourselves without God’s help.  Human beings have all the power we need to bring about the end of the world without God having to do a thing.  A super virus.  A technological snafu (remember the millennium fears?).  Global warming.  Nuclear war.  Technology continues to put more and more power into the hands of fewer and fewer people.  That’s how we imagine the world ending. 

But if scripture is any guide, I bet that even if we manage to pretty much destroy all life on earth, that still won’t be the end.  Because death, destruction and despair is not God's end game.  Death is not God’s plan for us.  God’s plan is as it always has been, since the beginning of creation.  God’s idea is life, abundant life.  We see the mind of God in the primeval poetry of Genesis.  And we see the mind of God most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. 

Maybe, just maybe, the end of the world actually will look a lot less like death, destruction and despair, and all of those awful ways in which television, movies and books portray the end of days.  Maybe God’s kingdom is already breaking in when relationships once thought lifeless come back to life.  Maybe God’s kingdom is revealed in the naval ships rushing off to the Philippines to take food and supplies instead of rushing off to war.  Maybe the end of the world will be when people have finally banded together to solve the problem of people being hungry, or when Habitat for Humanity has run out of houses to build.

God created the world and called it good, but it didn’t take very long for us to decide that we knew better than God.  But God didn’t give up on creation.  God invited his people Israel into God’s imagination for recreating and restoring God’s good creation.

The people returning to Judah after a generation of exile thought they had stumbled upon the end of the world.  But God spoke a word to them through the prophet Isaiah and after much mumbling and stumbling, the people took God up on God’s invitation to begin again.

The people who had followed and loved Jesus saw him die in the most hideous way possible at the hands of a cruel and tyrannical government.  It sure looked like the end of their dreams and Jesus’ ministry.  But resurrection three days later happened and in that resurrection God said, here’s the truth:  I still haven’t given up on this project I began millions of years ago.  Death is defeated.  Love wins.  And I will give you the power of Holy Spirit, which is all the power you need to do the work I need you to do.

If we look closely at Jesus and his ministry in the gospel of Luke -- a ministry that we’ve been tracing throughout the past year -- we see God inviting us into God’s story of re-creation:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Later, Jesus says: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among (or in) you.” (Luke 17:20b-21)

Jesus also says, “No one knows the day or the hour.”

We do not get a map or a timetable about the end of the world.  All we receive is an invitation to stand in front of what seems impossible boulders to move – poverty, suffering, injustice, scarcity, grief.  We are invited to take our turn in our moment in God’s eternal time to chip away all this isn’t in God’s original plan.  Day by day.  Relationship by relationship.  Just as a sculptor takes a piece of marble and with careful application of a chisel creates a piece of art little by little.  Bit by bit.  In small ways until the day comes on which everyone will no longer see a piece of marble, but the beautiful creation the artist envisioned from the beginning.  And in our work, the Holy Spirit will chip away everything in us that isn’t God until we are also revealed as God’s beloved and beautiful people.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.