Written by Pastor Ed
A Vision of the Future
November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65: 17-25
Luke 21: 5-19
Two visions of the future! One sees it as a frightening place, with persecution and oppression running rampant. War, disaster and ruin are sure to come. It is a view that sees the world as an evil empire and wonders how in this world we will ever survive.
The other vision is that the world is moving on to something better, that brighter days are ahead and things will eventually turn out just fine. Every day, in every way, the world is getting better.
No, I’m not talking about the aftermath of the US election, although you could certainly hear those voices both in the course of the campaign as well as over this past week, since Tuesday. You can even hear those same two visions of the future if you listen to the political rhetoric here in Alberta. Depending on who you talk to there are either brighter days ahead, or we are headed for disaster – it just depends on whose party happens to be in power when you talk to them. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.
Our scripture passages for this morning seem to be a sharp contrast. While Isaiah speaks of a future full of promise and hope, with no more weeping and where seemingly natural enemies cosy up to each other, Jesus speaks of a future with his disciples that includes war, natural disaster and persecution.
These are themes that run through not only the Bible, but literature and theology through the centuries. Each generation, it seems, has to come to grip with these contrasting visions of what the future might look like. In his 1927 classic film, Metropolis, director Fritz Lang portrayed both of these visions, with a modern city above ground full of modern conveniences, happy people and a wonderful life, while underground the working class toiled endlessly and in horrible conditions to power the lifestyle of those aboveground.
You can hear those same disparate themes in music. Whereas Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a hymn in 1930 asking God to give us “wisdom and courage for the facing of these days” reflecting a positive view of what the church could accomplish, others were writing songs that only looked forward to a time when Christians could leave this troubled world. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.”
So how do we reconcile these two different visions of the future that we find in Isaiah and Luke? Or are they really all that different? Let’s look at them a bit more closely.
The latter part of Isaiah, from which our passage is taken, is seen by mot Biblical scholars as coming from a post-exilic writer. That is, this was written to a people who had returned from their long exile in Babylon to their homeland and Jerusalem. One would think that would have been a time of rejoicing, and indeed it was at first, but that rejoicing was short lived. The land was in ruins; their hopes that the temple would be rebuilt were not coming true, and famine and natural disasters were taking their toll. If you want to know how bad it was, read the book of Haggai.
To these discouraged people, the prophet gives a message of hope. While recognizing that God’s judgement of the people was justified, the prophet notes that a remnant will be saved and the future will indeed be bright. A new heaven and a new earth are coming. It’s not an escape from earth to somewhere else; it’s a new earth where all the things that they are experiencing will no longer be the case. And it reflects the words of an earlier prophet, spoken in Isaiah 11. And it’s a vision, not a literal picture. How does one describe a glorious future but in terms that contrast with the world as people are now experiencing it? Instead of people dying early of famine or disease, people live long and full lives. Instead of warfare and destruction, there is peace and harmony. It is truly a message of hope.
When we read Luke’s account in Luke 21, we need to keep two audiences in mind. Luke is recording Jesus’ words to his disciples. Jesus made a statement about the destruction of the temple, and the disciples ask when this will happen. In response, Jesus warns them about not to be led astray by those who proclaim that the end is near. Even though there is war and destruction, that’s not the end of the world. Even if you are persecuted, Jesus says, don’t be surprised. It’s going to happen.
But we must also remember that Luke is writing this account for people of the late 1st century, for whom this is not a prediction of what was to come, but a reflection of what they were experiencing. The temple had already been destroyed, and persecution was already beginning to happen. We can see it already in the book of Acts, but it only got worse as the Christian faith spread and emperors and others saw this new religion as a threat. Earthquakes, famines and plagues were happening. Perhaps the massive eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out the town of Pompeii in Italy would have been fresh in people’s minds.
To those early readers of Luke’s account, Jesus’ message was also a message of hope. While it portrayed bad things to come, Jesus’ words were, “Do not be afraid.” Instead he said that all of these things will be an opportunity to testify. Using an Old Testament proverb or oath of protection, Jesus assures them that “not a hair of your head will perish.” (See I Sam. 14:45; II Sam. 14:11) Jesus is not predicting specific happenings. We shouldn’t try to figure out exactly when he’s talking about. Every generation will face bad times; they have in the past and I don’t think it’s going to change.
I suspect preachers who are following the lectionary in the US will be pondering that question even more this morning and I also suspect that some of them, unfortunately, will only further the divide that these two passages seem to portray and only serve to heighten the fear and anxiety that Jesus warns against.
It’s very easy to get caught up in that dichotomy if you listen to the voices around us. I don’t know what your Facebook feed has been like this week, but at times I’ve thought about not even looking at it for the next month or so – although then I’d miss out on seeing pictures of my grandchildren. But it’s not just in the U.S. As I noted, you can hear the same sort of rhetoric here in Alberta or across Canada. We’ll probably hear even more as the PC leadership races heat up.
So what should we take from these two passages this morning? There are at least two messages I hear as I read these passages and think about both their situations as well as ours.
The first is a message that is repeated over and over in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.” Or as one commentator said, “The point is that when bad things happen — and they will — we should ‘not be terrified’ (21:9) or follow anyone proclaiming these are signs of God’s judgment and the end (21:8). Instead, we should trust that God remains present in our lives.” Nor does Jesus say we should look around for someone to blame for what’s happening. All of this is part of the world we live in, and we shouldn’t expect that things are going to be always rosy. But we do have confidence that God is present and that God is ultimately in control – not in the sense that God is manipulating everything that’s going on, but that we do know the ultimate outcome. That was decided in the death and resurrection of Jesus, when evil was overcome. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (I Cor. 15:54)
Because of that, we do not have to live in fear. Much of what we see and hear around us these day is driven by fear – fear of the other, fear of loss, fear of change, you name it and someone will find a reason to fear it. As Christians we should not be driven by fear, even fear of death. I am inspired by the people I talk to who are facing death without fear because they know that death is not the end. And if we don’t need to fear death, then there should be little else that should frighten us. We, of all people, should be people of hope.
And secondly, Jesus says that times of trouble are opportunities for witness. When others are laying blame, living in fear, or tending toward escapism, leaving the world behind, we should be about the work of the Kingdom. In a lectionary passage we didn’t read this morning, in II Thessalonians, we find Paul writing to people who had decided that the end was indeed near. They had listened to the pundits and decided that all of the signs were in place and all they needed to do was sit back and wait.
And Paul scolds them with his famous line, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” He’s not talking about welfare here. He’s simply saying if you think the end is that close, why bother not just working, but also why eat. His point is that no matter what the time, Christians should be about the tasks set out for us, the mission God has given to us, namely, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, preach good news to the poor, spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and across the street.
In a world divided, the church should be the place where love prevails, where people of every race creed and colour are welcome. Across the U.S. churches Mennonite churches have been posting prominent signs outside their doors saying in three languages, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbor.” It seems to me that’s the kind of message that the world desperately needs to hear from the church.
Unfortunately, all too often the church has mirrored the splits of society, rather than working to break down the walls that divide people. And if we’re not sure how to go about it, well, Jesus says, don’t worry about it. Just start and the Spirit will be there to help. “Just do it,” as the slogan says. If you think you have to have it all worked out ahead of time, you’ll never start, and besides if you could work it all out on your own, why would you need the Spirit in the first place.
We don’t know what lies ahead, thankfully. And if we listen only to those voices around us we are likely to get conflicting views, neither of which is probably totally accurate. And so we are called to a different way, to the Kingdom way, following the path of Jesus, proclaiming the good news, and living a life free from fear, knowing where our hope and future lie.
Let us affirm that hope as we sing together, Hymn # 343.