Monday, November 15, 2010
The Wolf and Lamb Society: Sermon on Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25
In the year 999 of the Common Era, it was widely believed that the world was about to come to an end. The millennium approached, marking the first thousand years since the birth of Christ (give or take a few years, as we now know). Throughout the Christian world, everyone embraced this anticipated (or dreaded) reality, from the huts of the lowliest indentured servants to the fortresses of the most powerful and wealthy nobles. Everyone believed they were about to experience Judgment Day, which meant one of four possibilities: heaven, hell, limbo or purgatory.
We Protestants have never thought much about purgatory, so a brief refresher may be in order. Purgatory was believed to be a spiritual realm that would be a kind of temporary housing for the souls of persons who were in venial sin. Venial sins were minor sins—offenses committed without full understanding, for example, or that were somewhat inadvertent. In this spiritual realm, those who were in venial sin would be purged of that sin over time—hence the name, “purgatory.” And those who were alive could do certain things to shorten the length of the stay in purgatory, either for themselves or for those they loved. In order to shorten one’s sentence, one would pay to obtain indulgences. So: pay a certain amount of money, get a certain amount of time off the sentence to purgatory.
Again. It was the year 999, and Christians were convinced that the world was coming to an end, and everyone faced that final reckoning. So people began loading up their valuable possessions. Princes and paupers, housewives and ladies in waiting, all began piling up their jewels, their gold, their silver, their artwork, their tapestries—everything of any monetary value whatsoever was collected and made ready for transport. All these expensive items were brought to the church. And so they began to arrive—at cathedrals, at country chapels, at rectories, at monasteries, at convents, the carts and wagons and caravans of goods began to arrive. The frightened faithful sought to purchase relief from the punishments they believed they were about to receive by divesting themselves of their wealth, and turning that wealth over to Mother Church.
I think you know what happened. On January 1, 1000, just about everyone woke up, alive—except for those who were already sick, or had accidents, or died in any one of the ways we normally die. The world had not ended. The elites of the Christian world were considerably poorer. And Mother Church was considerably richer.
More than a thousand years later, the world has still not ended, though in every single generation since, there have been people who believed that the end was imminent. That is not to say the world will never end. It’s a basic Christian tenet that Jesus will return, at the consummation of all things, and his return will herald the fulfillment of God’s reign here on earth. It hasn’t happened yet. But Christians believe it will. And this is the time of the year when the calendar of the church turns our attention in this direction. The lectionary passages for today point us to the end times.
In Jesus’ day, the idea that the Temple would be destroyed seemed to portend the end of the world. The Temple had been destroyed before—the Temple in whose porticoes Jesus walked and taught was not Solomon’s original splendid creation, but the one rebuilt by the exiles after their return from Babylon. The Temple of Jesus’ day was the second Temple. But memories of the first Temple were powerful in Israel’s culture and scriptures, and its loss permeated their worship and poetry and history. The Temple was God’s home on earth. Without the Temple, where was God? That felt like the end of the world.
I heard someone say recently that when reading a passage of scripture we have to look at it through the lens of three different times. We have to look through the lens of the time being described—in the case of our Luke passage, we’re talking somewhere around the year 30 CE, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Then we have to look at it in terms of the time it was written, which is often much later. In the case of our passage, it was written more than fifty years later, around the year 85 CE. And, finally, we have to look at the passage through our own lens—the time in which we are reading, and ask—where, in this passage, is the Good News for us today?
These three lenses draw our attention to three very different but related realities. Jesus is talking about the destruction of the second Temple. And he is talking about the Temple in ways that would be heard as blasphemous, and shocking. That’s the first lens.
But remembering that second lens, Luke is talking to a congregation that knows that the second Temple has already been destroyed. Luke is describing the very real things that happened in the year 70, when Jerusalem was utterly decimated by the Romans. And Luke is talking to Christians who are already undergoing the kind of persecution Jesus describes. Listen to this eyewitness account of the destruction of Jerusalem:
The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims...one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze...With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below, and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing...Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings. (Josephus, cited in Luke, David Tiede.)
For Luke to remind his readers about the destruction of the Temple that had already taken place was devastating,. That’s the second lens. And for us to look through our own lens we have to take into account a world in which, still, many anticipate that the end is near. We look around and see wars and insurrections. We look around and see earthquakes, famines and plagues. We look around and we see dreadful persecutions and suffering. We look online and find websites all too willing to provide us with specific dates. How do we understand what we are reading and witnessing? Where do we find the Good News? Where do we find our hope?
I believe we find our hope by going back to the scriptures that informed Jesus; we go back to those words that gave him hope. Today, the lectionary offers us the chance to have our understanding about end times informed by Isaiah.
God speaks through Isaiah to people who have undergone the exact same thing as Luke and his congregation—those who have seen the Temple destroyed, the first Temple. God speaks to people who know devastation and loss and persecution. God speaks to people for whom the situation may well seem hopeless. And God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” [Isaiah 65:17]. God’s vision for the people is a complete renewal of everything—there is nothing that is not covered in that phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” Instead of framing end times in descriptions of destruction Isaiah speaks of God’s acts of creation.
Not only will the former troubles and trials be forgotten, God says, but, “I 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” [Isaiah 65:19]. These are words out of time—these are words for this generation, and Jesus’, and Luke’s, and Isaiah’s. God’s vision for “end times” is one in which every tear will be wiped from our eyes. God’s vision for “end times” is a vision for “new times”—a new heaven, a new earth.
And just look at how that vision plays out.
God promises health at every age, and astonishing longevity. [Isaiah 65:20].
God promises that people will enjoy the fruits of their labors—no small promise in a time when so many were slaves or indentured servants. [Isaiah 65:21-23]
God promises to hear the cries of each and every human heart— “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” [Isaiah 65:24]
And God promises something that, is so extraordinary, it seems truly as if heaven would have to come to earth to make it so: “The 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.” [Isaiah 65:25]
Imagine: The Tea Party and the Move-On people will sit at table together. Those who watch Glenn Beck will dine with those who watch “Democracy Now.” The Bristol and Mark fans will have supper with the Jennifer and Derek fans. It all seems too magical to be real. And yet, these things can be and have been done. Societies are made up of wolves and lambs who have somehow learned to live together. Like the people of South Africa after the fall of apartheid, who participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, telling their stories of human rights abuses and then moving forward to live in harmony. Like Julia Grant, the widow of Union General Ulyssess S. Grant, and Varina Davis, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lived near one another and became best friends. Wolf and Lamb Societies, where people who have no reason to trust and forgive one another, decide to do just that.
The church turns our attention to end times in these November and December days. How shall we respond? We could respond with anxiety and number crunching and attempts to nail down where and how and when it all will come about. Or, we could choose to live in the present as if the coming reality were with us already—lives of reconciliation and forgiveness, trusting in the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth. We could choose to work hard at our labors, trusting in God’s promise that we will enjoy their fruits. We could choose to trust that God hears the cry of every human heart even before the prayers are on our lips. We could choose to trust in God. Thanks be to God. Amen.