Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:
Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2019
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
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.
No 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.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They 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.
They shall not labour in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
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.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
It seems that every generation has its own version of the end of the world. People look around them for signs to corroborate their sense of anxiety and doom. We have our own twenty-first century version in the accumulating evidence of climate change, mass extinction, violent human conflict, unprecedented forced migration – all pointing to the need to make drastic changes, and no guarantees that the species will survive. It’s frightening.
The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have a quite explicit idea of history as a linear movement through time, with a redemptive, though possibly cataclysmic, conclusion. Throughout Christian history there have always been groups who felt certain that what the Old Testament calls the Day of the Lord was at hand – we hear of people camped out waiting and then having to return home, sheepishly recalculating. Or more tragically, movements that undertake violence to hasten the Day. We think of Waco, or Jonestown, or nowadays, some of the thinking and activities of Christian Zionists.
And it isn’t only Christians – even in faiths with a more cyclic sense of the passage of time, there are ideas about a final end. They say that when the Buddha has been gone 5,000 years, and his teachings forgotten, a bodhisattva called Maitreya will come and the earth will come to an apocalyptic end with seven burning suns. Hindu cosmology imagines Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu, coming on a white horse to transform earthly corruption and chaos into the beginning of a new epoch. Norse mythology has it too – battles and violence and fire followed by beautiful renewal. Some may remember in 2012, many contemporary readers of the Mayan calendar anticipated the end. And Anishnaabe spirituality, of the people from this region, includes a final reckoning, when all will be ended in violence and restored – a new heaven and a new earth.
You have to wonder what it is in the human experience that produces these legends and predictions – is it simply a natural foible for human beings to postulate a big technicolour escape from reality, or is there some shared inkling of a mysterious truth in all these apocalypse traditions? When people are beset by storm and flood and fire and war, does that activate some deep knowledge that lurks almost beyond our consciousness?
In the time of Jesus, people looked around them at the oppressive excesses of the Roman Empire and said, this cannot last. The followers of Jesus would have been familiar with the passage from Isaiah that Jean read, promising new heavens and a new earth. And they did have a sense that the one they were following, Jesus of Nazareth, was much more than a brilliant teacher, or a kind healer, or even a prophet. They saw him, and it seems that he perhaps saw himself, as bringing a message of total transformation. That he himself was a hinge point into a wholly different existence. When he preached about the Kingdom of God, it was more than political, more than ethical – he was inviting them to live in a new world.
At the time the Gospels were being written, it seemed to the early Christians that this new reality would be manifested concretely, and very soon. That Christ would return in glory as the known world crumbled around them. But as we read in our passage from the Gospel of Luke, this clear expectation was also tempered by Jesus’ admonition not to be deceived about where or when. Don’t be led astray by those who say, the time is near, he says – instead, focus on what is happening to you at this very moment, on the witness you can make in the world right now. Even if you are feeling completely powerless, or in conflict with your friends and family, or oppressed in a harsh world, this moment is an opportunity to testify.
You could say that the whole history of the Christian faith is the history of holding these two contradictory ideas together – that we live with the promise of the imminent birth of a new heaven and a new earth, and also with the knowledge that it is not here yet. You may think of it as they did in the first century as something that is time-based – this today, that tomorrow. Or you may understand the new heaven and earth as already existing, yet somehow hidden, to be looked for around us. But either way, as a Christian you are called to live in both realities at once. And much of what Jesus talked to his disciples about was how to live in that strange space of already and not yet. How to live with absolute recognition of the impossible dangers and anxieties and recalcitrant evils that the world presents, and also with utter assurance that all is well.
In today’s passage, Jesus makes the rather surprising claim that one of the ways to do this is to be unprepared. He says, when you testify to your faith, don’t prepare your words beforehand. That is, the way to live into the ambiguity of a world that is both calamitous and beautiful is to respond with spontaneity. I’ll give you the words, he says, be open in the moment. And that means for us, be ready for new insights, for thoughts you haven’t thought of. Cultivate your curiosity rather than your conviction. Have confidence that the new thing you need, or the extra energy, or the change in other circumstances will be forthcoming. Let hope grow like a weed, unconstrained by what you already know.
This is advice we all need – whether you are a young parent, with a tiny child whose needs and habits change every day, or a student with five more essays to write, or a person newly retired wondering how to spend the day, or someone thinking about a change of word or change of residence, not sure what may be available out there. Be unprepared. Live at all times open to discovery. Live on the back foot. Open to grace. You need this advice especially if you are a person who is completely stable and set in your ways. If you are somebody who likes to have everything planned out and all contingencies anticipated, Jesus says, nope, be unprepared.
Within our own church community, facing all the changes that are upon us, we may want to try to develop a spirit of unpreparedness. This probably sounds ridiculous, when we think of what has already happened and what will have to happen to get us launched on our camping trip. The careful work that has already been done and is yet to be done. All the members of the Council – and many others – are actively focused on different efforts we can make as a congregation to ensure that our time of transition is as positive an experience as possible. We know it’s going to be challenging, but together we can manage. People are doing really fine work in planning for the move, designing the new sanctuary and offices, figuring out what to keep and what to leave behind. And we certainly do need to do that planning and anticipating.
Even so, even at the same time, we hear this quiet, counterintuitive message. Jesus says, be unprepared. Leave a little room for the spirit – know that it won’t work out quite as planned, and that that may prove to be a blessing. If what you thought was going to happen doesn’t happen, something else will. And all the while, in each step along the way, God will be there, God’s new heaven and new earth just hovering at the edge, waiting for the moment of truth. Not a hair of your head will perish, said Jesus, and by your endurance, you will gain your souls. May it be so.