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13th November 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
11 November 2016

Readings

Isaiah 65:17-25

The passage of Isaiah shifts from fretting about returning from exile to a vision of life in wider terms where good triumphs over evil and the just are vindicated.  Furthermore this vision is not just for Israel but for the entire cosmos, there will be a new heaven and a new earth and things like, being taken into exile, will not be remembered.  Maurice Andrew says that it sounds like there is a party going on but he also points out:

That although the passage begins and ends with references to the transformation of nature, the central part is firmly grounded in Jerusalem and its population, the transformation of short and distressed lives, rebuilding both homes and agriculture with security for the people who do the work. [1]

These are hopes that we have also but the challenge is always to see us as agents of the changes rather than expect some mystical magic event to change our world for us.

Luke 21: 5-19

Today’s Gospel reading is written in the apocalyptic style. Revelation is the most well known New Testament example of apocalyptic writing but Craddock points out that there are a number of writings outside the Christian cannon that use that style and apocalyptic writing was popular for a whole millennium in Christian circles. 

Major historical crises triggered apocalyptic thinking like this speech of Jesus, so although they are dream sequences they are mixed with what is really going on in history.

Amid painful and prolonged suffering, when there can be seen on the horizon of predictable history no relief from disaster, faith turns its face towards heaven not only for a revelation of God’s will, but also for vision of the end of the present misery and the beginning of the age to come.[2]

Luke’s has taken this from Mark and added his own emphasis and many of the first Gospel readers would have experienced the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.  Bill Loader notes that:

The point Luke is making is that we should not be panicked by such events.

Reports are often sensationalised for effect and the panic whipped up is highly volatile and has the potential to ignite and explode into irrationalities, religious and otherwise.

Sermon 

Apocalyptic writing is not confined to biblical times or the first millennium of Christian history.  During the time of the balance of power through the nuclear umbrella and the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, Nobel Prise winning poet and song writer Bob Dylan penned a song filled with dream sequences of an uncertain future.  In answer to the repeated question ‘What did you see my blue eyed son?’ one verse reads:

I saw guns and sharp swords

in the hands of young children,

And it's a hard, it's a hard,

it's a hard, and it's a hard

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

From the time that the bomb fell on Hiroshima humanity has lived under the threat of the hard rain.  The use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War decimated jungles and caused lasting sickness in both friend and foe alike.  Industrial air pollution produced acid rain that killed forests and crops alike.  Throughout the world guns and sharp swords are still in the hands of young children.  In cities in Syria and Iraq men, women and children are squeezed between opposing armies using similar tactics but with weaponry that is far more destructive than the Romans used in the siege of Jerusalem.

Dylan’s apocalyptic poetry expresses the despair of our current world as easily at it fitted the time he wrote it. That not only marks him as a Nobel Laurite but places him alongside the biblical apocalyptic writers.  In both biblical times and our own times these writers express the despair of their times in language that articulates the ongoing despair of the human condition.

Our reading from Isaiah expresses the hope that evolves from that sort of despair when people see the only way forward as scrapping the universe as we know it and God creating a ‘New heaven and a new earth.’  (Isaiah 65:17) 

The real danger of that kind of thinking is, as Bill Loader suggests, the truth of the situation is usually lost and racist and other generalised claims are made or people drive themselves into doomsday fantasies and cults.[3]

People form into ‘in groups and out groups’ and blame the perceived problems on whoever is seen as other. 

Stated assumptions that immigrants are automatically responsible for the price of housing and lack of employment opportunities quickly degenerates into the belief that life would be better if only the others could be restrained or eliminated in some way.  The scariest development however is that some doomsday group believes they could provoke divine action by destroying everything. 

Luke was aware of that possibility because he was writing after the destruction of the temple.  He was most likely aware that the politics of the revolution suggested that if the rebels started a revolt against Rome they would be supported by the armies of heaven.  Finally the rebels took refuge in the temple in the belief that God would not allow Roman soldiers to enter.  However, as Jesus’ prediction in our reading indicated, the temple was destroyed and many lives were lost. 

The important part of today’s reading is the part most overlooked by those people who want to find signs that God is at last going to build a new heaven and a new earth. 

In verse nine in our gospel reading Jesus says ‘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’. (Luke 21:9)  

When Luke recorded that comment from Jesus democracy had been played with by both Greeks and Romans but elections, in which everybody gets a vote, had not been thought of.  If it had I am sure Jesus would have added frightening election results in with wars and insurrections.  Luke is writing after the destruction of the Temple and so has Jesus predicting the destruction with the benefit of hindsight. What is most significant however is that he has Jesus say ‘but the end will not follow immediately.’(Luke 21:9)  Jesus was absolutely correct with that statement because people are still waiting for God to tidy up the world two thousand years later.  

Even though there are likely to be changes with a Trump presidency most things are likely to stay the same.

By all accounts the destruction of the temple was a terrifying event and for many people their world ended in pain.  The siege of Jerusalem by the Roman Army was much like the current sieges of Aleppo and Mosul where ordinary people simply trying to care for their families are caught between opposing forces and annihilated.  The frightening difference was that in the siege of Jerusalem fighting was hand to hand with edged weapons along with the execution of prisoners by crucifixion.

Isaiah was writing to restore hope after a similar disaster and the subsequent exile and slavery.  He was also writing in poetry, the language of metaphor and imagery.  Our reading is a poem of encouragement assuring its readers that it is God’s will that what is lost will be restored and what they grow will no longer be consumed by others.  In verse seventeen the divine voice says;

‘For I am about to create new heavens and new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.’(Isaiah 65:17)   In writing that Isaiah is not expecting a blinding flash of extinction followed by millions of years of evolution of stars, worlds and life.  Modern astronomy might see that as a real possibility in a continually evolving universe but that is not what Isaiah is writing about.   

Isaiah’s poem recognises that from time to time ‘a hard rain's a-gonna fall,’ but it is God’s will that out of such darkness new beginnings are possible.  People will rebuild what is lost because God is a God of new beginnings.  That is what happened, the temple was rebuilt even though it took 23 years and the peasants lived in relative safety under the stability of a feudal empire that kept their crops safe from plunder for a tolerable tribute.  Israel was part of someone else’s empire from the time of the Babylonian Conquest and who the imperial power was didn’t matter, they all collected a tribute for the protection they offered. 

But according to Dominic Crossan the Roman Empire commercialised feudalism, forced people off their land through debt, and amalgamated farms causing dispossessed people to plot rebellion. 

That brings us to the time of Jesus and today’s episode of the prediction of the destruction of the temple.  The date of the destruction, CE70 is used by biblical scholars to date the first edition of the Gospels on the basis that predicting an event is much easier after the event happened.  Without doubting the wisdom of such scholarship we might also suggest that, as someone concerned about the poor as Jesus was and as politically aware as he appears to be, he may well have said something about the destruction of the Temple.  Jesus lived in a time of simmering resentment that could easily ignite into violent rebellion.  He was probably, by the time of this episode, aware of the risk to his own life along with the power and brutality of the Roman Army.  Like most of history that was a time when soldiers had the right to, and were expected to, plunder the wealth of those they defeated.  It was the way ordinary fighting men were given a winners bonus.  The equation was simple rebellion would bring retaliation from a superior force and although Herod’s temple had taken 70 years to completely refurbish its destruction would not take long as looting soldiers to tore it apart. 

Furthermore Jesus’ vision of the divine was not the God of war that Yahweh was once imaged.  I doubt that Jesus thought that God would intervene to protect the temple and the chosen people from Roman invasion which is what many of the messianic cults of the time envisioned.

Reading through the gospels it is quite obvious that Jesus saw the action of individual people living with and for each other as the way God’s realm would be made real in his time and in the times to come. 

The gospel vision of God’s realm is not about conquering armies fighting against evil or even building walls to separate us from those who we perceive as different. 

The Jesus way of bringing in God’s realm is about treating everyone as neighbour and offering all others unconditional love. 

In our Gospel episode the Temple was about to be destroyed and Jesus was moving closer his own cruel death but the movement that Jesus inspired was also about to gather momentum.  Access to God would no longer be through sacrificial rituals at the Jerusalem Temple.  Access to God was to be, and still is, through the memory of Jesus we share.  The Christ within each of us that we share with others in unconditional love that spread out from those conversations with Jesus so long ago.

Through that love God has been creating new heavens and a new earth.  That new heavenly understanding and a new world order spread out from the darkness of crucifixion and the blinding light of the resurrection. The hard rains fall and the springtime of new beginning are called out of deaths darkness.

God continues to build new heavens and a new earth through the loving Christ we each share with those we meet along the way.      



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 444,445.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 242- 243.

 

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