OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 65: 17-25
In this week’s reading, there are three familiar motifs: the recurring theme of comparing the former and latter things, the glorification of Zion, and the theme of the shalom and peace of God’s holy mountain. The theme of a new creation, of a new Jerusalem, of joy replacing weeping, of life overcoming death abounds in this reading from near the end of Isaiah. The passage is part of the closing sequence not only of the third major section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66, known as Third Isaiah) but of the book of Isaiah itself. Some writers have drawn comparisons between Isaiah 65-66 and Isaiah 1, seeing these chapters as “book-ends” enclosing the whole and bringing it to a conclusion.
Today’s reading echoes the restoration of Jerusalem in other parts of Isaiah. There is a sense that in Isaiah 65-66 not only do the last 11 chapters draw to a close but that all the themes of the previous 66 chapters–judgment, salvation, and further judgment–have their conclusion here with the promise of a new creation. The reading also needs to be set in the context of Isaiah 65-66. Verse 17 begins as if it is a development of what has gone before.
The chapter begins in vv. 1-7 (prior to this week’s reading) with a statement by the Lord that the people have rejected the Lord, worshiped idols and participated in all sorts of foreign practices. The Lord’s statement bears all the marks of frustration at the people’s rejection, of anguish over their foolishness, and of suffering their abuse. It ends with words that are both just and angry as God contemplates the punishment of the people. The Lord no longer calls them “my people” but “a people” or “a rebellious people”. But then a change occurs. Even if this people do not know what repentance is about, the Lord does and that is their hope. The Lord leaves off executing his punishment for the sake of those servants among the people who do remain faithful. For the sake of the ones the Lord calls “my servants’, “my chosen’, and “my people who have sought me” the prophet says the Lord will delay his just anger and reserve its outworking for those who continue to rebel against him. The central section then ends with the Lord called “the God of faithfulness”.
This faithfulness of God (even sometimes in the face of the faithlessness of God’s people) is what is described in this week’s reading with its emphasis on newness and joy. The Lord will now delight in “my people”. All that destroys life will pass away – weeping, distress, premature death, unfulfilled hopes, injustice, robbery, pillage, even genocide. Some of the imagery comes from the ancient context of a people caught up in the atrocities of war as foreign armies march through their land decimating the countryside, its crops, herds, villages, towns and cities, and slaughtering the population. The prophet is speaking about the most horrible experiences and even these things will be overcome by the faithfulness of the Lord.
Every Sunday of every year Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer. They could say it in their sleep; I often wonder if some do! Rather like the “Gary, Indiana” in Meredith Wilson’s classic musical, The Music Man, that prayer sort of “trips along softly on the tongue this way.” In other words it just comes out without a whole lot of thought. But one of the requests we make in that prayer is fraught with power and rife with implications for us and for our world. It happens early on: “Thy Kingdom come,” we ask. We say we want God to come now and reign over us; we want God to rule in our lives. We want no longer to rely on our own resources to make our own way in the world. I want to be honest with you; sometimes when I say that, I have another voice in the corner of my mind saying, “But not today! I rather like the way I am directing things at the moment, God. Maybe tomorrow, please!”
…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together; The lion will eat straw like the ox . . .
Well, isn’t that all grand? And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Just exactly when will terrorists stop their destructive hate and sue for peace? Just when will preventable childhood diseases finally be prevented so infants do live full lives? Just when will cancer be eradicated so that old people can live to be 100? When will there be food enough for all, houses enough for all, good and enriching work for all? Just what are we all to learn from this expansive dream of the reign of God?
I think we learn this. When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the rule of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of malaria in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. When prostate cancer deaths are reduced to increasingly smaller fractions, it is a sign of the reign of God. When millions are fed, when Habitat for Humanity builds another 100 houses, these are signs of the reign of God. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a sign and seal of the certainty of the coming reign of God. It is a divine vision that we can never fail to hold before us, reminding us of our part in the dream and reminding us of God’s constant work to make that dream a reality. “Thy kingdom come,” we say, and it will, oh, yes, it will. (Excerpt from “Thy Kingdom Come: Reflections on Isaiah 65: 17-25, by John C. Holbert, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Thy-Kingdom-Come-Reflections-on-Isaiah.html, accessed 10 November, 2010)
This new creation will be the peace that the Lord envisions and for which God works. It is not “putting things back” the way they were before; it is recreating something new—a new Creation, a new peace unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, a new life. Death and violence are consumed by harmony and peace and life. Justice reigns. Everyone has what they need and those who have always had more than they need are finally satisfied. All labor will be rich and fulfilling. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, without one taking advantage of or consuming the other. The lion shall eat straw like the ox and both will be satisfied without needing more. None of us will ever again hurt or destroy another. All of Creation is resurrected. You know, we were shown that before. I wonder when we’ll finally get it.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What is your vision of this “new Creation”?
- How willing, really, do you think we are to embrace newness, embrace change?
NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13
As we said last week, this is penned as Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica, but in all likelihood it may have been written by a follower of Paul’s who sought to protect Paul’s foundations that had been so carefully laid before. The point is that the church at Thessalonica was apparently experiencing some idleness and probably some boredom when it came to faith. (Imagine!) The practice of the faith had become routine. Prayer had become a rote monologue. This is not what we had in mind.
The truth was that things had gone on for a while. Maybe it was becoming a little too rote, a little too routine. Maybe it has been a while since the Holy Spirit has been allowed in the heavy front doors. Perhaps the church was in need of some new creative dynamics to show people the grace of God through Christ. In fact, some of the members of the faith community are just flat letting others down by refusing to contribute to the community by working. The writer is not advocating that they be kicked out of the church though, but rather that they be brought back in and nurtured in the faith. But life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to work. Actually, leaving someone out of the work is essentially demeaning. Finding a way to engage everyone is a sign and means of grace.
There is a little bit of an interpretive question here. It is possible that the problem addressed is more “disorderliness”, rather than “idleness”; in other words, the problem of one walking “without order” and not as part of the faith community. Either way, this was not the way to build the Kingdom of God. There is a “rhetoric of obedience” as Abraham Smith at Perkins put it. It is not that there is one way to walk or one way to act; just that each one must work within the community to build together this vision of God, this peaceable kingdom. It is an act of hospitality and an act of inclusion. It is becoming faithful people in the midst of a faithful community. It doesn’t mean that we all look the same or think the same. It just means that we love each other enough to want the best for each other; it means that we love God so much that we can only imagine being who God calls us to be—all of us. Nothing else makes sense.
Elizabeth Barrington Forney says that “these [very] thoughts bear important implications for much of our congregational life. The church who participates in a feeding ministry might wonder if the guests who are willing and able are being given ample opportunity to serve alongside church members in preparation and serving of the meals. Is a disparity being created that makes guests dependent on being served?…There is ample opportunity in this text both for instruction about compassion and for a prophetic call to partnership in ministry.” (From Feasting on the Word, p. 307)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What do you think happens when one or when a whole community experiences “idleness”?
- Does it change the meaning if you think of the warning as one against “disorderliness”?
- What do you think of the implication of involving those to whom we minister in ministry? What sort of vision does that bring about for you? How would that change our ministry?
GOSPEL: Luke 21: 5-19
This is, needless to say, a difficult text. But, despite how we may read it, it is not meant to be a prediction of the future. It was written to a persecuted and frustrated minority that lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They were feeling as if the veritable end of their world had come. And some, perhaps at the prodding of the disciples, were looking to the temple, the center of their world and their life, the symbol of God’s very presence in their midst, a shining thing of beauty in an otherwise dark world. But then they were told not to look there for it, too, would fall away. Instead, the writer of Luke is telling them to listen to Jesus and trust in Jesus. We didn’t read the first four verses of this chapter but they portray the account of the widow with two coins. Jesus is essentially saying: “Not the temple! Look at her! Look what living a life of faith means!”
So the passage that we read begins with that prediction of destruction. From Luke one senses sadness rather than smugness. Just a few chapters later, we would read the account of Jesus weeping over a city that would not listen and would not change course. Instead they wanted concrete evidence of exactly when this would happen and some had begun to listen to messianic “fortune-tellers”, if you will, that claimed to have all the answers. Like today, there were those who were easily swayed with predictions of “doomsday”, with the foretelling of the end at hand.
Remember, Jesus never promised that following this Way would be easy. And despite what some would claim, there is no known timetable of when something will happen. But it is a reminder for us of the God who triumphed over chaos over and over again. Jesus is not calling them to be martyrs or heroes—just faith-filled followers. All of the other usual symbols will eventually fall by the wayside. But Jesus promises that he will remain as a holy presence with the wisdom to persevere.
I don’t really think Jesus was telling the future (regardless of the fact that those beautiful stones were indeed soon destroyed). Perhaps Jesus was just saying, you know…this is not easy. Life happens. Bad things happen. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can take me away from you. Just hang on! The Sabbath is coming!
David Livingstone, the legendary missionary to Africa, prayed, “Lord, send me anywhere, only go with me. Lay any burden on me, only sustain me.” And he testified, “What has sustained me is the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” This is the promise that Jesus conveys.
And when the world does shake to an end, whether it’s through natural decay or we humans just blowing the whole thing up, there’s always something more. The truth is, the temple WAS destroyed. And the great Roman Empire collapsed into history. But the story has not diminished. “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
- What is your response to this passage?
- What things are we tempted to hold onto in our world, hoping for something better?
- What does this passage say about the church itself?
- What does this passage call us to do?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
True hope isn’t blind…The messianic hope for the new world looks into the future with its eyes wide open. But it sees more than what can be seen on the horizon of history. The Indonesian word for hope means “looking through the horizon to what is beyond.” True hope looks beyond the apocalyptic horizons of our modern world to the new creation of all things in the kingdom of God’s glory. (Jurgen Moltmann, from The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life)
A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world. (Oscar Wilde)
The marvelous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realization in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey)
Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood, and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good. Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair; lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare; yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there. Amen. (From “O Holy City, Seen of John” (vs. 4-5), by Walter Russell Bowie, The United Methodist Hymnal # 726)