Can we start our reflection on Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19 in not quite the usual way? Can we divert past the academics of it, the history of the text, even what it says about God to the people of biblical times or to the people of our time? Can we start, first, by listening to the emotions of these two passages? Because they are strong passages, with striking images, that are meant to evoke our emotions:
“Beware!” says Jesus. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes, famines & plagues around the world; and there will be dreadful foreshadowing and great signs from heaven.”
Concern for safety.
“Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” proclaims the LORD God through the prophet Isaiah. “Rejoice, for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy; and no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, nor the cry of distress. Before the people call, I will answer.”
Relief, and re-creation.
Possibilities of peace beyond imagining.
How does it make us feel to hear Jesus say so directly: “You will be arrested and persecuted. You will be handed over to the powers of religion and of government. Parents and relatives and friends will turn on you. Even death will come.”
Abandoned by Jesus?
Disconnected? Maybe we don’t hear this text speaking to us?
How do we feel when we hear Isaiah’s vision of the wolf and the lamb grazing together peacefully? What does it do for our spirits to imagine a time and a place in which babies do not die of illnesses, and our older adults live strong and healthy past the age of one hundred; a place where homes are not foreclosed upon and jobs are not cut to spare the companies’ bottom line?
Do we long for that day?
Do we laugh at the impossibility of it?
Do we feel stirred up with anger that the world doesn’t run this way?
Emotionally-charged passages, clear and compelling images in both Isaiah and Luke … and they’re vivid and emotional “live wires” on purpose. These two passages are supposed to hit you at the core of your being; they are meant to stir up your emotions, because both readings are meant to make us respond. And even though the tones of Isaiah and Luke seem as different as night and day, they are trying to provoke the same response in us: active, fully committed faith.
Isaiah 65 appeals to the Israelites in the 6th century BCE who have just returned to Jerusalem after nearly fifty years of exile in Babylon. They come home rejoicing to be free … only to discover a war-torn homeland and a devastated city in need of rebuilding. For so long, they had imagined coming home like it would be a return to a carefree Eden, and the reality is devastating. So the prophet appeals to them, stirs them up to imagine a homeland that is rebuilt, a capital city that is again glorious in its architecture and provides safety for all sojourners. Isaiah 65 aims to inspire the people’s hope and their faith in God’s promises so that they will commit to doing the hard work of rebuilding.
Luke 21 may have a harsher tone to it, but Jesus also is trying to incite his audience into an active and more authentic faith. He denounces those in power who have made the temple building into an object of worship instead of worshiping the Holy God for whom the temple is merely a seat. He implores his listeners to gird up their spirits, to strengthen their faith, in preparation for the sparring of global powers and the horror of natural catastrophes. And he warns them — and I know that it’s hard to hear Jesus making dire predictions, but there’s also something pastoral about trying to give people a heads-up when he warns them — “Yes, it’s going to be hard. Yes, the worst of life will hit you like it hits everyone, and I cannot spare you the pain of that. But hold on to your faith. Take courage. And do not fall for the lies of those who run around trying to scare people in my name, saying silly things like ‘God is judging us by abandoning us to wars and earthquakes.’ Don’t follow the ones who lead by fear. Keep your faith honed and strong.”
The intense emotion of Isaiah’s vision and of Jesus’ warnings are meant to inspire a response of active, fully-committed faith from the people who are listening to them. Which should lead us to ask, what response do Isaiah 65 and Luke 21 evoke from us?
Here’s my concern: It’s emotionally difficult to hear this strident language from Jesus and to imagine such a series of devastating events — persecution & famine & betrayal & cities torn down in war — to hear that vision of discomfort from Jesus, the One we turn to for comfort. So it’s hard to respond to Luke 21 with deep and fearless faith…
…and I suspect that we struggle to respond to Isaiah 65 with an active and committed faith as well, not because the imagery isn’t beautiful and comforting, but because it so vastly contradicts our experience of the world. The idea of a city with no crying, where the lion eats straw like the domesticated ox, is an elusive dream for the world. How do we respond with faith if we struggle to embrace Isaiah 65 as a hope that is actually possible?
These passages from Isaiah and Luke are written to evoke an emotional and faithful response, but we struggle to respond to the discomforting words of Jesus and we struggle to respond to the elusive vision of Isaiah … and my concern is that, as a result, we plop ourselves down somewhere in the middle between the frustrations of reality and the unattainability of hope & peace. And in that middle ground, do we stall out on active faith, at a loss for how to balance visions of turmoil with visions of peace? Luke and Isaiah may be trying to provoke a response within us, but maybe we feel so provoked that we’d rather just call it a day!
What response do Isaiah 65 and Luke 21 inspire within us, compel from us?
I remember once — somewhere along the way in my life — someone observed to me that one of the elements of a strong marriage is that you have to choose each day to be married to your partner; that each day when you wake up, you have to make the choice to pay attention to and support this significant person in your life; that you have to remember to keep giving and receiving through forgiveness and intimacy and respect; that you have to keep choosing to love one another.
The same can be said of faith:
We have to choose, every day, to live with faith.
We have to choose — consciously, constantly — to live
with the eyes of our hearts wide open in order to see God around us,
knowing that keeping our eyes open also means
that we will see the world’s pains a little more honestly.
We have to choose, each day when we get out of bed,
to do the work of faith…
…and at the end of the day when we return to bed,
we have to have faith enough to rest.
We have to choose faith, even knowing
that there is still heartache to come in our lives,
there will be more wars to come on this earth,
there are and there will continue to be fear-mongers
and doom-sayers who live for conflict,
there are new powers still to come and
more uncertainties still to come;
we have to choose faith knowing that
there are days of joy still to come,
days of healing still to come,
moments of laughing so hard that you cry,
signs of life still to come that will catch your breath,
moments of love still to come that will let you know
that God’s promises are not forgotten;
and yes, there is a time still to come when the powers that disrupt life
and take advantage of injustice will be overturned;
maybe even a time still to come
when a wolf and a lamb will graze side-by-side.
The highest of our hopes and the worst of our nightmares — in other words, the full range of life experiences — and some days we desperately wish that we could simply plop down in the middle and secure a moment of peace and sanity.
Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook of experiencing the breadth and depth of life. He calls us to choose and actively live out faith, with every part of who we are and what we have and what we can do. God calls us — through a whole book full of stories and visions and crazy dreams and stirring poetry and daunting prophecies — to respond to this life that we have been given, to engage it, to encounter God in it; to let the worrisome stuff and the hopeful stuff alike compel us off dead-center, stir us up from lukewarm living, so that we choose full and active and wholly-committed faith … trusting that, for everything that is still to come, God is moving and stirring and living with us!
My sermon from Nov 14 2010 at Grace United Church of Christ; the contrasting moods between these Isaiah and Luke passages reflect the moody tensions of Isaiah and Matthew through the Advent lectionary … and similarly call us to wake up and live fully!
The fig tree, there, so full of potential:
you waited, thirsting for its fruit
and when it didn’t bloom,
Natural enough, scolding something when it doesn’t do what one wants.
I have a lot of those:
cursing the thing that doesn’t fit,
the thing that doesn’t meet my needs.
Like Moses cursed the rock and struck it until a spring burst forth.
There is a stubbornness there,
a persistence that is both holy and human,
an insistence on goodness.
Except that you forgot — in the humanity of cursing — your divinity,
and the fig tree withered.
Or perhaps the withering was intentional:
holy commentary on the lukewarm, the half-assed.
I should have more of those:
cursing in myself the partial effort,
the motivation that isn’t what it should be.
Jesus, remind me of the fig tree.
Matthew 21:18-19; also Mark 11:12-14.
so I don’t rush past the holiness and the beauty
so I hear the world beyond my own voice
so I bring peace, not panic, to this day
because God is met in these moments