Proper 28, Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 17, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 65:17-25Isaiah 122 Thessalonians 3:6-13Luke 21:5-19

By Paul Nancarrow

Isaiah 65:17-25

It is generally held that the final chapters of Isaiah were written during the period of reconstruction after the Return from Exile, when the future joy and delight of Jerusalem were far from assured. The prophecy in this passage promises that the rebuilding of Jerusalem is ultimately God’s work, not merely human work, and it is therefore assured beyond all earthly difficulty or doubt. But this does not mean that the rebuilders in Jerusalem are to remain idle or passive. The core promise of restoration, the central image of what life in the new City of Peace will be like, is that “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”; or, in other words, the people will work, and that work will lead to fulfillment without frustration. The vision is that the people’s work and God’s work will work together for joy, delight, harmony, and peace. But the vision includes much more than simply the harmonization of human and divine processes: the natural order also will become an arena of fulfillment without frustration, ”a new heavens and a new earth,” characterized principally by the end of predatory relationships: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” so that both human and animal “shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” This vision moves the prophecy into the realm of eschatological hope, the promise of a new order of reality, in which the holy mountain will become a center of the Harmony of harmonies, the true community of Peace. Life in this new reality will be a complete synergy of divine and creaturely will: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear,” God promises. At the time the prophet writes, of course, that eschatological complete union of divine and creaturely work is not yet achieved; but the point of the prophecy is to encourage the present people of Jerusalem to work toward that union with courage and hope, strengthened by faith in the promise. We can take that same courage and hope today. Although present-day Jerusalem is far from being a City of Peace, and indeed no human community approaches the peaceable vision in which each feeds together with satisfaction for all — yet the promise calls us forward to work as we can for the justice and peace God wants for us. And the promise continues to be that the fulfillment of justice and peace is ultimately God’s work, not merely our own, as God takes our work and weaves it into the perfection of God’s responsiveness to the world, and from that weaving offers back into the world new possibilities for new works. The apocalyptic promise of a new heaven and a new earth is thus a call to us to keep on building here and now for the good that is yet to come.

Isaiah 12

This poem of praise continues in hymnic language the same vein of promise we saw in the passage above. Because God is our salvation, because God is our strength and might, and we do not rely merely on our own powers or plans, therefore we will “draw water from the wells of salvation” with joy. This song also stresses the element of joy in God’s glorious deeds and God’s new creative work. Many modern and postmodern interpreters might have difficulty linking the words apocalyptic and joy; but it is spiritually healthy for us to remember that our highest, deepest, and best reason for working for justice and peace is the sheer joy of right relationships in mutual well-being that is God’s overall and ultimate purpose for the universe.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The theme of work and eschaton recurs again in this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Thessalonika — although the apocalyptic dimension is part of the background of the passage, and not in the text itself. We know from the rest of the Thessalonian correspondence that the Christian community there was awaiting the imminent return of Christ and the day of Judgment; as we saw in last week’s reading, some of the Thessalonians were concerned that the Day of the Lord had already come; others feared for members of the community who had died before Christ returned to gather them to glory (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). They were very conscious of living in an interim time, which they expected would soon come to an end in final consummation. It seems that some members of the community took the expected end of the world as reason to withdraw from the world, as reason to discontinue their usual work and their contribution to the material well-being of the community. Thus in this passage Paul mentions “believers who are living in idleness… mere busybodies, not doing any work.” But this kind of behavior is “not according to the tradition they received” from Paul: Paul understood and modeled in his own ministry that the grace of God and the work of people must synergize to make a whole life. The expectation of an imminent end is no reason to stop working. So Paul “commands” the idlers to work and “earn their own living,” adding that they should not “be weary in doing what is right.” Although we today do not have the same expectations of an imminent End, it is still true for us that the tradition we have received calls us to work with God’s grace for the building of justice and peace in the material arrangements of our world. Work for mutual well-being is a way of living toward our ultimate hope as well.

Luke 21:5-19

This passage is just the beginning section of Luke’s version of the “Little Apocalypse,” and it contrasts to the Isaiah passage for today in its unrelenting picture of destructiveness. Jesus is teaching in the Temple precincts, and, as might be expected of Galilean tourist/pilgrims visiting Herod’s monumental Temple complex for the first time, his disciples are impressed by “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” In response, Jesus warns “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Threats against the Temple were a stock feature of apocalyptic prophecies, having grown from the real economic and political difficulties of reconstruction after the Exile, illustrated in Third Isaiah and Haggai and contemporary prophets, through the desecration of the Temple reflected in Daniel and giving rise to the Maccabean revolt, to the apocalyptic narratives popular in the first centuries BCE and CE, contemporary with Jesus. The disciples appear to recognize Jesus’ comment as a genre reference; instead of expressing shock or outrage at the image of the Temple’s destruction, they ask when it will be and what sign will warn of its impending occurrence. This sets the stage for Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in the remainder of the chapter. Jesus’ first warnings are of the breakdown of the structures of civility and social order: there will be wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines and plagues, arrests and persecutions and imprisonments for believers. But even the news of wars and insurrections should not terrify the disciples, because “these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” The dislocation and upheaval of social and even natural order is not in fact the End, but only the business-as-usual of this world, which leads eventually and inexorably to its end. Very often in the interpretation of apocalyptic teaching, the disruptions of nature and society leading up to the End are taken as  God’s punishments on a sinful world, much like the plagues brought down on Egypt prior to the Exodus. But Luke presents these stock images in a much different way. The suffering of the ending world is not caused by God’s punishment, but by the cumulative effects of broken relationships among people. It is helpful to see the Little Apocalypse gospel passage against the background of the Great Reversal teaching that permeates all of Luke’s gospel: the contrast here is between the order of right-relationships for mutual well-being desired by God, and the order of relationships oriented to self-serving and self-aggrandizement and self-securing characterizing the actual world. The latter order is inherently self-destructive, and as people and nations strive more and more for only their own good (or only their own perceived good), the whole suffers more and more dislocation and disruption. The wars and insurrections of which Jesus’ disciples will hear are not yet the end, because they are not God’s decisive action to reorient the world-process toward a different order of relationships.

            Instead, God’s action for the creative transformation of the world begins with Jesus and with his disciples. What Jesus brings is a way of relating that reflects and embodies God’s aims for justice and peace and love, for giving and receiving in generosity and grace that builds up right-relationships of mutual well-being. Because the disciples are called to realize that new order of relationships embodying Christly ideals in their actual lives, and their lives are lived in the world characterized by injustice and broken relationships, they will therefore inevitably be opposed by “kings and governments,” “arrests and persecutions,” and the order of power in the world as it is. While this opposition will be costly to the disciples, and against the powers of the world they will seem to be powerless, since they will not respond with violence as violence has been used against them, it will nevertheless provide them “an opportunity to testify” in which, by their faithfulness to Christly ideals, they can bear witness to God’s order over against worldly order. Jesus himself promises to empower them in bearing this witness, by giving them “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”; because the disciples replicate Jesus’ characterizing ideals in their own lives, the personal presence of Jesus is promised to be within them as well. The presence of Jesus with and in them is their own being taken up into Jesus’ resurrection life; sharing in Jesus’ life means that, even if they are persecuted and put to death, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.” By orienting their lives to the new order of relationships revealed and initiated by Jesus, the disciples become part of God’s work of creative transformation that re-orders the world to justice, peace, and love. This may not be apparent in the order of the world that is tearing itself apart in violence and broken relationships, but it will nonetheless be effective. Their effectiveness will become apparent in the real End, the End to which everything in this passage is but prelude, when “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory”: the Parousia of Jesus will be the vindication of the divine ideals by which he lived, and will establish the new order of Christly relationships as the preeminent order of reality.

Progressive and postmodern Christians often treat apocalyptic scripture as mythological and supernaturalist, and therefore as having dubious value for serious faith today, or as mainly about political and anti-imperial themes, downplaying its cosmological and ultimate claims. If we read this passage from Luke as contrasting two ways of ordering the world, two different orientations for relationship, we may see another kind of practical value in the apocalyptic imagery. At the end of Religion in the Making, Whitehead makes the intriguing observation that the universe is “passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” The passage of the world to “new creative conditions” through the emergence of a new “type of order” hints at the possibility of cosmological change, even a different kind of physical world, that is not merely mythological or literary-symbolic. It may be that Luke’s call to disciples to “testify” to Jesus in the midst of opposition from a violent world order is part of the emergence of new forms of relationship, guided by divine ideals, that will lead to new creative conditions for the actual world. If we accept it as such, then the purpose of the apocalyptic teaching is, as we’ve seen for the other passages above, first and foremost to call the faithful to act in the present moment for justice and peace. The promise of this apocalypse is that every act we take to fulfill divine aims for agape – even if that act seems pointless and powerless at the moment – does in fact contribute to the emergence of forms of relationship that will transform the world into the full manifestation of Christ. In orienting ourselves in hope to that End, we do actually and presently change the world.