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Thursday, November 14, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures:  Isaiah 65:17-25 AND Isaiah 12:1-6 OR Malachi 4:1-2a AND Psalm 98:1-9, II Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Christian theology and its scriptures assume that history is going somewhere.  I suspect it’s more than just Christian theology.  We human beings live in anticipation.  Oh, there are days I would rather just pull the covers up over my head and hide from the world, but most days most of us would rather wake up expecting some surprise, or at least opportunity.  I believe we were created to live in anticipation.  We just lose sight of that gift at times.

The lectionary year begins in anticipation, waiting for the birth of the long-hoped-for one who will usher in a new era of justice and peace and hope.  The year ends with visions and promises of a time when all will be fulfilled.  We’ve hit that time.  There’s one more Sunday before we begin a new church year---beginning not with the first Sunday in January but with the first Sunday in December.

Our readings call on us to reflect upon what it is that we anticipate.  What are our visions and how will they come about?  Various biblical visions and narratives have given birth to a wide variety of views about the unfolding of history, leading to many denominational divisions.  Some denominations take their basic identity from one or another of those interpretations and expectations.

I don’t think God intended us to get it all figured out.  Jesus himself said, “ . . . about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36), and, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)  In fact, I believe God’s intent that we work together with the very Spirit of Life to dream and accomplish great purposes.

It all begins with a vision.  Will Rogers once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll probably hit it.”  (Read it again and think about it.)  If we are to get anywhere in this life, God would have us dream big.  Throughout history there have been those who have dreamed of and experimented with utopias.  Ironically, the word “utopia” means, in the Greek, “nowhere.”  It has come to mean “a perfect place.”  I suppose one would reconcile the two definitions by noting that a perfect place is no place to be found.  We need dreams of perfection, however, if we are to keep headed in the right direction.  In the 1960s there were those who experimented with various forms of communal living.  Some succeeded; some did not.  I know I learned a lot from, and was inspired and disappointed by, such efforts.

This week’s reading from Isaiah offers one version of God’s dream, God’s utopia. It describes “new heavens and a new earth.”  (Isaiah 65:17)  What follows is like the litany of promises that might be given by an idealistic political candidate.  No more weeping.  (vs. 19)  “No more shall there be . . . an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.”  (vs. 20)  People will live in the houses they build and eat the food they grow.  (vss. 21-22)  There are certainly people today who have a vision of a time when their property will not be swept away by occupiers.  “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity . . .”  (vs. 23)  How many parents long for a place where their children can grow up in safety and hope?  The prophet even transports us into a vision of peace among the animals.  (vs. 25)  Can it be that we might hope for a time when we view nature as part of the peace process?

How big is our vision?  How great is our anticipation?  This reading from Isaiah 65 is not a bad place to go when we are asking that question.  What challenges does it put before us?

Many of the biblical visions include scenes of judgment.  The reading from Malachi is no exception.  “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up . . .”  (Malachi 4:1)  There are those who seem to live in almost gleeful anticipation of the destruction of their enemies.  “Just wait.  They’ll get what’s coming to them.”  I, myself, cringe when I think about such vengeful destruction.  I once arrogantly declared that, if anyone went to hell, God’s love demanded that I go there and sit beside them surrounding them with love.  Human beings throughout history have struggled with evil and its consequences.  Doesn’t justice require some consequences for people who bring so much destruction and misery to life and its relationships?  No one I know of has found a fully satisfactory answer.  What’s your answer?  Any utopian vision I know of lives in anticipation of a life free from such forces.

It’s interesting that the reading from Malachi holds out the promise of one who comes “with healing in its wings.”  (vs. 2)  Healing has a lot more appeal to me than vengeance and destruction.  Maybe we are even to be part of the healing, people sitting beside those who are going through hell and surrounding them with love.

The reading from II Thessalonians might be seen as a manifesto for those who oppose welfare.  It decries idleness, even going so far as to suggest that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  (II Thessalonians 3:10)  While we cannot wish away the harshness of some of these verses, we need to consider the context.  The Christians in Thessalonica seemed to have been caught up in anticipating that Jesus would soon return and establish his reign of peace and justice.  Some went so far as to assume that all they needed to do was to sit around and wait for it to come.  Paul is urging them to get back to work.  God’s purposes are not going to be accomplished magically.  Anticipation should move us to work rather than wait passively.  The punch line for this reading is verse 13, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Even if utopias are nowhere to be found, keep on letting the vision of peace and justice be your guide.

There are a couple of other readings to mention before moving on to the difficult Gospel lesson.  Both are primarily about praise.  Their only connection with today’s topic is that God’s purposes and visions are something to sing praises about.  “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously . . .,” says Isaiah 12:5.  Psalm 98 is similar to another Psalm from recent weeks (149) in that it calls us to sing “a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  (Psalm 98:1)  In remembrance, and in anticipation, we sing songs of praise.

The Gospel lesson takes us again into questions about what to anticipate.  On this day Jesus speaks of a day when the temple will be destroyed.  (Luke 21:6)  His followers want to know when it will happen.  “What will be the sign that this is about to take place?”  (vs. 7)  He talks about wars and earthquakes and famines and plagues, etc. (vss. 9-11)  Notice, though, that he also says, “ . . . but the end will not follow immediately.”  (vs. 9)  He also warns against following those who think they know the timing of things.  (vs. 8)  Mainly, however, Jesus notes that those who stand up for God’s purposes will be persecuted.  (vs. 12)  My takeaway from the first part of this reading is that troubling times will be with us in all ages.  Utopian visions will not be popular.  Those who persist in such visions will meet opposition, but, the reading ends, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  (vs.  19)  It is a little like Paul’s instruction to keep on working.  Living in anticipation means finding and drawing upon the strength to endure.

Our enduring, in fact, is a testimony.  (See vss. 13-15)  The way we live in troubled times brings the vision into the present.  It becomes hope lived out---lived in anticipation.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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