Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Good morning. When I was in my first year of seminary, I reconnected with one of my fraternity brothers. He was raised Catholic, but I think he drifted away from church after college—as many of us did. But he drifted back into church when he and his wife had their first child. Like many other people.
I spoke with him on the phone right after his second child was born. I was on my way to class when we spoke. He asked me which class and I told him it was my New Testament class. He said he always like the New Testament better. He thought that God seemed too harsh in the Old Testament, too full of wrath and vengeance. He liked Jesus better.
I’ve heard this from other people. I think there’s a general perception that God is angry in the Old Testament and happy in the New Testament. Our readings this morning from Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke sort of turn that idea on its ear. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says to the people of Judah:
I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. (65:17-20)
Now that’s some happy, feel-good stuff! From the Old Testament. The passage concludes by saying: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.”
Then Jesus comes along and says the temple will come crashing down! He speaks of wars and insurrections, false prophets, earthquakes and famines! Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom—not to mention arrest and persecution. Fun stuff, huh? Especially for a baptism!
Honestly, these are both grace-filled texts. The grace is front and center in the reading from Isaiah, but it’s not as evident in our Gospel reading. That doesn’t mean we should stop looking.
Our reading from Isaiah relates to the same situation as last week’s reading from the prophet Haggai. In this passage, God is speaking to the exiles who are returning to Judah from their captivity in Babylon. God is telling them not to focus on what was lost, but on what could be: a new heaven and a new earth; a new Jerusalem. God is telling them to forget the splendor of Solomon’s temple and focus on the blessings that surround them and the blessings that are to come.
In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is speaking to the disciples. They’re in Jerusalem and it’s only a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Jesus knows his time is drawing to a close; he’s preparing the disciples for life and ministry without the human Jesus in the world. Jesus knows how difficult this is going to be for them.
Jesus doesn’t offer any easy answers. Jesus tells them that they won’t be able to count on the things or the people that have sustained them up to this point. The beautiful temple of Jerusalem will be destroyed. Friends and family will betray you. These were the people and the institutions of the status quo—the world as it was. Jesus brought a message that challenged the status quo, a new heaven and a new earth; the world as it ought to be, as God would have it. Jesus preached the kingdom of God and he called his disciples to follow him in the work of building the kingdom.
Of course, people were going to push back! Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to be afraid. Nor is he telling them to repent. No. Jesus is preparing them to do ministry without fear. This is the grace in this story. Jesus is saying, “Yes! There will be false prophets and betrayals; fear not.”
This is a consistent message throughout all of Scripture. The prophet Isaiah tells the people “do not fear” about sixteen or seventeen times. Jesus says it many times, including in this passage. This is the grace. And Jesus offers this message in a very interesting way. Jesus tells the disciples: “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
That really struck me. Think about how much time we spend preparing for fights or arguments. Am I wrong? Do any of you spend time preparing for arguments? If you know your boss wants to talk to you, do you start preparing for a fight? Even when you don’t know what your boss wants to talk about? Thanksgiving is coming up. Are any of you preparing for political debates at the dinner table? Or do you just have a vague sense of dread about the whole thing?
Jesus uses prophetic language to get the disciples’ attention. Prophets speak scary words. They use language that strikes our hearts and our fears to get our attention. They don’t tell us that things are going to get a little bit better if we turn back to God, or a little bit worse if we turn away for a time. Also, prophets use metaphors. Their words are to be taken seriously, but not always literally.
Jesus previews the conflict and destruction to get the disciples’ attention. And then he tells them not to be terrified. He tells them not to be anxious. He tells them not to prepare for all the arguments or tribulations. Jesus will give them the right words when the time comes. The inherent promise in this is that Jesus will give us the right words when we need them.
Sometimes, when we hear a challenging piece of Scripture, like this reading from Luke, we focus on the signs, rather than the grace. We spend our energy trying to decipher the hidden meanings, the signs and portents. We try to read the tea leaves. We want to figure out how much time we have left. And we spend time preparing for arguments and tribulations, even when Jesus tells us otherwise.
If we focus on the fear and the war, the destruction of the temple, or the signs and the portents, then we’re not busy looking for the grace. We’re not busy looking for the 30-somethings who are drifting back into church—and having their children baptized this morning. Nor are we looking for the 50- and 60-somethings who drifted away a long time ago.
The words and the wisdom that Jesus will give us come from the love that Jesus has for us. The words and the wisdom come from the love that we practice. This is the good news! This is the love that we practice here today as we baptize Logan and Lucas into God’s promises for humanity. We baptize them into the birth, the life, the work, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this sacrament, we promise to nurture them in this life of faith. We promise to be a community and model the love of God for them. We promise to build them up, so that they, too, can go out into the world and share that love with the world.
We don’t need to sugar-coat our message. Going to church isn’t magic. It won’t make you rich or skinny. Church won’t transform you overnight. You won’t meet people whose lives are perfect. We’re all a mess. In this place, we can admit that. In this place, we admit that we need God’s grace. These are words and wisdom that endure. These are the words and wisdom that we need to share with the world outside of our walls. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that our true identity is in Christ. Remember, too, that Jesus calls us to follow him into the dark and broken places. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!