TEXTS: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19
Then [Jesus] said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10-11)
Each year, towards the end of the liturgical cycle, the lectionary serves up texts that speak to us about the “end times.”
We all know about prophets of doom in our modern age that speak to us about “the end.” Some of them we laugh at: like the cartoons showing raggedly-dressed men with sandwich boards proclaiming “the end is near.” Some of them we worry about: like the scientists on TV who tell us that global warming will bring about—if not the end of our civilization—then, at least, massive chaos and widespread suffering.
Or maybe we worry about a killer asteroid. Or Vladimir Putin pushing his nuclear button. In any case, there’s no shortage of warnings about how soon the end may come.
In fact, from before the time of Jesus until this very day, predictions of the end of the world as we know it have come fast and furious. Christians, especially, seem to have embraced this kind of speculation. And yet, as our gospel text reminds us, Jesus said that—while we may know the season of the end—only God knows the actual time.
It could be pretty frightening stuff, but—for we sophisticated Christians, living some 2,000 years after the time when Jesus spoke of the end of the world—for us, it’s kind of difficult to really get worked up about prophecies like that. Whether it’s the prophecy of Isaiah—who describes the coming of the new heaven and new earth; or of Jesus—who describes the passing of the old heaven and the old earth—it’s hard to muster anything like genuine concern, isn’t it?
Yet there is an important message contained in all end-time prophecies—or at least, in those prophecies that are biblical in nature. We should pay attention to what Scripture tells us about the end—not just so we can be prepared for that horrendous ending, whenever it might occur—but to be prepared as well for the end-times in our own daily lives.
You know what I mean: those times when our personal and private worlds are shaken to the core; those times when the walls of the temples in our lives come tumbling down—the temples in which we place our confidence and our hope.
And it will certainly happen. Just as surely as the magnificent temple constructed by King Herod came crashing down 40 years after Jesus said that it would, so the temples in our lives—so most of those human things in which we trust—will also collapse. It happens over and over again throughout our lives.
Those of you who have gone through a divorce—you know what I mean. Those of you who have been bereaved—especially through the loss of a spouse or a child or a parent—you know what I mean. If you’ve ever suddenly found yourself unemployed, or without your health—you know what I mean.
The world as you have known it comes to an end. Those things, those people, those certainties you have relied upon—trusted in, believed in—are either gone, or they have turned against you.
Such times are tests of our faith. Such times are tests of our God. When the temples we have constructed in our lives collapse, we may be tempted to reach in desperation for anyone or anything that promises to bring us deliverance—whether it be the apricot pit cure for cancer down in Mexico; or the medium who promises to get us in touch with a departed loved one; or the latest huckster peddling a “get rich quick” scheme.
But this is a serious mistake! It’s a mistake that we heard Jesus warn us about in the gospel lesson. After he predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the people ask him: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
And Jesus answers: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”
Do not go after them! When our world is collapsing, the best thing we can do is stand fast and hold on tight to what we know is sure and true—to our God, the rock of our salvation, the rock which cannot move.
The truth is: God is for us! Even when we are wondering if our faith is sham—or worse, if our God is a sham; even when we are wondering if we are to blame for what has happened—or worse, that God is against us … even then, God is for us.
The collapse of our personal temples, and the wars and insurrections near and far, and the inquisition which others put us through when we have really blown it—or that we put ourselves through—all these things are to be expected. This is what will happen in the entire world before the new heaven and new earth arrive. And this is what happens within our lives, before the fullness of the new life transforms us.
Do not worry, Jesus says, about these times. Don’t spend a lot of time preparing grand defenses or clever strategies with which to confound your tormentors. No. Rather, trust God! Trust God to give you the answers you need, even when brothers and sisters turn against you.
Rely on God for the words and the wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. Rely on God to bring you safely through the times of testing and tribulation. Rely on the God who promises that not a hair of our heads will perish, but by our endurance, by our faith, we will gain our souls.
In short, when the world is collapsing, take no thought about how to save yourself. Rather, think about what is the right thing to do—minute by minute, day by day—knowing that when you are doing what is right; when you are being as loving as you can be and as honest as you know how; when you are putting your faith in God and being not afraid to testify to his good purpose; then you are serving as a light to lift the darkness that lies around us all. And your life will be saved in that light.
Mortality is all about us. A day of judgment comes to all things. And that judgment comes not simply to destroy, but also to make room for a new world, a world in which heaven and earth are united as one—a world of wholeness, of shalom.
Out of that divorce—when what is right is done as much as it can be—may come a new wholeness, in which family is made stronger. Out of that bereavement, or that illness, may come a new understanding of the meaning of life—a new way of living it with gratitude and thankfulness. Out of that layoff, out of that firing, can come a whole new course of life—one that’s full of hope, just as a new world is rising out of the ashes of the Jerusalem temple.
In the midst of all these things, we are called to bear witness—to testify to God as this world passes. We are called to prepare ourselves—and to help prepare others—for the new and better world which is coming. Even as the darkness of the old world deepens about us, Jesus reminds us that the night becomes darkest just before the new dawn.
“For 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 for ever 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.” (Isaiah 65:17-19)
Take heart, my friends! Our God will not only see us through our trials and tribulations, but will give us wisdom and strength and power to shine as guiding lights for others.
This is the good news we proclaim. Blessed be God, day by day. Amen.