The Adventurous Lectionary – November 13, 2022 – Pentecost 23
Isaiah 65:17-25, Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Today’s readings join joy and novelty with admonition and concern. We dream of a new creation, and yet still must deal with sin on the individual and social basis. Isaiah presents a utopian vision, a new world brought about through divine providence; the Psalmist is taking a victory lap, praising God for God’s providential care; Thessalonians counsels faith accompanied by works and a commitment to moral and useful living; and the Gospel tells us to prepare for trouble and know that endurance will bring God’s blessing. The interplay of hope and pain is at the heart of reality and shapes our personal and political lives.
Isaiah boldly proclaims that God is creating new heavens and a new earth. Something new and amazing is on the horizon and we are part of it! God is not just a “fixer upper” but is injecting something novel into the cultural, political, and economic life the nation. There have been hard times for the nation – political upheaval and collapse, economic uncertainty and starvation. Many have given up hope for a positive future for their nation or personal lives. Indeed, the nation may already have collapsed and the upper classes exiled to Babylon, when this passage from Isaiah was written. Still, there is hope. Hope that comes not from our efforts, but from the persuasive power of God’s vision of the future. God is creating new possibilities and the energy to achieve them even in dire situations. And, so we can dream in the midst of the struggle of a better and more just world. Perhaps, Isaiah’s Jerusalem can be compared to the Ukraine or other nations experiencing upheaval, decimated, impoverished, war-torn, and yet with a glimmer of hope for justice, peace, and restoration to new life. This is the painful reality in our own land, when Christianity has become a force of incivility, violence, and dishonesty in the social and political realms.
The hoped-for transformation invites us to be agents of that for which we hope. We need to claim the future and by our lives become citizens of a new future. Isaiah gives us our marching orders toward a positive future. God is at work in the world, and God needs our creative companionship. We need to be on God’s side, not be seduced by the limited visions of nationalism, ethnocentrism, or economic security. We need to dream and then act toward the world God imagines, a world almost impossible to visualize but our only hope for the future: long life, security, happy homes, fruitful vineyards and gardens, laughing children, and peace among opponents. But, more importantly, peoples’ hearts will return to God, enabling God to speak within them. They will experience the divine vision for humankind and Jerusalem and will respond affirmatively, fulfilling their role as God’s companions in healing the earth.
Malachi speaks of a day when the evil doers will be defeated and the faithful experience personal and political healing. While we may not wish for a divine elimination of those we oppose, we realize that if the planet and our democracy is to survive, the moral arc of history must triumph over those who wreak violence and injustice. We must confront injustice, while hoping for the redemption of those who perpetrate injustice. (For more on joining love and justice-seeking see Bruce Epperly, “Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism,” published by Friends United Press)
Psalm 98 continues the theme. Sing joyfully, praise gratefully, for God has done great things in our world. In God’s new world, ordinary activities become windows to the divine.
The reading from 2 Thessalonians can be captured by the words, “don’t be weary in doing what is right.” The author commends the community to work diligently, challenging idleness inspired by what I believe was the first-century hope for the Second Coming of Jesus. Even if history is in God’s hands and God will win the day, our job is to be agents of salvation right now, doing God’s word in the interim. We are the hands and feet, and heart of God. In the 21st century, we still deal with idleness, but of a more far-ranging and destructive sort. Much of the opposition to the evidence and subsequent response to the threat of global climate change comes from conservative and apocalyptic Christians. Cynical interpretations would suggest that their opposition is the result of the marriage of Christianity to capitalism and our faith’s capitulation to greed rather God. Here idleness relates to lazy thinking, embrace of unproven conspiracy theories, and unstudied science denial.
A theological interpretation of these passages would suggest people are passive because of their images of God’s role in creating the future: if God is going to settle everything, and that if world history is entirely in God’s control, there is no reason for us to take initiative in healing the world. Our fate is already decided. Such theologies suggest that destruction will come from God’s hands and not our own. Our efforts to save the planet reflect our hubris at claiming that we can make a difference in the already-settled future.
Thessalonians takes another path. To trust the future to God challenges us to work toward that future. Despite the hints of divine intervention in Thessalonians, the author challenges us to work diligently, seeking wholeness in every aspect of our lives. Today, this includes the economic and ecological. Do not weary in doing what is right and this means working to save our planet. God will not do everything for us. The fate of the earth may be in our hands, rather than God’s, and God may need us to incarnate God’s vision of a new earth. You can be God’s companion in healing the world.
Jesus’ words seem contrary to those of Isaiah. Jesus talks about persecution and chaos, not rejoicing and fruitfulness. Jesus suggests that all things must pass and that all things are finite and mortal, including our nation’s future. All nations are finite, fallible, and will eventually pass, as will the earth. Still, we must persevere though the path be difficult. We must work for justice, following God’s way even if there is a cost.
Earth is in the balance and Jesus’ words describe a godless future scenario, the world that will emerge if we don’t care for the earth and one another. He also describes what we may face if we choose to follow the paths of righteousness and earth care in a consumerist time. Short-sighted leaders will condemn those who suggest that we must live more simply, take the lead as nation in downward mobility, and changing our economic and business structures to be more sustainable. God will, nevertheless, give us wisdom amid the fray. God will guide us so that we will be faithful and true to God’s way, recognizing our limitations as we seek God’s new creation, despite the challenges that confront us.
God has given us a vision of a new creation – a new heavens and a new earth and the whole earth filled with God’s glory. A theology of glory which affirms the earth is the revelation of God and invites us to accept the grace of small things and the incarnation in birth as well as death. Today, we must ask: will we choose the path that leads to healing the earth or will we continue our destructive ways – politically, economically, and ecologically? Will our actions lead to joy or sorrow?
The future is open. God cannot – or will not – heal the world without our partnership. We must reclaim, with Teresa of Avila, our vocation as the hands, feet, heart, and protest of God.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, and FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION. His latest book is THE PROPHETIC AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. He can be reached for seminars and talks at firstname.lastname@example.org.