We are nearing the ending of the church year and we can sense that in our readings with themes of a coming new heaven and the over-turning of the broken world as we know it. (Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 28) Most of us can identify with a deep longing for a new creation, for the new Jerusalem, where there will be life as it should be. But many of us feel more familiar with the sense of dread and despair that the gospel reading, with its mysterious warning of the terrible events at the end of time, speaks to.
Whilst the detail of both those extremes are seen to be of God’s timing and doing there is much emphasis in the gospel and the epistle on how we are to participate and to work for the coming of the kingdom, how we have a part to play in choosing where we put our energy and hope.
One of the traditional understandings is chronological – a time line of activity by God to love us and our failure to get it: the Garden of Eden, the Fall, a series of salvation endeavours ever since the Flood, the escaped from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments etc, until the life and saving death and resurrection of Jesus.
Another understanding is that these same issues and options exist for each person and each community at all points of history. That in each moment there is the choice of the new Jerusalem or the desolation of end times. Heaven and hell are of our own making.
And a third position - my own – is that both ways of reading Scripture have truth. That there is an unfolding history of salvation – of the activity of God in the world and the dance of our participation – sometimes getting it and sometimes resisting God’s grace like mad. And these are stories which are deeply true of the struggle in each heart and mind and in each community in history. Although we each have different starting points due to where we are on the great arch of time and place in God’s creation we do each have choices in each moment of whether we participate in the bringing forth of the kingdom or in the destruction of life as we know it.
So let’s look a little more closely at what is happening in our gospel reading. If we had started our reading just a few verses earlier we would have heard the story of the widow who was so faithful and devoted to the temple that she gave her two small coins. Luke is in part comparing her righteous faith with the less than righteous leadership of the temple which Luke seems to see as being partly responsible for its destruction in 70 CE – remembering that Luke’s gospel got written down after the fall of the temple, he is writing with the influence of hindsight! Of all the gospel writers Luke seems to be the most fond of the temple and it is the location of many of the most significant moments in Jesus’ life. The prophecies over the baby Jesus take place in the temple, it is to the temple that the boy Jesus comes without his parents knowledge, and in the last day’s of his earthly life Luke has Jesus in the temple day after day teaching. Luke also describes the early church as meeting daily in the temple. For the hearers of Luke’s gospel the destruction of the temple had reverberated around their world and must have seemed to mark the end of the world. But two thousand years later we know it was the end of their world not the world. Luke uses the language of Daniel and Ezekiel – the doomsday prophets of his tradition. The point that Luke is making is that we should not be panicked by this. That we are to live out of God’s wisdom and the Spirit and not to anxious because of false prophets and messiahs. That there is something powerful about love, even when crucified. That God’s love is ultimately more powerful than disaster and destruction.
Maybe an illustration will help us. You may have heard the little story I am about to share. If so please enjoy it again. A spiritual seeker was struggling to understand the nature of heaven and hell. Their master took them on a guided walk of the imagination. Together they walked through the Forrest until they came to a clearing. There in the middle distance was a throng of people gathered around a banquet table. As they drew nearer they could see how beautifully dressed the people were, and how lavish the food. But something was wrong with the scene. The seeker realised that each person’s arms were immobilised as though they were being crucified so that try as they might they could not reach their own mouths. As the seeker got closer they could see how thin and angry the people were. In the presence of plenty they were starving to death.
The seeker and the master walked on and again came to a clearing in the Forrest. And again there were people gathered around a banquet table. Knowing what to look for the seeker noticed that they too had their arms stuck out on either side of them. But even from a distance the difference could be heard and seen. There was much laughter and the people dipped and swayed in a crazy graceful sort of dance. As the seeker came closer they saw that these people dipped to pick up a grape or a morsel of cake and swayed as they place it in their neighbour’s mouth. And then opened their mouths for their neighbour’s generous gift. There was much laughter as it became a game. In the presence of obstacles these people were happy and well fed.
We each individually and co-corporately have choices to make about how we respond to our times. God’s love, even crucified, is powerful enough to birth a new world now, right where we find ourselves.
Such trust in the power of God’s love and loving purposes will have hugely personal and corporate implications. In our personal lives we are called to be hopeful people in the face of destruction and desolation. Not people of denial but people able to see the current reality of our life and world and to be hopeful in God, so hopeful that we work without tiring toward the realisation of the new Jerusalem.
As nations we need to become able and prepared to admit our deep failures to be just and merciful to all and to claim our gifts and talents and commit them anew to establishing justice and mercy for all.
As a church we need to be able to honestly assess how late in the day it is for many of our congregations and traditions as number drop and we fail to have a prophetic voice in our community and we would be deeply hopeful and trusting and filled with desire and energy to work without growing weary for the coming of God’s reign.
And Paul encourages us not to tire of doing good, of working for the new order, the new Jerusalem. In the NRSV it reads “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” It is one of the times when I think we can reverse the order of words and hear “Brothers and sisters, do not let doing what is right make you weary.” I think we can do this because of what Paul says elsewhere. In the letter to the Romans chapter 5 verses 3 to 5 “we can also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been give to us.”
Working for the coming of the kingdom, for the establishment of heaven on earth, is demanding hard work. And yet it is the sort of work, undertaken with other like minded souls which can energise us and make us new and loving in the process. The very obstacles that make the work hard can also lead us to partake in a dance of grace – swooping and swaying as we feed one another and laugh at our own difficulties.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, come fill our hearts and minds with the yearning for a new world.