St Barnabas Norwich, VT
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Sermon by Burton Cooper
I am about to create new heavens and a new earth …
Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating …
No more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or the cry of distress.
These words, these so lovely words, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” words that speak to our deepest longing to escape from our unhappiness with the way things are: with our divisions, our antagonisms, our fears, our insecurities. These words, such old words, spoken by an Israelite prophet at the far end of the sixth century bce, as long ago as two thousand five hundred, these old words, spoken to a dispirited group of Israelites returning to their homeland from their fifty year exile in Babylon, finding their farmland in ruins, vineyards destroyed, their homes demolished, their beloved, beautiful Temple, the center of their religious life, a pile of rubble, these words, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth, no more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress,” how those Israelites must have longed for them to be true. If only words could move mountains, these words would surely do so, these heartfelt words of longing for a new world, one in which we all live in harmony with each other, a world without pain or distress, a world in which even the lion and lamb lie down peaceably by each other. That wished for new heaven and new earth, it did not come about in the sixth century before Christ. What did come about is those returning Israelites restoring their farmland, rebuilding their homes, reconstructing their Temple. Two hundred years later, in the fourth century bce, Alexander’s army came through Israel, putting her under Greek control, creating Greek cities throughout ancient Israelite lands; and as if that weren’t enough, in the first century bce, Roman armies came through, putting Israel under Roman control, where we find her when we open the New Testament. Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading about the destruction of that rebuilt Temple, points us forward to 66 AD, to the beginning of a massive, extensive, violent Jewish uprising that ended disastrously four bloody years later in 70 AD with the Roman annihilation of the Jewish rebels and the destruction of the Temple. A second rebellion, sixty years later, ended even more disastrously. This time Rome expelled all Jews from Jerusalem. With the end of Jewish life in Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple with its sacrificial rites and Jewish priesthood, the history of Israel as it had been since the time of David came to a close. Jews were now without a nation, without a Temple and without a priesthood; they were aliens in other lands and their religious life now centered around the local synagogue and the scripture-interpreting rabbis. Thus the history of Israel came to an end, and Judaism, and the history of the Jews, as we know it, began.
So, today, not back then but today, in 2016 America, where Donald Trump has just been elected President of the United States, when we think of all these disasters to those ancient Israelites, all these unnerving changes, all this destruction, what are we to make of them, not what Israel made of them at the time, but what do we make of them. Well, I will tell you what I make of them, which, for a start, is something like what Bonhoeffer made of the spiritual-cultural-historical situation in Western Christendom in the 1940’s when he said that we had entered a religionless age and that Christian faith must think itself anew in light of that cultural development. What he meant, for a start, is that faith is no longer a cultural given, as if it were a natural thing to believe, but that faith must be willed. He also meant that we must stop thinking of God within a supernatural framework as if God were a Being outside the world who either determines the goings-on in the world or has unlimited power to interfere in the events of the world, altering them to HIs liking. Think of that first line of this morning’s reading from the book of Isaiah: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” with its promise of ending distress and bringing long life to the people. It’s a wonderful thought, full of love, full of compassion for us poor humans, no one of whom escapes suffering in our life. I love those lines; sometimes in dark days I so wish their truth that they move me to tears. When we think of the terrible things we humans do to each other, surely we need a new earth. But, and what a “but” this is, please notice the supernaturalism in those lines, “I am about to create a new earth,” the assumption that God can at will break into the natural and historical order of things, and create a new order by fiat. The philosopher Whitehead has said that we have fashioned God in the image of an imperial ruler, a Caesar, that we have given God the attributes that belong to an absolute monarch, to an authoritarian ruler, and having done that we then wonder how could God have allowed those Babylonians to destroy the land of Israel and take its inhabitants into exile, how could God have allowed the Romans to destroy God’s own temple and send God’s own people into exile where for hundreds of years, on and off, they endured discrimination, expulsions, persecution and finally the holocaust. And that’s just the evils endured by the Jewish people. I’ll spare you a longer listing of evils endured by other peoples. Some conclude that all these evils are proof enough of God’s non-existence; but we need not so conclude. We need only conclude that there is a distinction between our ideas of God and the reality of God, that in some ways, not in all ways, and certainly not in the most important way of all, but in some ways, we have gotten the idea of God wrong. As Whitehead said, we have fashioned God in the image of a Caesar.
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple. It signals the end of the way things are, and it opens the future with its multitude of possibilities, its unknowns. We live in history and if we live long enough we will see the end of the way things are, and we will know the future as truly open --- which can sometimes be exciting and sometimes be scary. I’m sure we all know that. It’s traditional to read into Jesus’ words God’s willing or allowing that destruction, but that would simply be our reading into those words our assumptions about God’s supernatural powers. Of course, there are many passages in both Old and New Testament that make those very assumptions. The words “Almighty King” is a commonly used expression for God, particularly in the Old Testament, though not on Jesus’ lips, for Jesus’ most common word for God is Father, a family metaphor, emphasizing intimacy, not King, a monarchial metaphor, emphasizing distance and power. As some of you know, I worry about that Father metaphor because it can suggest maleness as more appropriate to God than femaleness, something that cannot be true because God is not gendered, but I’ll let that go for now and talk about what’s right about that metaphor. It lifts up tender images of God: God as merciful, as love, as patient, as compassionate, as forgiving, as with us, for us, as an understanding companion, as one who draws us to goodness. I’m sure we’re all aware that scripture contains rougher images of God, even in the gospels, but for Jesus, as also in some of the prophets, the tender ones are dominant, envisioning a God who asks us to forgive as we are forgiven, a vision of love, love that neither rules nor is unmoved, for love allows us our freedom, and love suffers with our suffering.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, you don’t need me to tell you that we live in unstable times, when so many of the ways things were are coming to an end, and some of the possibilities ahead look very dark. Some put their hope in human ingenuity alone, that somehow we will figure out how to settle things down. That seems like a slim reed given our proneness to violence, short sightedness, fear of the other. Even so, we live in hope, for to have faith in God and Christ gives us reason to live in hope, for our faith is that life is grounded in God, and therefore that life is valuable, purposeful, so that it’s no wonder that we feel value, purpose, meaning in life; for God works in us, in all of us, unseen but felt, not as some supernatural intervener, but immanently as our companion whose presence we know when we sense an urge to goodness in ourselves, when we feel ourselves drawn to others in compassion and understanding, when even though dispirited by the way things are turning out, looking so destructive, we still feel a call forward, which we confess as God calling us forward, to head off destruction, to work for a just social order, to lead us to life, full life, rich, creative life, always towards that ideal of brotherhood and sisterhood with all; and when we sense ourselves answering that call, when we feel that sense of renewal, of new being, dare I say a sense of salvation, that comes from answering that call forward, do we not say, “Not me, O Lord, not me, but Christ in me answering that call forward.”
Thanks be to God for that.
Thanks be to Christ.