Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 33C), November 13th, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12:2-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I have a book called the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse. It has two chapters giving a timeline of every time a large number of people thought the world was about to end, from 2,000 BC to 2005, when the book was published. The first chapter—2,000 BC to 1900—is eighteen pages long. The second chapter, covering only the last hundred years, is thirty pages long. We are obsessed with the end times: how is it coming, when is it coming, and what should we do to make sure we come through it. And yet, you will note that we are still here. Every time we humans have thought surely, the end must be nigh, we have been wrong. This world will end one day—and be replaced by God’s kingdom—but we are terrible at predicting it. The disciples wanted to know when it would happen, too; but the closest Jesus ever came to a direct answer was in Mark 13, when he said he didn’t know. He was a lot more concerned about teaching us how to face difficult times.
“Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” the disciples asked. When is the world going to end? Let us know, so that we can prepare! And Jesus was very insistent that we needed to be prepared, that we needed to be waiting; but he didn’t tell us what the signs were that we should be looking for.
I think the reason Jesus didn’t tell us the specific signs was that if we knew them, we’d be paying too much attention to the signs themselves and not enough to how we’re supposed to be waiting. Let me give you an example. In the days of Paul, a decade or two after Jesus died and rose again, people were sure that Jesus was going to come back within their lifetimes. They were sure that the end of this world and the beginning of the kingdom of God was just right around the corner. You know what some of them did? They quit their jobs, spent all day every day praying and waiting passively for Jesus to show up, and they expected the rest of the community to support them while they waited. And waited. And waited. This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Thessalonians: yes, Jesus Christ is coming back, and yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and yes, we are supposed to wait faithfully for him. But you know what? We’re all waiting. While we wait, there is work to be done. Nobody gets to say “well, I’m waiting for Jesus, so I’m just going to sit around all day waiting—the community can pay for everything I need in the meantime.” Everyone is waiting for Jesus, and nobody gets to use that as a reason to expect other people to pay their way. This was not a case of people being disabled and not able to work, or willing to work and not able to find jobs; this was a case of people not thinking they had to work because Jesus was coming back soon.
And those early Christians were not alone. Every time people think the world is going to end soon, they do things like this: quit their jobs, sell their stuff, and go out to a mountain or a field somewhere to wait for the second coming. People have done it twice that I know of in the last decade! And each time, of course, they were wrong about the date, and then they had to figure out how start over again. Dropping everything to wait is obviously not the answer. Which is why, when Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, was asked if Jesus was coming back soon and what they should do to prepare, answered this way. “If I knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow,” he said, “I would plant a tree today.” In other words, go on with your lives, living faithfully as Jesus taught us. That’s how we’re supposed to respond to troubled times; that’s how we’re supposed to deal with the knowledge that the world will eventually end. Trust in God, and live your life faithfully.
If you find that hard, if you think “there has to be more to it than that!”, let’s remember what we know about God’s kingdom. Isaiah describes it like this: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
In God’s kingdom, there is still work to be done. In God’s kingdom, there are houses to be built and gardens and farms and vineyards to be tended. Except better. No need to worry about rent or mortgages or foreclosure; no need to worry about crops failing or hail or bad prices or any other problem. No need to worry about failure at all. Good communities, where people love and support one another, where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place and everyone has joy, and everyone has work to do that suits them. No violence, no destruction, no calamity, no cheating, no fear, no anger—because no fear or anger is needed. Only love, and joy.
And while we wait for God’s kingdom, we are called to work. No passive waiting for us; the waiting of a Christian is active waiting. It’s like waiting for Christmas. We don’t just sit around, November and December; we get busy. We bake cookies, sing carols, decorate. We serve our neighbor. We wait for Christmas by doing things, and in just the same way, we are called to wait for God’s kingdom by doing things. To work for that world described in Isaiah’s vision. We can’t create God’s kingdom ourselves, but we can make little pieces of our world a little bit more like it. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, so we work to feed those who are hungry. In God’s kingdom, everything is full of love and joy, so we work to spread love and joy. In God’s kingdom, there is work for all and all enjoy the benefits of their labors, and so we work towards the goal of just and good employment for everyone who can work. In God’s kingdom, there is peace, and so we work for peace. In God’s kingdom, all are healed, and so we work to heal those we can and support those we can’t. We are called to act with justice and mercy. We are called to love God and our neighbor. We can’t fix everything that is broken and wrong in this world, but we can make things better, bit by bit.
That is counter-cultural. You see, working to make the world more like God’s kingdom, is working to make the world a better place. It’s working to change the world. And the world doesn’t want to be changed. Change is scary. Change upsets the applecart. Change means that people who are comfortable with the way things are become uncomfortable, and change means that the people in power might not be powerful any longer. And so the world tries to prevent change. The world wants us to be apathetic. The world wants us to not even notice the injustices in the world, the pain and hurt we cause each other. The world wants us to think that hurting people is normal, that pain is just the way things are, that there are winners and losers and that nothing we do matters. If we don’t notice or care, we certainly won’t bother to do the hard work of waiting for God’s kingdom.
And if the world can’t make us apathetic, well, the next best thing is if we’re frightened and angry. Because when we get scared, we tend to stop looking outside of ourselves. We focus on ourselves, instead of on the plight of our neighbors. And worse, instead of waiting and listening for God we chase after anyone who claims they can protect us. We get angry, and we see people as threats instead of as fellow children of God. It’s no wonder that when the disciples asked for signs of the end times, Jesus responded by telling them not to be led astray and not to fear. Fear gets in the way of active waiting. Fear gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbor; we can’t love, if we’re afraid. We can’t think if we’re afraid. And we are called to love God, to love our neighbor, and to put that love into action. That’s what the life of a Christian is; that’s what waiting for God’s kingdom is like.
There is destruction in this world. There is confusion, and pain, and chaos. There is evil. But we hope and trust in a God who will take care of us even if this world kills us. We hope and trust in a God who is creating a kingdom where there is no longer any death, or pain, or destruction, or evil, or fear, or hate. Only love and joy. That kingdom isn’t here yet, but it is coming. May we trust in God, and wait actively for it.