Nov. 13, 2022
Isaiah 65:17-25 Luke 21:5-19
Predicting the future is always a bit precarious. -Most of the TV analysists have a tough time predicting the election results -even with all their polling ahead of time. They were wrong as much as they were right even in this last election. Of course, it doesn’t keep them from trying. Everyone would like to know the future and anyone who thinks they know the future and can tell it in a convincing fashion will always get a little press coverage.
Trying to tell the future has been a preoccupation of humans since we crawled out of caves. You can find palm readers and fortunetellers in every major city or tourist town even today. There were Greek oracles and fortunetellers in the time before Jesus and there has been in just about every other culture in history. The bible makes a point to warn against using soothsayers and fortunetellers. The biblical perspective is to simply trust in God and live one day at a time. Of course, the prophets themselves described both doom and hope they saw ahead at different times, and ultimately they foresaw God initiating an idealized world of peace, justice and tranquility. We got a bit of that imagery in our Isaiah passage today. It came out of Isaiah’s understanding of God’s caring for the world and especially the downtrodden and persecuted.
Today we have Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, -something Mathew & Mark also mention. Of course, all the gospels were written after the event had actually happened, during the war with Rome from 66 AD to 70 AD. Some suggest that Jesus might well have perceived that an impending war with Rome was coming without any divine input. There was, in fact, a restless undercurrent of opposition and resentment towards Roman occupation in a large segment of the population during his lifetime. And when you combine that reality with the religious fervor of expectation and belief that God was on their side the fuse was all but lit. The religious anticipation of God’s intervention in history that had built on the sayings of Isaiah and Jeremiah had been made more emphatic by books like Daniel and others written in the 200 years before Jesus. Also, by the time Jesus began his ministry the rebuilding of the temple was almost completed and that served to heighten those feelings that God’s time of intervention was near!
To what extent Jesus thought that his own ministry was a harbinger of God’s imminent involvement in bringing a new world order is still debated in New Testament studies. But it is clear that the earliest church, and in particular Paul’s preaching, interpreted the death and resurrection of Jesus as a clear sign that God was ready to initiate a new era.
Paul had been a Jewish biblical scholar and had no doubt not only studied the Old Testament prophets but had also studied the intertestamental writers who were so focused on God’s coming intervention. In the beginning of his ministry Paul thought Jesus’ return would happen in his lifetime and even suggested to the church at Corinth that it might be better not to get married. (see 1 Cor. 7) A few years later Paul would moderate his expectation as he realized that God’s timing of a New Age might be different than his own anxious hope.
But, as catholic scholar, John Dominic Crossan in his book, Historical Jesus, argues the war with Rome and destruction of the temple in 70 AD only served to again heighten the expectation and longing for Parousia, or Day of the Lord. By the time the gospels were written, all of the other predictions mentioned by Jesus here in Luke have in fact happened:
War, check – 66 -70AD
Earthquake, check, -even the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius burying Pompey (79 AD) would have seemed to be a harbinger of the earth changing and something big on the horizon.
Plague -check! -Libya, Syria and Egypt all experienced a plague in the first century. Many scholars think it may have been the first case of bubonic plague outbreak.
Famine – check -Paul had collected contributions for Christians back in Israel.
And the Harassment, Prison and Death for Jesus’ followers mentioned in today’s passage were sporadically part of the picture in the second half of the first century for Christians. So Luke quotes Jesus speaking of things that Christians had already experienced.
All of that added to both the longing and the expectation for God’s intervention coming soon. Truth be told these biblical images and dream-visions were from the outset the metaphorical, symbolic language of hope, not concrete historical data for the future. They were the poetic utterances intended to help us envision the world of God’s hope and to encourage us towards such a world.
America has always been the hot bed of popularized “end of the World” thinking in part because our democratic view of biblical interpretation that said just read it and take it on faith as a simple declarative statement has led to hundreds of opinions and a plethora of divisions of belief.
Methodist Bishop William Willimon, formerly Chaplain and professor at Duke U. in a little commentary on the end of the world prophesies says”
“Apocalyptic texts (that is texts that talk about God’s Revelation about the future) are thick with vivid imagery. Poetic metaphors are enlisted in order to talk about an ambiguous future. All of that makes the text difficult for us modern hearers. The modern world tends towards reductionism. We want to talk about tomorrow, but we want to do so in a way that is prosaic, simple, direct… The Christian hope is not a simple hope. It is born out of the conviction that whatever the future holds, God holds the future.”
Isaiah’s beautiful vision of a kingdom to come, full of peace, beauty and long life was spoken to a people facing untold hardship. They were returning to the rubble of a land destroyed by war. They had been in captivity some 70 years, Jerusalem and the first Temple lay in ruins. –Imagine returning to broken down houses, overgrown fields, a city with no defenses. It was a depressing scene and the future looked all uphill. –Some of the work would not be finished in the lifetime of those returning.
But Isaiah shares a vision with them that what they are working towards is not a hopeless, wasted dream but a part of God’s plan for the world. None of them saw it come true –but does that make Isaiah’s words any less true?
–I don’t think so. Isaiah simply gives a broader, longer picture than simple human historical perspective can conceive.
It is precisely the problem of fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish, or Moslem, that they take scriptural language and strip it from its historical and literary context and translate its poetry into simple absolutes.
It often does violence both to the biblical intent and to human life.
The eschatological images of Jesus and Isaiah are enunciations of that Divine Vision that comes in God’s time. It is that consummation of history that is God’s Shalom of creation. The Earthquakes, volcanoes, & wars, are visual symbols of the dramatic changes that must erupt in the world for it to be what God intends. It must be such a total makeover that only God could accomplish it.
This Thanksgiving season we give thanks, not just for how many things we have, but for family, for community, for the love that sustains us as well as that deep hope we have in a God who not only belongs to the saints and prophets of the past but who sustains human life now and in the future. –And we commit ourselves anew to the dreams of our forefathers and mothers to live closer to that kingdom ideal we pray for every Sunday.