Living faithfully to the end
A sermon at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, 17 November 2019.
Pentecost 23 C Isaiah 65:17-25, Song of Isaiah (Is,12), 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21: 5-19
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The future is in God’s hands and as we are nearing the end of our Church year – next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King – we begin to look toward the future with a glimpse of the final stages of God’s saving plan.
The part of the Book of Isaiah read this morning is from around the time of the restoration and rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. This was a message of hope in a time of crisis. In Isaiah 65: 17-19 we have a pictorial description of the new heavens and the new earth. They are eternal, and in them safety, peace and plenty will be available to all. There is a glorious picture with such a contrast between the glory of the new heaven and earth and the consequences of everyday life now on earth, that it would seem that everyone would want to be God’s follower. This is describing a place for a faith community where everyone can worship together, and no one is excluded There are no old ritual rules which must be followed before one can come. It is “come as you are” and no-one is excluded. Jerusalem, God’s holy Mountain is depicted as a city which is a religious centre and earthly and heavenly realms complement each other.
In other cultures when a deity took up residence in a temple it was felt that blessings radiated out from that temple and humans prospered, crops flourished, and humans and animals increased in numbers and all was good with the world.
A similar image is created in the pictorial description we have of the new heaven and the new earth. The second half of the reading from Isaiah (Verses 20 -25) may refer to the reign of Christ on earth because sin and death have not yet been finally destroyed and we are invited to consider how we view God’s holiness and how our experience of God’s holiness changes things for us.
We have a vision of no infant mortality, people living longer and an image of peace. Wild animals being domesticated, tame and eating straw, is a further image of God’s blessings from his holy mountain. This also is a vision of joy and rejoicing. Can we look beyond this idyllic place and see that God is working? He is continuing to create, to make things new. Poverty and disease will eventually disappear, and prosperity will not mean material wealth, but communal harmony and the new heaven and new earth can be compared to the Garden of Eden. How would we be, living in a perfect world where there was no poverty and illness and only peace and harmony? Would we be just as rebellious, foolish and reluctant to change as the ancient Israelites were? In reality, we are just as negligent in feeding the hungry, caring for creation, working for justice, and obeying God’s word. And we are just as negligent in attending worship and giving thanks to God.
In place of the psalm today we have one of Isaiah’s poems which is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving, and another graphic description of the people’s joy when Jesus Christ comes to reign over the earth. Even now can we express our gratitude to God, giving thanks and praise, and tell others about the wonderful way God sustains us and shows eternal love for us?
The temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ had quite a history. This was not Solomon’s temple – it had been destroyed by the Babylonians in the seventh century BC. This temple had been built by Ezra after the return from exile in the sixth century BC. Desecrated by the Seleucids in the second century BC, reconsecrated by the Maccabees soon afterward and enormously expanded by Herod the Great over a 46-year period. It was a beautiful, imposing structure with a significant history, but Jesus said that it would be destroyed. They were told the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. This happened in AD 70 when the Roman army burned Jerusalem and the great rectangular stones still lie on the ground at the base of the wall. This is the physical stuff, but is Jesus speaking metaphorically? The time given to Jesus hearers was vague, as even the timing for future events from the ancient prophets is vague. The important message from this reluctance to name the day is this: The future is in God’s hands and one should not worry about the details. To try and know these dates reveals a desire to take control of the future and we need to notice how in the Gospel Jesus warns his disciples not to heed people who think they know when ”the time is near”.
What God wants from us through the prophets seemingly vague words is to live fully and faithfully in our time, do our God given work and be committed to that. Knowing in faith that the future is in God’s hands should give us the confidence and the courage to face whatever comes including the challenges that our Diocesan restructure will bring.
It should give us the courage to have a good look at ourselves to see how faithful we are in worship, in providing for those in need, being inclusive, caring for creation, and working for justice. God is as present now as we start a new phase of community life together as he will be at the end of time, or in the final victory over evil.
This theology is shown clearly in Jesus instructions to his disciples about how to respond to changing situations. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” The warning not to prepare one’s defence in advance may be intended to alert us to the temptation to put self -preservation first which is a sign of fear. Can we be reassured to know that even when things seem impossible and we may even feel completely abandoned, the Holy Spirit will stay with us, protect us and give us the words we need. Rather, can we believe that what looks to be a hopeless situation, is instead a God given opportunity to bear witness fearlessly to the Gospel truth.
We cannot be seen to be doing nothing, our mission is clear in Matthew 28: 19-20. Jesus told the disciples:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
This means we need to gather in our neighbours, the people we socialise with, friends outside the church community and our own families and make disciples of all of them. Amen.