Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon: "A Strange Sort of Hope", Isaiah 65:17-25/Luke 21:5-19 (November 17, 2019)


We’re coming up on a new year in just about a week. No, I didn’t misplace my calendar or accidentally recycle an old sermon at the wrong time. Our liturgical year is coming to an end next week with Christ the King Sunday. And just as with our secular celebration of the new year, it’s a good opportunity for us to look towards the future and imagine what it has in store for us. In the Church, this means engaging in a bit of friendly eschatology—or, in laymen’s terms, thinking about Christ’s return, when the present world will come to an end.

Now, hearing words like “end-times” or “eschatology” can bring on some serious panic for mainline protestants. It sounds like non-denominational, new-age Christian territory, the sort of topic that you’d find in that “Left Behind” series, not something that classical Presbyterians would be concerned with. I mean, we talk about the second coming of Christ, but that’s more of a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” kinda thing, right? Well, I’d argue that that’s exactly why we have the liturgical year, and why it has a beginning and an end: to remind us to actually pay attention to that bridge now, instead of avoiding it or pretending that it’s not there.

But then we run into a different problem. When we stop ignoring and start looking to find out what’s on the other side of that bridge, we begin to…imagine things. We know that Christ’s return is something we should be hoping for, so when we look across that bridge to the end-times, instead of seeing what we’re actually supposed to put our hope in, we see the sorts of things that we WANT hope to look like. We imagine that eschatological hope looks like prosperity and splendor, like the people talking about the temple in Luke 21. We imagine that hope looks like the assurance of our personal comfort and safety, like Isaiah 65 seems to imply when it talks about long lives. In other words, we blindly assume that the opposite side of the bridge looks like our own personal heaven. After all, that’s the greatest human hope, isn’t it?

But that’s not how God works. Christ won’t be returning as a genie to grant everyone their heart’s desire. This eschatological bridge isn’t a rainbow to our own private paradise. It’s the path to a new heaven and a new earth—God’s Kingdom—in which all of humanity is meant to dwell peaceably together. The wolf and the lamb won’t have separate heavenly enclosures; they’ll feed alongside one another on the very same mountain, both safe and both free. While most of our own hopes are limited by our personal desires, God’s hopes extend to all of creation, and involve perfect unity permeating the entire world. This strange concept is completely foreign to our individualistic ideology, yet it’s the reality of the divine will.

Since the Kingdom of God promises to defy our expectations, it stands to reason that the path from the present world to the world to come will also look different than we might have hoped. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells us that before we see the wolf and the lamb feeding together, we’ll see wars and rebellions. We’ll see nations and kingdoms fighting against one another. We’ll see earthquakes and food shortages and epidemics. We’ll experience harassment and betrayal. Seems like a strange way to usher in a new age of hope and peace, don’t you think?

The thing is, Jesus isn’t telling us to watch for these things as a signal of the end times because it’s something that God desires. God doesn’t have a sadistic side that wants humanity to suffer in order to “earn” a place in the Peaceable Kingdom. God isn’t an attention-seeker who craves drama for its own sake. No, these things are simply the inevitable by-products of a world turning upside down as it transforms into a world that perfectly reflects God’s will. Because of our own stubbornness, selfishness, and sinfulness, there’s simply no way for human society to turn on its head painlessly and easily. Our very nature ensures that our journey across the bridge to the new Kingdom will be a rough one.

This is part of the reason we don’t like to think about the end times, even though we know that God’s reign is a good thing. Somewhere in our heart of hearts, we know that the world as it is isn’t the world as God intends it to be. Although WE may be relatively comfortable and happy, there are so many of God’s beloved children who aren’t, and too often we contribute to that fact. Human beings can be truly terrible to one another. Wars, food shortages, harassment…all of it’s happening right now, as we speak, and it’s entirely, 100% humanity’s fault. Yours and mine. And all of it is the absolute antithesis of God’s vision for the world, a world where every person lives a full lifetime and no one ever works fruitlessly. Not just you or me or our loved ones, not just the ones who’ve earned it or deserve it—EVERY HUMAN BEING.

“The good news is that God rules the universe with faithfulness and love,” insists biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, “and the ecumenical, ecological, economic, social, and political implications of this message are profound.”[1] Part of the work of escatology, of figuring out how to get across the bridge to this new world, is considering more deeply the implications of God ruling the universe with ultimate faithfulness and love for all of creation. It doesn’t mean that everyone will be happy in the sense that everyone gets what they want—that’s impossible, anyway. It means that there’ll be a massive shuffling of how things are, of power dynamics and resources and circumstances, so that all of creation has what it needs to thrive. So we can expect a SERIOUS overhaul when Christ returns.

That’s a really uncomfortable prospect for many of us. Since the status quo is working out pretty okay for a lot of people (especially those with any kind of power), there’s GOING to be resistance to this change. On that day when we all arrive at the bridge and see what it takes to get to the other side…well, there’ll be open rebellion on many fronts. There’s no way around it. So our job as people of God is to prepare ourselves for what’s coming. We need to accept that the hope of Christ’s return won’t look the way we might want it to. And we need to accept that getting to the other side of that bridge—getting to the REAL hope that God offers—will involve sacrifice.

Honest eschatological work requires us to surrender our own personal hopes for the new world and work towards the hopes that God holds for us, regardless of what it will take to get there. We must give up our idea of God’s Kindgom as a personal reward and begin thinking of it as an opportunity to completely offer ourselves in service to God’s vision. Only then can we begin the difficult journey of crossing the bridge.

Parts of it will need to be repaired. Parts of it will need to be destroyed and rebuilt entirely. There will be people blocking the way, trying to protect the hope that they’d hoped for. We may even find ourselves looking for a different bridge, one that doesn’t challenge us as much or ask as much of us. But if we’re honest and faithful, we’ll realize that the path God has set before us, difficult as it may be, is the journey we must take.

The good news is that no matter what sort of fight humanity puts up, God will eventually triumph. Our faith tells us that the Kingdom of God is inevitable. The question is, how long and how fiercely will we resist its coming? How long will we insist on wars and rebellions, food shortages and epidemics, harassment and betrayal? How long before we trust the sort of hope that God offers instead of the sort of hope that we demand? How long before we let go of the evil that makes us comfortable to create space for the goodness that’s promised to all of creation? How long before we embrace what’s REALLY on the other side of that bridge?

Jesus assures us, “By holding fast, you will gain your lives.” By committing entirely to the future that we know God has planned, we will finally be able to live completely in a way we haven’t before. Not the lives that we hope for, but the lives that God promises to us. Not lives of wealth and comfort and power, but lives of fulfilment and peace and love. When we face the bridge and determine to get the other side, no matter the cost, we gain so much more than we leave behind.

But we need to begin the journey NOW. There’s no time to waste. No one knows for sure when Christ will return, and so we need to live as if the end-times were coming tomorrow. As if the struggle for the kingdom were already underway—because it is. Remember how I said we don’t like to consider eschatology because we’d rather cross that bridge when we come to it? The truth is, we live right at the edge of this bridge, all the time. God is already urging us to begin the journey, with all of its challenges and transformations and human conflicts. Because although the hope on the other side isn’t what we expect, it’s exactly what the world needs. And we have a role to play is getting there.

“Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” says the Lord. Anticipation of trials and tribulations may seem like a strange sort of hope to cling to, but only if we forget to trust God. God knows what God is doing. God is in complete control. We can rest assured that if God has promised us a new heaven and a new earth, then it’s a worthwhile cause to pursue. So instead of fighting for the status quo, let’s work towards a peaceable kingdom for everyone. It won’t be easy, but God will be with us through it all. We’re at the edge of the bridge, my friends—shall we cross it together? Amen.


[1] J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, 4:1073.

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