We have two different end time visions here – one in Isaiah and the other in Luke. Before I preach these texts, before I draw spiritual truths from them, I need to say a word about them, particularly the text in Luke 21. First, when the biblical writers talk about the last days of the end-time, the end they are talking about is not the end of everything; they are not talking about the end of the earth. They are talking about the end of the present age, which they believed would usher in a new age, an age of healing and renewal, an age of peace and justice, not somewhere else, but on this earth. So the end is not the end of the earth, but the end of this present age, and the beginning of a new age on this earth. Thus the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Second, the text in Luke 21 is extremely difficult to interpret from a historical perspective, and biblical scholarship is divided on it. As I have said many times before, Gospel stories are not historical reports, they are proclamations, and in many passages we don’t know what actually goes back to Jesus, or what originated with his disciples who read their interpretations and understandings back into the stories. This is literature of faith, not history.
So here is the problem with Luke 21. There is one group of scholars who argue that the historical Jesus believed the end of the present age and the beginning of the new age was upon them. So most of the sayings here in Luke 21 (and in the parallel texts of Mark 13 and Matt. 24) they argue go back to Jesus. Jesus, they say, was simply wrong about the timing of the new age. Another group of scholars argue that most of these sayings in Luke 21 and the parallel texts do not go back to Jesus at all. They argue that these teachings were the teachings of Jesus’ early followers, who believed, in light of God raising Jesus from the dead, that the end time was upon them. These scholars present the case that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, but a prophet more like the classical Hebrew prophets.
Now, why do I point this out? I point this out simply bbecause I think it is important for you understand what the scholars are saying and to understand a little something about the difficulties historical scholars face in determining in the Gospels what actually goes back to Jesus and what was read back into the stories and teachings of Jesus by his early followers. It’s a real challenge for Jesus historians.
Okay, having said that, in my opinion, none of what the historical scholars say about this text actually makes a whole lot of difference when we read this text for spiritual truth. And the spiritual truth that I glean from Luke 21 is this: Tribulation naturally precedes renewal and that seems to be universal. It’s like what I talked about last week. Spiritual growth, the path we follow to moral and spiritual transformation always involves some necessary suffering and regression. It’s always three steps forward and two steps back. Sometime four steps back.
This text in Luke 21 tells us what we can expect in route to real transformation and renewal. There will be lots of false promises and deceptions and we don’t have to do any fact checking to know that. Hence the warning: “Beware that you not be led astray.” There will be wars and insurrections. There will be conflicts and violence as kingdoms rise against kingdoms. This is true of nations, it is true of political, social, and religious groups, and it is true of individuals. There will be natural calamities and disasters, because our earth is evolving too. And we inflict some of this on ourselves. We now know that our manipulation of our earth’s resources is having long term affects on the planet. Scientists tell us that humans are the primary cause of climate change. This text warns that people of faith can expect opposition and persecution. People of faith become an easy scapegoat for people’s angst and anger. But you know, sisters and brothers, the really sad thing is that so often, at least in American culture, it is one people of faith persecuting another people of faith. Which is religion gone bad. I have personally found many secular, nonreligious people more accepting and welcoming to me, than many Christian people who want to impose their brand of Christianity on me and the rest of us. Now, all of these things – deception, conflict and violence, natural calamities, persecution – none of this should come as a surprise. They are the birth pangs that lead to the arrival of a new era of justice and peace.
What this text teaches us, I believe, is this: Tribulation precedes jubilation. Suffering goes part and parcel along with our moral and spiritual development. We move from stages of immaturity to maturity, often through periods of great challenge and trial. This is true for individuals and it is true for larger communities. What this says to us is: Don’t lose hope. Don’t give in to despair. Deception, opposition, suffering, disaster, conflict and violence are realities we have to live through to get to a new and better place. The text says that those who endure will gain their souls. That is, those who maintain integrity, those who go not give in to despair, those who fight the good fight against cynicism and egotism and negativism will find healing and hope and become better rather than bitter. They will become grace-filled and grateful persons and communities.
And that brings us to Isaiah 65 where the prophet envisions a new earth and a new heaven. It’s beautiful and powerful poetry. The vision of course emerges out of Hebrew religious thought and faith so naturally there would be reference to Jerusalem as the symbol for all the great cities or kingdoms of the earth. It’s a vision of stability and peace. All premature loss of life though sickness or violence is banished. There is health and longevity of life. All inhabitants have not just enough to survive, but enough to thrive. Hate and harm and injustice are wiped away. And these blessings extend to all creation, because all life is sacred: “The wolf and lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . and they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The mountain on which Jerusalem stands is the symbol here for all mountains, all cities, all kingdoms, and all peoples.
This is the vision we must claim and lean into and not give up on no matter how bad things get. We have been warned. Bad things will happen. There will be many setbacks along the path to a new heaven and new earth. But it is promised. It is the goal for which we seek. And so we pray and work to that end. We work for peace. We work for justice. And we never give up.
I believe this is an inclusive vision. It includes everyone. It’s not restricted to just those who believe certain things and are members of a certain group. It’s a vision that includes all God’s children – me, you, your friends, your enemies, everyone. This is what Richard Rohr is referencing in the quote I included in your worship bulletin. Rohr goes on to say, “If your notion of heaven is based on exclusion of anybody else, then it is by definition not heaven. The more you exclude, the more hellish and lonely your existence always is. How could anyone enjoy the “perfect happiness” of any heaven if she knew her loved ones were not there, or were being tortured for all eternity! It would be impossible.” Rohr says, “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God.”
Of course, no one will be in heaven (that is, where God is) who doesn’t want to be. We do have to choose to be there. And that means we have to choose to love, because love is the one and certain law in God’s kingdom that everyone abides by. In fact, as one prophet envisions, it will be so embedded in us that it will be written on our hearts and minds. My belief is, my hope is, that in time, all persons will eventually choose to be part of a new heaven and new earth. My hope is that in time everyone will repent of their egotism and injustice, and choose to love their neighbor as themselves. My hope is that there will be no holdouts. That’s what I believe. You don’t have to believe that if you don’t want to. But I believe it. And that gives me hope. And it challenges me to find ways to love my enemies, to love the people I dislike very much, because they are my sisters and brothers in God’s family.
In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, you will remember, is a scheming, pitiful, deformed little creature obsessed with possessing the ring. He wasn’t always like that. It was his possession of the ring that led to his life diminishment. And still he wants it back. The ring of power ends up possessing those who possess it. It eventually destroys them. Isn’t this how all destructive addictions work? We think we can’t live without them and they consume and destroy us.
Sam and Frodo find themselves traveling in circles lost in the Misty Mountains as they make their way to the Mountain of Doom where Frodo intends on destroying the ring. Here they encounter Gollum, who agrees to help them. All the while Gollum secretly plots to steal the ring back. Gollum might well represent the person you most despise, the person you most dislike. Sam despises Gollum and is harsh and demeaning towards him. Finally Frodo confronts Sam. “Why do you do that—call him names and run him down all the time?” Sam responds, “Because that’s what he is, Mr. Frodo. There’s naught left in him but lies and deceit. It’s the ring he wants. It’s all he cares about.” Gollum is the ultimate narcissist. Looking sadly at Gollum, Frodo says, “You have no idea what it did to him. I have to help him, Sam.” Frodo understands the destructive power and influence of the ring. Sam asks, “Why?” Frodo replies, “Because I have to believe he can come back.”
That’s powerful stuff, friends. I have to believe he can come back. I have to believe that no one is so lost, that no one is so gone, so evil, that he or she cannot be healed and liberated. I have already talked about necessary suffering. Everyone has their own purgatory to live through. It’s different for all of us. But we all have to live through the labor pangs to get to the new person, the new reality, the new vision. However, it is one’s decision to love that ultimately makes all the difference. The whole point of the birth pangs is to get us to the place where we choose to love, we choose to forgive and pursue life. When I invite people to choose Christ what am I really inviting them to do is choose love. That’s what all healthy religion leads to.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Hurricane, which is the story of professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington. At the height of his boxing career in the 1960’s Carter is falsely accused of murder by a racist police force and sentenced to prison for the remainder of his natural life.
While Carter is in prison, Lesra, a young black boy who has read Carter’s autobiography befriends him. As the friendship deepens the boy introduces Carter to some of his adult friends who become convinced of Carter’s innocence and who make a substantial commitment to helping him as his amateur lawyers and detectives. After twenty years in prison he is granted a new trial. As they await the verdict Carter and Lesra share their thoughts. Carter says, “We’ve come a long way, huh, little brother?” Lesra nods and says, “Rubin, I just want you to know that if this doesn’t work, I’m bustin’ you outta here.” “You are?” says Carter. Lesra retorts, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ you outta here.”
After a moment of silence Carter suggests that they were not brought together by chance. He says, “Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.” Lesra says, “Just in case love doesn’t, I’m gonna bust you outta here.” Carter laughs. He reaches out to touch Lesra’s face and wipe away a tear. Clenching Lexra’s hand he says, “You already have, Lesra.” That is the gospel. It is the power of love to heal and liberate and transform. As Christians we discover that through Jesus. Others may discover it through other ways. But anyone who finds authentic salvation, anyone who discovers real healing and liberation and transformation chooses to love. That’s the key.
The only thing that frees us of hell, the only thing that liberates us from the hate and prejudice and selfishness that keeps us in our private little hells is love. Love embodied in human touch, love embodied in human kindness, acceptance, and welcome, love incarnated in self-giving and sacrifice is what sets us free.
And as we join together eating this bread and drinking the cup we remember and celebrate and commit ourselves to love of neighbor, which love Jesus modeled and exemplified time and time again, a love that led to his cruel death by the forces of hate and religious and political injustice. So let us remember Jesus and commit ourselves once again to live by his teachings and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.