Prophetic puzzles, prophetic hope

A sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

Here we are, on the brink of the change of the season.  I don’t mean that Christmas is coming. I mean we stand on the threshold of Advent.

While retailers have already decorated their stores with trees and lights, we who follow the liturgical calendar must first go through Advent. Before we can hang the greens or lay a baby Jesus in the manger, we must spend a brief season in anticipation.

In two weeks, Advent begins.  Advent was not meant to be a time for just opening calendars and getting your Christmas cards in the mail early. And as I said last week, the lessons during Advent prepare us for the coming of Jesus as God incarnate, the babe lying in a manger, but they also are meant to prepare us for the second coming of Christ as conqueror, come to put an end to the reign of evil, sin and death.

The readings this week are prophetic as well, preparing us, as it were, for Advent. But our lessons are a decidedly “mixed bag” of prophecy.  Isaiah’s images of a restored creation give us hope, while Jesus’ words of coming persecution may fill us with dread. But prophecy is like that. Prophecy is full of good news and bad news.

Let us consider just briefly the phenomenon of prophetic writing itself. Sometimes it is helpful to define something more by what it is not than by what we think it may be. In the case of prophecy, there are many misconceptions. First and foremost, prophecy isn’t the same as fortune-telling. Historically many have used the prophetic writings of Scripture much like others often use the works of Nostradamus – as a peremptory glimpse into the future. Charles Scofield, among others, set up a calendar of end-time events, hence the creation of the term Rapture and the “Left-Behind” series and the rise of groups obsessed with figuring out the future, based on Scripture.

End of the world movements usually are born around major time events, such as the turning of centuries and the millennial cusps – who can forget Y2K. Of course now we have December 21st 2012 as another date of doom, and in case you haven’t seen the billboards, yet another group has moved the date up quite a bit. Now, apparently, May 21st of next year has been proclaimed “Judgment Day,” soon to be followed by “The End of the World” on October 21st. If you’d like the website, let me know.

Cataclysmic events, whether natural, such as earthquakes and droughts, or man-made, such as war, set the prophetic oracles buzzing. Immediately after 9/11 the rise in prophetic, “end-time” chatter reached a fevered pitch, especially among American fundamentalists. Some Christian leaders crowed that Armageddon was surely upon us, and they pointed to the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof. It amazes me how people will blindly follow prophetic utterances, but this is hardly anything new. Both Napoleon and Hitler were thought to be the Antichrist in their own day.

Prophecy as it is presented in Scripture was not intended as a forecast of future events in detail. There are many layers to prophecy. Some prophetic writings seem to predict events that would actually happen in the lifetime of the original audience. Other prophecy seems to point to the birth of the Messiah. Still other writings seem cast to the “end-times” or the return of the Christ.  All three of these future-time categories often exist side-by-side in prophetic writings, making it almost impossible to tell which future time the writers were referring to. Which I think is the point.

Neither Isaiah nor Jesus nor any of the prophets gave a time-frame or put an expiration date on their prophecy. From “behold a virgin shall conceive” to“you will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” prophecy would seem to be a bit of a jumble.  Of course, it is only in hindsight that we claim prophecy fulfilled. For Christians we would say, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” can be checked off the list as fulfilled.  But “Behold I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” well maybe not yet…  Again, I think this black-and-white thinking about prophecy is misguided and unhelpful.  It leads to predictions and charts of End-time events and not to what prophecy is intended to do.

What if prophecy, instead, was written for the benefit of the hearers during the time it was written? What if prophecy’s main objective is not to give a preview of coming events but instead is intended to give the readers and listeners hope? What if prophecy was meant to be used not as a means to peer into the future, but as a tool of exhortation, meant to engender an attitude of expectation?

In a sense, prophecy tells us more about the character of God. Events and circumstances will change and the players on the world stage will come and go, but God’s nature and God’s character do not change. Prophecy is meant to speak to our hearts, not draw our eyes to charts and our minds to conspiracy theories.

The Gospel of Luke was read and written by a group of early Christians who had witnessed the very things Jesus is describing. The Temple was destroyed in 70AD. The Jewish community, including them, were persecuted and scattered. These prophetic utterings from the mouth of Jesus were hardly meant as a warning of what was to come, but rather a very immediate message to them, from Jesus.

The imagery and rhetoric Jesus is using would no doubt have been shocking. Jesus repeatedly warns his listeners that they are too focused on watching clouds and discerning portents and not preparing their hearts for what God is going to do. Today’s gospel lesson is no different. Luke’s Jesus catches their attention by predicting that the Temple would soon be destroyed. This is perhaps as unthinkable if not more so to his listeners than to have told someone on September 10th 2001 that the World Trade Center would soon lie in rubble and dust. And yet so many of the hearers witnessed this very thing.

Jesus also warns them of false-messiahs and of the persecution that is to come. Yes, Jesus’ words are ominous, but he’s not bent on predicting everyone’s fate. His words are more importantly directed at the hearts of his hearers to give them courage and hope in the face of coming difficulty.  “Nation will rise against nation,” “there will be great earthquakes,” “they will arrest you and persecute you,” “you will be betrayed by relatives and friends.”  Where’s the good news here, Jesus?

Jesus doesn’t tell them to flee to the hills and start a militia group. Jesus doesn’t tell them to take up arms and go to war against Rome. Jesus doesn’t tell them to figure out who exactly they can trust. Jesus tells them to be prepared to witness in the midst of unfolding events.  In today’s jargon, Jesus is telling them to “stay on message.” Despite the circumstances, don’t lose heart. He tells them of God’s character and God’s ultimate plans and purposes. “Not a hair on your head will perish” – this is more comforting to some than others.  “Your endurance will gain your souls.”  God will see your faithfulness in the face of hardship.  Stay on message. Keep the faith is Jesus’ true message here.

But the easiest of these prophetic lessons to bear is that from Isaiah. What a glorious passage!  But I think it is just as misguided to read this as a literal description of heaven than it is a glimpse into the character and purposes of God.

Isaiah describes restoration. Evil has been done away with as has been the frustrating cycle of life that seemed to get humanity nowhere. All of our human labor it often seems is for future generations, planting trees, as it were, so that future generations might sit in the shade. But this imagery is one of fulfillment, “They will build houses and inhabit them.” “My chosen shall enjoy the work of their hands.” And then there is this wonderful language that those who die at 100 will be considered a youth. Again this isn’t about the numbers, it’s about a sea-change in human existence and experience.  Eden will be restored.  Predator and prey will be reconciled and seemingly everyone will be a vegetarian again!

This is about God’s purposes and God’s character, in this case God’s ultimate desire is to see creation and human society restored, the rat race ended and justice finally established on the earth.  Does this bring you hope? It should.

And so, through the coming weeks of Advent, through prophetic readings both optimistic and dire, let us keep in mind the purpose of prophecy, at least in my book – be hopeful and keep the faith!  Remember what God is like and what God has promised.

We have centuries of examples, whether it be the martyrs of the early Church or those killed in the struggle for civil rights in this country. We must not lose heart or shrink back from the task that is before us, the work God has given us to do.  Jesus promises that he will be with us. And the Eucharist is a tangible reminder of this reality. With that strength we are called to renew our commitment to our work as Christians. Do what is right, no matter what the time…

Circumstances will come and go. Leaders and political dynasties will rise and fall. Our task remains the same, in the words of another prophet, Micah, “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” Amen.

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