2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“God is About to Do Something – With Us!”
Today’s passage from Isaiah 65 is about God’s vision for a renewed world. It is a description of a new world that God is going to make in which there will be peace and justice for everyone. People will live long and happy lives, working hard, and reaping the rewards of their work, living in houses, planting crops, and enjoying the blessing of a good relationship with God.
For the people of Judah and Jerusalem, sometime after 539 BCE, this vision would have filled them with hope and confidence for the future, as they made their way back to their homeland after the long exile in Babylon. In exile, they had felt alone and abandoned by God. And now, even as they returned to Judah and Jerusalem, they were coming back to a temple in ruins and a lot of work ahead of them to rebuild their homes and communities and livelihoods.
Rather than let the people feel overwhelmed by the challenges they were facing, Isaiah wrote words of encouragement and hope. While the people struggled with the tasks of rebuilding, and while they worried about producing enough food and enduring the various conflicts and wars that their king had them involved in, Isaiah told them that God was starting all over again. God was beginning again at the beginning, and God was making a new heaven and a new earth for them.
The words of Isaiah’s prophecy may sound familiar to many of us Christians, because we have read this passage many times before in church. When we hear about the wolf and the lamb feeding together, and the lion eating straw like an ox, we aren’t surprised because we’ve seen the illustrations of that vision – if only on the tracts from our local Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But to the people beginning their lives again in Jerusalem, these were new words of hope. They were new words, but words that were loaded with allusions to the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. When God says, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth” it’s like God is transporting them back to the idyllic time before everything started to go wrong in the world. In the mythic story of the creation in Genesis 2, we get a glimpse of God’s world without human sin, without disobedience, without the influence of greed and fear and all that is evil.
Isaiah is encouraging the people to remember that vision of the world. It’s a world they know about from their foundational stories of faith… a world in which humans and animals live together in peace, in which lives are long and happy, in which the people till the earth and enjoy the produce of the land, and in which God walks among the people in joyful relationship.
None of us can cast our minds back far enough to remember a time when the world was really like that. It isn’t like that today, nor was it that way when I was growing up in the 80’s, or when some of you were growing up in the 50’s. It wasn’t like that before the exile to Babylon, nor was it like that when the people of Israel first arrived in the land promised by God.
Like the people of Israel, we may want to imagine that there was a “once upon a time” time when things were right and good, and we may want to get back to that. Isaiah uses the imagery from the Garden of Eden to help him describe what the world could be like, but he’s not telling us to look back. He’s telling us to look forward towards a new thing that God is about to do… a new creation… a new world that God is making.
In his books on the twelve keys to an effective church, Kennon Callahan writes about the importance of HOPE in a Christian community. And from his experience, there are not many churches that are completely without hope. The question is, where does their hope lie?
Do they have hope that God is working among them today to do good mission and ministry in their communities? Do they have hope that God is going to do wonderful things through their mission and ministry in the near and the distant future? Do they believe that their best days are ahead of them?
Some do have this kind of hope, for sure. And this hope is empowering many congregations to do amazing things in their churches and beyond. But for others, their hope is located in something much farther off in the future. Everything in the present and the near future seems troubling, and they can’t imagine how God is going to turn things around. So they place their hope in what God will undoubtedly do at the end of time, or at the end of their lives in this world. They have given up on God’s action in the world today, and they are just hanging on for the promise of heaven.
Now, it’s not that they are wrong. Their hopes are well-founded, and I am sure that God will not disappoint them. But I believe that God is not only able to act today, but that God is already creating, and God will continue to create a new world – a new kingdom – in which goodness and peace and love and justice are growing and flourishing. And I believe that God has plans for us to be a part of the new creation that God is making.
As God’s people returned to Jerusalem, Isaiah encouraged them in the work of rebuilding the city of God. He said, God is about to do a new thing, and you get to be a part of it! In a similar way, the apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonian Christians not to be idle either. Some of them thought that Jesus would be returning very soon and the world would be coming to an end. So instead of going about their daily work, they were sitting around waiting and hoping for the end of time.
They weren’t working with God to transform the world. They were just hanging around, hoping that Jesus would come to take them out of it. And so the writer exhorts them to live faithfully, finding God in the ordinariness of everyday life… recognizing that God is working now – in and through God’s people – to create a new world right here.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear Jesus predicting the next destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Remember, the Gospels were written late in the first century – after the temple in Jerusalem had indeed been destroyed in 67 CE. The author of the Gospel is actually writing words of comfort and encouragement to Christians (like the Thessalonians) near the end of the first century. These Christians are wondering how God will possibly bring peace and justice out of the chaos and destruction that they see around them, and the persecution that they are experiencing.
Once again, these are words of hope for God’s people in the midst of the challenges and struggles of their lives. After describing all the troubles and trials that the followers of Jesus will face, the Gospel writer says, “But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Even though there will be persecution before the new heaven and earth come in their final fullness, Luke’s Jesus declares that endurance in faithful living will be rewarded. “Don’t give up,” he encourages the Christians who are feeling overwhelmed by their circumstances, “God is about to make a new heaven and a new earth, and you get to be a part of it!”
This morning I suggested to the kids (and to everyone who may have been listening) that if we have hope and trust in God, we won’t give up on caring for Creation and doing everything we can to respond to the current climate crisis. I don’t think God’s just going to snap her fingers and give us a new Earth. But I do think that this Earth can still be preserved, and maybe even healed by God if God’s children work together to protect and renew it.
And I think the same thing is true for a lot of the other problems in the world – whether its homelessness or hunger or illness or violence or oppression. God works to mend our human communities through the people who are inspired and encouraged and filled with hope by God’s love for us.
While I was in Toronto this week, I heard presentations by two Presbyterian missionaries who are working with our partners in the Presbyterian Church in Malawi. Although the pandemic caused them to have to come back to Canada almost 3 years ago, they did not give up, but chose to continue their work from Canada.
The Rev. Joel Sherbino’s ministry to prisoners has remarkably continued to grow and grow even while he hasn’t been physically present. Teams of local Presbyterians are trained and equipped for leading Bible studies in the prisons, as well as providing essential items, emotional support, and a ministry of presence. More prisoners than ever are being impacted, joining the ministry, and passing on the love and good news of God to others.
At the same time, the Rev. Blair Bertrand continues to teach theology to future ministers in Malawi, visiting twice a year, and teaching online in between. Five talented young women pastors have been recruited recently for fully-funded Masters studies, equipping them to become the professors of the future and supporting the growing status and ministry of women pastors within a culture that still has some very traditional ideas about gender roles.
And all the way from Canada, Blair has supported the seminary, Zomba Theological College, in successfully being accredited as a University this Fall. The next step will be the creation of a PhD program, and the future is looking brighter all the time.
I have no doubt at all that God is working here in our Christian community to make the new world a reality here in Regina too. Although it’s easy to get discouraged by the problems that surround us, the seasons of Advent and Christmas are always a time when hope grows, and we are renewed in our passion to participate in God’s work in the world.
In a couple of weeks, Advent will begin, and here at First Church we will work together through our Christmas In Memoriam Gifts to provide gloves and hats and socks and other warm clothes to those most in need in the city of Regina. And together with other churches across the city, we’ll feed a lot of hungry people this winter through the Bag Lunch Program at First Baptist.
Besides filling those most urgent needs, we can also work and advocate for societal changes that address the root causes of hunger and need. You may have noticed the petition in the newsletter this month about homelessness in Regina. Imagine if we could become a community where no one is homeless. Can we hold on to the hope that something like that could be possible? Can we trust God enough to try? Perhaps God is ready to do something amazing when we advocate together and work together as a community in our city to make ending homelessness a real priority.
God said, “I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” May God’s Spirit of hope fill us and empower us as we participate with God in making that new world in our church, and in our community today and tomorrow. Amen.