November 17, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

“Making a New World”

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!”

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with the congregation of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Prince Albert. We held a congregational meeting so that they could make some decisions together for the near future of their ministry. As many of you have heard, they have discovered some very serious structural problems with their church building, and they are currently worshipping with the United Church next door because it is not safe to be in their church building. On top of this, their minister has been on sick leave for the last couple of months, and this week he tendered his resignation. All of this is a lot to handle. There are a lot of question marks about both the short and long-term future of the congregation, and for some, I know that it is hard to hang on to hope.

But many of the faithful people of St. Paul’s are hanging on to hope. They are not being deterred by one set-back after another, and they are continuing the work of ministry. They are caring for each other and encouraging each other. They are investigating all the possibilities and figuring out a way to solve their building issues. They are worshipping thankfully with the United Church, and cooperating on a joint Church School program that serves a number of First Nations children from the community. They are going ahead with their plans to put together about 50 Christmas hampers for families in need within their community. They are having a Steak Night Fundraiser tonight to start raising funds to send kids to camp next summer. And tomorrow, at the United Church, Rev. George Yando, a retired Presbyterian minister who used to serve at St. Paul’s, will baptize five young children who are part of their worshipping community.

Despite the struggles that the congregation of St. Paul’s is experiencing right now, I think they know (and I am encouraging them to remember) that they still have the opportunity to work WITH God to make some goodness in the world. Their faithfulness in mission is an amazing example of living out of hope in God. Not hope that just keeps us hanging on until the end of the world or the promise of heaven… but hope that calls us to participate in making the new world that is God’s dream for us today.

I have no doubt at all that God is working here in our Christian community to make the new world a reality here in Saskatoon as well. Although it’s easy to get discouraged by the problems that surround us, (whether they be the poverty in our own community, the devastating effects of the typhoon in the Philippines, or the challenges that our own families experience) 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 St. Andrew’s we will work together with our Advent Appeal to provide all kinds of gifts for those most in need in the innercity of Saskatoon. Once again, our Advent gifts will support ministries including Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry, Egadz Youth Centre, the Friendship Inn, the Crisis Nursery, the Food Bank, and more. I hope that you will choose to participate in this outreach ministry, and that you will keep your eyes open for other opportunities to participate in God’s work through a gift of time, talent, or treasure during this season.

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.