Old and new

17 November 2013
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28C (RCL)
Isaiah 65:17-25
Canticle 9
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

The passages in Isaiah and Luke couldn’t be more different. Isaiah is looking forward to the restoration of the kingdom, when people will enjoy the fruit of their own planting, and live to ripe old ages. In Luke, Jesus ‘predicts’ the destruction of the Temple and the desolation of Jerusalem. Which is it?

Luke, of course, is writing after the destruction of the Temple, and so Jesus is predicting events Luke already knows. Mark had written this “little apocalypse” probably some twenty or thirty years before Luke reworked it. Mark thought the destruction was a sign that the Son of Man was coming any minute. Luke has to explain the delay of the end that Mark thought the destruction foreshadowed. Luke has Jesus say, “Do not be deceived. The end is not yet.”

The focus of the apocalyptic scenario on the destruction of the Temple echoes Jeremiah and the other prophets, who warned the people not to think Jerusalem was safe just because the Temple was there. The thinking was, “Surely, God wouldn’t let God’s house be destroyed, so we’re safe.” The prophets warned that the people were making an idol out of the Temple. A just way of living was the only guarantee.

Luke takes the long view. A whole sequence of things has to happen before the end; by our endurance, we will gain our souls. Of course, ever since Luke wrote that passage, people have looked to their own time and seen “signs and portents” and thought they were living in the last days, doing exactly what Luke didn’t want them to do: read the tea leaves.

But perhaps the applicability of Luke’s description to any time is part of the point. We are always living in the last days. The problem is that we see each successive catastrophe as world-ending, and begin looking for some miraculous salvation. Instead, Jesus tells us, “by your endurance, you will gain your souls.” In other words, “take the long view. This isn’t the end of the world.”

And the catastrophe doesn’t have to be on a global scale (like a typhoon in the Philippines) to seem world-ending. A divorce or the loss of a job can feel like it brings the Temple down around our ears. We might often think like the false prophets: “I’m a good Christian. God won’t let these things happen to me.” But, happen they do. Luke would tell us, “Take the long view.” This hasn’t happened because you aren’t a good Christian: it’s just happened.

And Isaiah, of course, paints the picture of the restoration. God is drawing us to a time when everyone enjoys the fruit of their own labor (and by extension, no one lives off another’s labor). This is the end that draws us on. This is the vision at the end of the long view. It is interesting to me that the Bible closes with a vision of the new heaven and the new earth, with the new city coming down from heaven. The water that flows through the gutters of the city is clean enough to drink, and the leaves of the trees that grow in the city are for the healing of the nations. But there is no Temple: the dwelling of God is among the people. Instead of a in Temple, God’s presence is known in a way of living together. There are no more Temples to be pulled down around our ears.

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