November 17, 2013
The prophet Isaiah bringing the word of the Lord to the captives in Babylon that they will be delivered of their current distress is a passage most of us can relate to these days. Isaiah is describing a vision of what kind of world the Lord created for us to enjoy. A vision of peace based upon everyone having what they need. A vision of health for all people, where infants do not die, and most people live to be older than one hundred years old! Now, you may think that sounds like a vision of an over-crowded nursing home, but clearly, Isaiah is saying that people will be healthy and mentally alert all through their full lives. There are places on earth right now that have a significantly higher percentage of people who live into their nineties and beyond while still maintaining physical health, social connections, and cognitive functioning. This research is documented in the book The Blue Zones in our church library, but is not the main focus of this sermon; I’m just saying, it does seem to be the model for which human beings were created. However, we are often too weighed-down by the stress of modern life, and we have far too many diseases that are a result of stress crushing us physically & spiritually. We react to stress in our personal lives, stress at work, and stress in the wider world with cardiac problems, ulcers, back pain, sleep deprivation and many other physical symptoms, and we may even lose sight of the vision of what God intends for us. When we are so focused on just surviving another day, we may not have the energy to feel God’s love or recognize the possibilities to do things in another way. Usually people react to the frustrations of life by becoming less creative, less open to accepting where God may be leading us. This is one reason we need to stop for a moment, breathe, and listen to God’s prophets:
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat hay like the ox; none shall hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Like many deep spiritual truths from many religious traditions, this familiar image may not make much sense to our modern, scientific perspective at first. How is that going to work, with lions & wolves becoming herbivores? If no one is allowed to hurt or destroy on the mountain, who gets to own the coal mine or determine the working conditions for the miners? What? You don’t think there is any coal on the Lord’s holy mountain? OK, maybe we have to listen for the poetic imagery that goes beyond the literal, superficial description of nutritional plans for carnivores, and hear God speaking directly to our own lives today. Whether we are feeling stressed-out by too much work, or by knowing that no matter what we do, we can’t control the source of our stress, it can be really helpful to remember the vision of how God wants us to feel, “Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.” Just two verses from Isaiah 65, and we may begin to feel that there may be some options, some alternatives in how we are confronting the challenges in our lives. Instead of living with the pain from the past, maybe God is inviting us to lay down those old resentments, fears, guilt, or anger. Maybe feeling happy is not just for other people. Maybe the Creator of the universe is still speaking, still creating, still “making a way out of no way”. But if we are constantly feeling crushed, oppressed, & hopeless, something important is out of balance, because we need times of rejoicing & happiness. Having a vision of how God is present throughout creation does help us deal more creatively with our own challenges.
The gospel lesson for today offers us a counterpoint to the prophet’s vision of peace. Funny how we often assume that prophets are preaching doom & gloom, and the gospel is all warm & fuzzy, but in today’s passages, Isaiah is the vision of heaven on earth, while Luke describes Jesus teaching the disciples about the reality that even when there are wars or typhoons, earthquakes, famines, plagues, or people who claim that the world is coming to an end, this is just bound to happen in the normal course of events. Whether the catastrophe is global climate change or being unfairly taken to court & thrown into prison, Christ is with us in all our times of suffering. Now, I would have preferred that he would have sugar-coated this section, or at least not said, ”You will be delivered up even by your parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death.” Yuch, that just doesn’t sound very gospel-like, does it? Not the sort of thing nice people read in church about Jesus’ teaching, especially if it is supposed to apply to our lives. I would much prefer this to read more like, “OK folks, if you totally mess up the whole planet, treat each other miserably, even cause global climate change to destroy the habitat of all living things, don’t worry about it, because God will send some magical fairies & dragons to rescue you, so you will have an absolute guarantee that you will always be comfortable & live happily ever after.” But we are dealing with holy scripture, not just some fairy tale, and Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for the reality of life, which is just as true for us now as it was two thousand years ago. Jesus lists all these personal and cultural tragedies, tells the disciples that even if this happens, it does not mean the end is near, and instead says, “By patient endurance you will save your lives.” I guess that means practicing patience, not over-reacting. That’s hard. Our natural response to bad news or bad luck is to sink to the level of whatever is making us feel bad, act as immature as the person who is treating us disrespectfully, create more drama, get more upset, and blame anyone else! “By patient endurance you will save your lives,” indeed! Except… really… well I guess what Luke records Jesus teaching us is the more practical and the more mature way to deal with the hardest troubles of our lives. Sure, it is normal to experience the full range of emotions when things don’t go exactly as we would prefer. People get mad. People cry or whine or blame others, or distract ourselves with all manner of addictions to hide the pain. And then we try to go to sleep, and we get up the next day & do it all over again. I don’t think we typically respond to a crisis by saying, “Oh boy, a chance to practice patient endurance!” No, we are much more likely to say, “No one else has ever had it as tough as me.”
So, what do these scripture passages have to say to our lives? The prophet reminds us of the vision God had in mind when we were created, a vision of what life should be like, a vision of peace and justice. The gospel describes what problems often confront us, not as a comprehensive list of what will go wrong, but rather, an acknowledgement that when we are going through times of suffering, whether from injustice or the natural consequences of sin, we actually do strengthen our faith, our wisdom, and our compassion when we try to follow in the way Christ taught. Jesus does not promise a life free of stress, challenge or pain, but rather, we are taught that through perseverance, we can all grow in wisdom and strength. We can work to bring about the vision of God’s kingdom here among us, by treating others fairly, by turning our own problems over to God’s loving care, and by living every day according the values Christ taught.