When I was in 8th grade, we were required to read Charles Dickens’ dark novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Many of you know how it begins, at least the first part of it:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…"
The novel dealt with the time around the French Revolution, when the French aristocracy were oppressing the peasants. Conflict arose between rival political factions, and there were mass executions, and executions of people in high power, like King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, noted scientists and leaders. It has been called the French Reign of Terror. The innocent people of France, the children, the poor, suffered greatly, and must have thought the world was coming to an end.
Though it will tell you too much about my age, the year I was forced to read this book that I did not like at the time was in 1967. It was the year that the Beatles put out a great album, "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band," Elvis married a young bride, Priscilla, and Aretha Franklin sang "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." It was in the midst of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was testing nuclear weapons, the US was experimenting with germ warfare, and China reported that it shot down U.S. planes in its air space. In school, we had drills to practice getting under our seats in the event of a nuclear bomb. The Vietnam War was raging, and we saw scenes of war on the nightly news for the first time in history. There were huge protests in New York City and San Francisco against the war, and race riots in Minneapolis and other cities. A city in Wisconsin announced it was seceding from the U.S. because it was not on any official maps, and declared war. The city repealed the secession the next day. It was a crazy, chaotic time, and it must have seemed at times as if the world was coming to an end. And yet we all sang along with the Beatles, "All You Need is Love."
A few days ago the largest typhoon or hurricane ever recorded swept over the islands of the Philippines, bringing huge waves and the highest ever recorded winds, gusting to 235 miles an hour. The devastation left behind stinking dead bodie, rotting food and vegetation, and mountains of debris. It is hard for relief to get in because roads have washed away or are covered with huge piles of debris. One man was reported to say that, as the storm raged and everything blew or washed away, he really thought the world was coming to an end. We could also point to nations warring against nations, political fighting, other natural disasters and climate change that put our planet in peril. It can seem at times as if the world will end soon.
The people whom Jesus addressed with the words we read today lived in chaotic times as well. For those first hearing the Gospel of Luke, the events Jesus predicted here, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, had already happened, though not long beforehand. Matthew, Mark and Luke all contain similar passages, referred to as the Little Apocalypse. Jesus points to three signs of impending doom – false teachers and leaders, warfare and political chaos, and natural disasters. Again, we see all of these occurring simultaneously now, and throughout history time and time again. Apocalyptic literature sees this as the corrupted, evil world, and looks ahead to the hope of the triumphant reign of God, when there will be "a new heaven and a new earth, the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind" (Isaiah 65:17). In this mode of thought, evil may reign supreme on earth for a good while, but God will triumph in the end, or in the end times. Such theology has comforted many throughout history, especially those in the midst of great suffering. Amid painful and prolonged suffering, with no visible relief in sight, people of faith turn to God for a vision of the end of the present misery and the beginning of a new age to come. Professor Sharon Ringe says that our New Testament text gives a general warning about the human trauma that can take place "when human pretense and injustice come face to face with God" (Ringe, p. 250).
We usually look to the New Testament for the Good News, but on this day, the reading from Isaiah seems more hopeful. This passage occurs in what is referred to as Third Isaiah, written to an Israel that had been exiled and was either returning or looking forward to return and restoration. The vision given is not of kingdom in heaven, but of a kingdom right here on earth, where infants will not die within days of birth, and adults will live long lives, a time when there will be economic stability, peace, and justice for all, when even nature will live in harmony. It is a utopian vision, something seldom if ever achieved, yet always a hope within society and within religious circles.
Those who remain faithful, says Jesus, will suffer betrayal and persecution, yet, "not a hair of your head will perish" and "by your endurance you will gain your soul" (Luke 21:18-19). It is not a big hope, perhaps, but it is hopeful. As chapter 21 continues, Jesus tells of the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the coming of the Son of Man. These are doom-full texts, yet there are snippets of hope scattered within them, like, "Now when these things happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (21:28). And the end of the chapter tells us that Jesus taught in the temple, and that "all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple" (21:38). The people yearned to hear the words of warning and of comfort that Jesus spoke, because their lives were hard, and life was full of risks.
There are times when we need to hear the sweet and happy words, like "Let the little children come to me…for to such as these the kingdom of God belongs," or "Do to others as you would have them do to you." But there are many times, especially in our darkest hours (either personally or as we look at the world around us), when we need to hear that God will rule supreme even over the evil that dwells on earth. Jesus said, "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near" (Luke 21:29-31). Some interpret this to say that the end of the world and the Second Coming is at hand, and all will be uprooted, some will be taken in the rapture that occurs, but others will be left behind. But perhaps a more faithful interpretation looks for the Kingdom of God here and now, in the midst of the chaos that can be a part of life on earth.
As I looked back at the events of 1967, I thought about how I, as a young teenager, lived for the most part blissfully through a lot of upheaval. As an adult, I am much more aware of what is happening in my world and am often dismayed by the way in which we hear that humans treat other humans in the local news stories, or by how political parties gerrymander and undercut one another in child-like competition that benefits no one but them, or by nations that rage war on innocent citizens. The popular movies and TV shows that seem to agrandize zombies and post-apocalyptic times show forth our fears for our world. So we are not so unlike the Israelites longing to return from exile, or Jesus’ listeners experiencing persecution. If we but look around, we know that there is darkness in our world, and we feel helpless to do much about it.
Whenever we read a passage like today’s New Testament text, we need to read it in the context of the whole Gospel message, the Good News that tells us that God entered into this chaotic world with great love for us, and by that very act of being born, of living and dying in human form, has saved us from the evils forever. Evil, disease, war, hatred and violence are still around us, but in a great and faithful sense, we can know that "not a hair of our heads will perish" (v.18).
A great scholar of the Bible in our time, Walter Brueggemann, says Jesus "is the power of life in the midst of a world bent on death" (Brueggemann, p.148).
He says: "All around us the power of the resurrection is breaking out against oppression, and the old weary categories of bondage, intolerance, and brutality are now called into serious question. The news is that God’s power for life will not be overridden or resisted or defeated. Close to home, the cold despair of deathliness will be overcome. God will have God’s say. We can respond in threat. But we can also respond in thanksgiving and delight" (Brueggemann, pp.148-149)
We can, he reminds us, face the dark sides of life with delight in the kingdom of God. "The power of life is not a religious fantasy," he says. "It is a fresh lease on our baptism in the face of injustice and poverty and alienation. It affirms to us that God has not yet quit and God will have God’s way. We are on our way with God, rejoicing, praising, surrendering, and obeying. We will then address this age with care and compassion, knowing that the age to come is quite safe in God’s mercy" (Brueggemann, p.150). "By your endurance, you will gain your souls" says Jesus (v.19).
Perhaps this is one sense a text about growing up and seeing the world as it is. We can party like it is still 1967. But then, if we take off our rose-colored glasses, 1967 was not so great either. In every age and in each life, there is darkness and despair. But there is also always "God with us," embodied in Jesus Christ; there is love itself. As Psalm 30 says (verse 5), "Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning." We take heart in the presence and power of God in every moment of history, and in every place, and created being. The good news is that the Good News is always present. We do not walk this weary way alone. And when we participate in a faith community like Westminster, not only do we know that God walks with us, but we know we have a whole family of faithful people who care about us as well. Really, no matter what happens in life, with a loving Lord on our side, we can all declare, as the bells will ring the song in a few minutes, "It is well, it is well with my soul."
Brueggemann, Walter, The Threat of Life (Fortress Press, MN, 1996)
Ringe, Sharon, Luke (WJKP, KY, 1995)