People like to look for signs of what’s to come.
Some look in the shadows, for dark portents of destruction and death. Every earthquake, every tsunami, every hurricane, every volcanic eruption, every famine confirms their belief that the end is near. For some, it’s all about the moral fabric of society (none of it good, of course). They search holy scriptures to find confirmation of their fears and frustrations. And, I admit, it’s not hard to find biblical authorities to cite.
Others, meanwhile, take a much happier tack. They see God’s kingdom enfolding gradually but surely, inch by inch, step by step, one little miracle after another. Someday, they proclaim, the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven will be fully present. Until that glorious day perhaps only the righteous will see it coming, will begin living its reality, and will participate with God in its creation.
Here’s the thing about signs: The more you look for them, the more likely you are to find exactly what you’re looking for.
It’s curious that conventional wisdom holds that the Hebrew scriptures (commonly referred to as the Old Testament) holds up themes of judgment, the centrality of law, and a vindictive and wrathful God. The Christian New Testament, on the other hand, is all about repentance and forgiveness, grace, and a loving God (a heavenly Father, no less).
Well, the lectionary scriptures this week once again contradict such conventional wisdom. Luke’s Gospel brings us interaction between Jesus and a gathering of Jews in which he foretells not only the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (and correspondingly the cultic religion and nationalism associated with it) but a time of awful persecution, torment, and death. Happy thoughts, eh?
The scripture passage from 2 Thessalonians offers judgment against those within the believing community who are basically hanging around and mooching off the hard work of others. This letter, most likely written by Paul’s associates/disciples long after his death, addressed a time when early Christians were beginning to understand that Christ’s second-coming and establishment of the kingdom might take a while longer than had been thought. Therefore, all were equally required to work to maintain a community that was far more permanent than its founder would have believed necessary. For those who refused, they would be cut off not only from the believing community but divine grace, as well.
It’s left to Isaiah to bring a note of hope and grace to Jewish exiles in Babylon. God had apparently not given up on them, as many had probably concluded. Hang in there, the prophet told them, for a time that would come when a righteous society would be reestablished. It would be a time when children would not die in infancy, when 100-year-olds would not be considered a rarity, when the same people who built the houses and planted the vineyards would dwell in those structures and eat the grapes and drink the wine, when natural enemies (envisioned as wolves and lambs, lions and oxen) would learn to live in peace with one another.
Yeah, so much for conventional wisdom.
I can’t help but notice today that here in the U.S.A. we have an extraordinarily high rate of infant death, that we generally prefer to keep our oldest folk out of sight and out of mind, that farmers are experiencing foreclosure in growing numbers, that what we consume here is for the most part grown or manufactured someplace else, and thousands of refugees seeking a safe haven from violence in Central American countries are encamped in Mexico waiting to plead their cases across the border.
Isaiah’s dream is our dream–but it’s definitely a dream, one growing more remote every day. And while that vision/dream grows dimmer, the people looking for signs and portents in the shadows shout their fears louder and louder.
Thankfully, we need look no further than elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures for a recommendation of what we should do: Sing to the Lord.
O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98)
How crazy is that!
But if the choice here is between conventional wisdom and crazy, well I’ve got to go with crazy. The kingdom is like that (sometimes) in that it makes perfect sense to God but to humans it’s just crazy talk.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.