Toorak Uniting Church

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Heaven and earth: hopes and visions

Isaiah 65: 17 – 25     Luke 21: 5 – 19
Rev. Ian Brown
14 November 2004

There were some people talking about how lovely the church is looking, beautiful stonework and gifts dedicated to God. And Jesus said, "the days are coming when not one stone will be left upon another" – ouch!, that caused a stir. We don’t hear much of this sort of talk. We are used to the old being torn down. In our world today where most things are built to be obsolete next week or next year, where the things we handle regularly are throw-aways, disposable or at best recyclable, we are surprised, a little awed even by something of beauty that is nearly 130 years old, such as our church. We face a very different context to Jesus; tough times were just around the corner and Jesus wanted to prepare his followers.

The prophet Isaiah focuses on the future too, but his people have come out of a very tough time already and need a vision of hope to lead them on.
The readings today both have a theme of dealing with our expectations. In a sense they deal with what are sometimes called the "end times." Now at this point, hearing that a sermon is going to be about the end times, most will either groan or be raising their eyebrows. I know that you are all too polite to do that, but it's OK, I understand, many have abused this subject of Christian hope, but I do want to take a look at it today from a different angle, because I believe it is a subject at the very core of faith.

We hear a description of the "new heaven and new earth" - a wonderful transformation of all things. Aren't there times when you wish that you - or perhaps someone else, were transformed into a new and more perfect being? We sometimes long for things to be better, for an end to pain and suffering, for a chance for a new beginning.
Today's readings address that longing.

But we do also need to work towards our hope. The Israelites Isaiah writes to in this passage are those who’ve returned from captivity, from exile in Babylon. They needed encouragement to get on with rebuilding their lives and their nation. People were down hearted because returning to their promised land had not magically meant that everything that had been wrong was suddenly put right. Having listened to Rabbi Fred Morgan here last Tuesday reminds me that this is a very similar situation in Israel now; having returned from nearly 2000 years of exile or dispersion, they face a painful and slow rebuilding. To rebuild, to reform one needs a vision, a hope to work towards.

This particular need of a vision is where Isaiah shows true genius.
His outlined hope is not for an abstract, disembodied, ethereal state of ecstasy. It’s about a new heaven and a new earth, the two inextricably linked together. The visionary promise then unfolds, clause by clause undoing the curses on creation that the first 11 chapters of Genesis enumerate. No more grief or anguish. And end to infant mortality, all shall live a full life, those who build and plant will reap and get to use their homes, no more calamity, peace among people and in nature; ‘the wolf and the lamb shall lie down together, the lion give up his carnivorous ways" is it symbolic or literal? I’m not sure that it matters, I do know that vegetarians love this text.

Let’s be clear about this. God’s desire for us and our world is not just to solve the "Middle East Problem" or the Sudan problem, or the Iraq issue. God’s desire is not just to save religious devotees out of a messy and rather nasty world.
The vision of God is for a radical newness in heaven and on earth. God is for peace. God is for the world working properly so that there is no more distress, no more calamity. God is pro earth, pro peace even amongst animals. God wants us to be a joy, even a delight to God.
Here is a vision worth sharing with a world that is so plainly need.
It’s not a ten point plan with goals and objectives to be ticked off on a timeline, but it is an outline that could give us guidelines as to how to live and act.
When we want to build a new development, consult the town planner, for a new building, the architect will give the guidelines, but when it comes to how to live, to shaping what sort of people we will be, I believe it is hope that shapes us. The law might try to contain our behavior, obligation might heap up guilt to direct us, fear of punishment can correct some waywardness but it is our hope, the vision of how we and our world ought to be that will best nurture us and make society what it can be.

Working towards hope sets us in the right direction and saves us from going astray. In Jesus, our hope is for a world where, as Isaiah foresaw, people can build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit, when there can be rejoicing, when weeping and distress can be over come.

And in Luke, Jesus warns his disciples not to worry, even when they see the signs of these "end times" approaching because those who are going in the right direction have nothing to fear.
Jesus predicts wars and earthquakes, famines and pestilence, terrors and great signs - but don't worry, don't be led astray Jesus warns for even the destruction of the temple - the sign of God's presence with his people, will not be the end. Jesus encouraged faith and endurance but above all - a hope in God.

Well, the temple in Jerusalem did come to an end in 70 AD, with not one stone left on another, but the world did not end, Paul advised some of the early Christians not to marry for the end was soon coming, not to worry whether they were slave or free because the world would soon be at an end, but here we are still today. The world did not end and what's more, we have seen the evidence of many well meaning religious people of many persuasions predicting the end, but the world goes on. The end has not come, there is seed time and harvest, summer, winter, spring - the world has survived this far. But Jesus said that the end times are here - so what did he mean ?

In Jesus Christ we have in a sense, already seen the end. That in Jesus the world came to a decisive crisis and there was a real turning point in the course of history. In Jesus end, we have seen something of the final chapter, in the cross and resurrection we have a glimpse of the "end times", in Jesus end, we see the hope of our end lived out in flesh and blood. In Jesus there is hope for renewal, for new life to come from death.

All these can be now as we work toward our hope. The message of these :"end time" passages is to point us in the right direction, to help us work towards our hope and when we trust in God's way and work for it amazing things can happen even in the mess of our modern world.

A good example of what living by a vision of hope can mean in our world today is in the story of Nelson Mandela.
Mandela had a vision of a new order in South Africa, where things would be far different from what they were, he wanted to work for an end to violent oppression, the rights of all humans to be respected, the right to vote for all and a truly democratic country. We all know how he spoke out against the apartheid system of the white minority government and how he was imprisoned because he wanted to see black children allowed the same opportunities as white children, he had a vision for blacks to have the same job opportunities as whites and be allowed to go to the same beaches, travel on the same busses, drink the same water.

Nelson Mandela was in prison many years but his vision did not die and many people across the world took up his cause, he was released. The man with the vision of the new order of peace and justice had not just a dream, but then took on the hard work of bringing it to birth as the President of South Africa.

The message of these "end time" stories is, I believe, to give us hope, to inspire us and to point our efforts in the right direction as we take our part in working towards God’s vision for peace and justice.
Amen May it be so.

Let us pray:

You, O God, are the one whose summoning imperative
Has caused everything to be.
Yours the vision whose hope gave form to us.

You are the one who by your faithfulness
Has given a son, a new way, a hope reborn.

You are the one with the will and the power to begin again
You are the true self starter, the origin and purpose of all.
And so we pray, start again,
Start with us and with our church
Start with your mercy
And with your justice, your compassion
And your peace

Make heaven and earth new, end calamity and grief,
Make your hope real in us, start before it is too late.

Amen

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2004


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