Hopefulness and seeing beauty amidst the mess this Sunday

November 8th, 2022

Isaiah 65:17-25. God’s dream, our dream, such wonder – and yet when I read this text I sag a little and ask “How long?” Verse 17 says “I am about to…” That was in the 6th century BCE. I guess “a thousand years are like a day” (Psalm 90:4) to God! – so we’re deep into God’s third day of God’s “about to.” Not cynical, but realistic – and well-worth naming in an honest sermon. This post-exilic prophet wasn’t merely expecting heaven / eternal life, but a real dawning here and now. Ours is to name it’s not here fully or all that obviously – and yet ours is to look for signs, glimpses, manifestations.

Time works mystically for this prophet – and for God. Verse 22: “The work of their hands shall my Chosen outlive” (Robert Alter’s rendering). I think of Nouwen’s lovely thoughts in Our Greatest Gift on finding ways to be fruitful beyond our seasons of productivity. “The question is not how much more can I achieve or do, but how can I live so I can continue to be fruitful when I am no longer here?” Paul’s great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, concludes with a plea that God “establish the work of our hands.” And Niebuhr’s wise thought: “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.”

If “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven” is a thing, Isaiah 65’s vision that “no longer shall an infant live only a few days” might remind us that infant mortality or thriving is a reliable index of the quality of community life – making us attentive to the ways medical care and nutrition can be inaccessible or lousy, and what tasks we have now as we consider this. Housing – affordable, clean, even glorious – also figures in this text, and is another valid index of whether we are a just society or not, and what moves toward the top of our to-do list.

I’m inspired, as you probably are, by Father Greg Boyle’s astonishing work with gang members. He never boasts of figuring out some clever technique for such work, but instead talks about seeing what God is doing in them, of seeing beauty in them, and celebrating God’s wonder with them. And I recall an amazing podcast about John Garland’s ministry at the Mexican border (“Maybe God: Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls, part 2”) where he says it’s not so much doing something for someone, but just being there to bear witness to the beautiful thing God is doing. Indeed, Isaiah 65 was right, and continues to be right: God is and is about to do a new thing.

Walter Brueggemann calls this text “a glorious artistic achievement. It is also an act of daring, doxological faith that refuses to be curbed by present circumstance. This poet knows that Yahweh’s coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 would be daunting (for me at least) to preach. If I lay the text out, people would holler not “Amen” but “Get a real job!” What’s the trouble Paul’s dealing with? Had some in Thessalonika reverted to Greco-Roman patron-client relationships – within the Body of Christ? Or were some so enlightened, so sure the eschaton had dawned, that they forsook their jobs? Paul’s interest is pretty clearly mutual responsibility within the church. 

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Luke 21:5-19 isn’t all that promising either. Jesus offers up a doom and gloom message. He certainly doesn’t promise peace or ease – a word for us clergy and for our laity. On the day I am writing this, I received 2 prayer requests from church members, noting how the world is such a mess, and so that wanted me to pray for them to have joy and peace despite all that. I replied by suggesting that if we are close to the heart of God during such times, we will not feel so much peace or joy, but we will share in God’s agony. Ministry, in sync with God, simply will not feel sunny or successful – if Jesus is any guide.

I continue to be struck by the words of Maria Skobtsova, known as Mother Maria of Paris, and now St. Mary of Paris, born 1891 in Latvia, executed in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for being part of the French resistance: “It would be a great lie to tell those who are searching: ‘Go to church, because there you will find peace.’ The opposite is true. The Church tells those who are at peace and asleep: ‘Go to church, because there you will feel real anguish for your sin and the world’s sin. There you will feel an insatiable hunger for Christ’s truth. There, instead of becoming lukewarm, you’ll be set on fire; instead of being pacified, you’ll become alarmed; instead of learning the wisdom of this world, you will become fools for Christ.”


What can we say November 13? 23rd Sunday after Pentecost originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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