As we approach to the end of the Christian year, next Sunday(!), our readings turn to the coming of the kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s message about the kingdom is great. God promises “to create new heavens and a new earth.” God encourages us to “be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” God Himself will “rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in [God’s] people.”
I want to be part of that rejoicing in God, and in the heavenly city, and in all the people there, and having God rejoicing in all of it too, and having God rejoicing in me as one of those delightful people.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus strikes a harsher note. Jesus warns us that destruction is coming. There will be deceivers, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful portents, and more. That doesn’t sound as fun as Isaiah!
Different as they are in tone, these two passages fit together in the grand sweep of the biblical story, the long arc of salvation history. Jesus warns us about the tribulations that will precede the final establishment of the kingdom of God. Isaiah gives us a vision of what the kingdom will be like when the tribulations come to an end.
Christians have always been curious about when this all will happen, and about where we are now in the unfolding of salvation history. But Jesus himself says he doesn’t know when the kingdom will come. All Jesus tells us is that it will come suddenly and as a surprise. I figure, if Jesus didn’t know, I’m not likely to figure it out.
So, I try not to worry about the indefinite future. God wins in the end, and it’s going to be great. That’s good enough for me.
My focus is on what these passages can teach us about life as we live it now, in our own time, which is definitely not the kingdom of God, but isn’t the full tribulation either.
In our lives, we have some kingdom moments, when we feel God’s presence, and we get a little taste of the joy Isaiah talks about, and all seems right with the world. I’ve had some of those moments here, as we worship together. Kingdom moments are great.
We have all had some tribulation moments, too, moments when everything goes wrong, and we feel battered by events, and we hurt more than we can handle. I think, for example, about really hard conversations with a doctor.
Most of my life isn’t a kingdom moment or a tribulation moment. It’s just life. But the kingdom moments and the tribulation moments come. And the question is, how can we be ready, especially how can we be ready for the tribulation moments?
At first, it sounds like Jesus is saying we don’t have to get ready. When the time comes, Jesus will give us the words and the wisdom we need.
That advice is hard for me. I am a planner. I like to spin out scenarios in my head. The problem for us planners is that we can never anticipate every possibility. People surprise us. Events surprise us.
To trust God to give us what we need in tribulation moments is a challenge. But the sad fact is, we really don’t have a choice. We can’t be ready for every possibility that might arise. I think that is Jesus’ point.
But just this week, Carrie helped me to see that we can do something, we can prepare, just in a different way.
Carrie went to an academic conference in Minnesota on Wednesday. As is usually the case, she had several speaking roles at the conference, including leading an all-day workshop and also participating in one of the plenary sessions, which are for all conference participants. That’s a couple of thousand people!
Carrie wanted to get ready for this conference. She had good intentions She wanted at least to make notes about what she would say at her various sessions. But she just didn’t have time. She has been REALLY busy for the last several weeks. So, Carrie left for Minnesota not having prepared what she was going to say in advance, just like Jesus says.
Before she left, I told Carrie about our Gospel reading. I assured her Jesus would give her the words and wisdom she needed when the time came. She was neither comforted, nor amused!
Unsurprisingly, everything went fine at the conference. And things went fine because Carrie was prepared for her sessions in the way that really matters. Carrie didn’t have her specific comments written out. But all of her study and writing and teaching over the last twenty years has given Carrie the knowledge she needed and the skill to present it effectively. Carrie may not have prepared for the exact sessions she was in, but she was well-prepared to do what she needed to do when the time came.
With her example in mind, I think back to the early Christians who faced persecution from kings and governors, just like Jesus warned them they would. They could never know exactly what was going to be thrown at them. The details of the charges or the particular threats made against them varied from persecutor to persecutor.
But long before their arrests, they lived lives of faithfulness and courage and love. They developed the habit of trusting God, of responding to lies with the truth expressed in love, of responding to threats and violence with firmness in the right but also forgiveness and compassion.
The early Christian martyrs didn’t need to plan what they would say at their trials because their whole lives prepared them for that moment, just like Carrie’s whole career prepared her to do what she had to do this week.
Getting prepared in that way is our invitation and also our challenge. We will face tribulation moments. And often we won’t be able to see them with real clarity before they are on us. But we can prepare for them by living faithful Christian lives in the non-tribulation moments, or the mini-tribulation moments.
And, of course, other people are sure to give us plenty of opportunities to practice!
It’s been an election week. In every election, some of our distressing differences are on display. Those differences give us a chance to practice trusting God and responding to each other with compassion and love even when we disagree.
We get the same opportunities at Church. We come together in faith and love to serve God’s mission. And along the way, we will encounter plenty of reasons to get irritated, even when everyone is trying to do right.
Our task is to get in the habit of asking what Jesus would do in our situation, of praying that Christ will help us do it, and then of giving it our best shot.
With Christ’s help, and with the loving support of our brothers and sisters, we can develop some of those virtuous habits that stood the Christian martyrs in good stead. We can practice faith and love so that we are ready to face tribulation moments when they come.
Best of all, as we get better at faithfulness and love, we’ll begin to experience more of the kingdom moments Isaiah describes, even when everything around us is hard.
That is my prayer for us: that we can practice Christian living with each other, and so prepare ourselves to face trials with courage and grace. And I say that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan