PRESENT ACTION, FUTURE HOPE

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

Jennifer Hosler

Our church is committed to seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we take seriously Jesus’ words—including those to care for and protect the marginalized and to love both our neighbors and our enemies. Since these are values that we regularly talk about as a congregation—and these aren’t values shared by the president-elect—it is safe to assume that many of us have been filled with dismay, heartache, tears, and even fear as we reflect on the results of the election.

There is fear that the inflammatory and hateful rhetoric of the election is now considered sanctioned. There is fear that divisions and discrimination will increase, that things will escalate to a free-for-all where bigots and racists can act without consequence. These are valid fears: the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 200 reports of harassment between Tuesday and Friday, 10 of them against Trump supporters, the rest (190) targeting people of color, Muslims, and people who are LGBTQ.

There are a lot of people mourning that xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogyny have won; people are grappling with the fact that a candidate was elected in part because he spoke out against Mexicans and Muslims or mocked women and people with disabilities. We recognize that some voters had other reasons for choosing Trump. Yet while not all Trump voters share his rhetoric, it cannot be denied that millions of Americans feel that his election was a message that they have no worth, no dignity, and they do not belong. Millions in the United States are devastated and fearful for their rights and dignity.

In Romans 12:15, the apostle Paul encourages the early church to weep with those who weep. As a church, we need to stand with those who are hurting. Weeping ourselves, weeping with others—acknowledging and mourning their pain—these are good and biblical practices.

While mourning is necessary, if we only mourn, we don’t affect what comes next. There’s a saying, “Don’t mourn, organize!” We could adjust it to “Mourn, then organize!” But what biblical truths should ground us as we consider how to move forward? Our scriptures this morning give us two lessons: 1) Remember how the end of the story goes. 2) Don’t be terrified, testify.

Remember how the end of the story goes.

When I was small, my mother took me to the movies. I used to get so absorbed in the storylines and connected with the characters that I winced or gasped when it seemed like a main character was in distress or danger. I hadn’t yet learned that most modern children’s stories have happy endings: the main characters will struggle but survive. I recall one movie outing in particular, watching FernGully: the Last Rainforest.

If you haven’t seen the early ‘90s animated film, it’s about an enchanted rainforest where fairies live. The rainforest is under attack by a logging company. A human comes in working as a logger, gets accidentally shrunk by a fairy, learns about the fairies, and tries to help them save the rainforest. In one scene, there is an evil tree chopping machine, and the human, Zak, is in danger of getting chopped or cut up like a tree. As he was on the brink of getting sliced up, my 6-year-old-self gasped out loud, “Watch out, Zak!” to the great amusement of the parents accompanying their kids to the movies. I remember feeling somewhat sheepish when the theater laughed at me. Eventually, I learned that main characters typically do make it to the happily ever after. Main characters struggle but win in the end (at least in kids’ stories).

The Bible, even though it is a compilation of 66 books and numerous genres, has its own storyline.  The arc of the storyline, God’s great plan of creation and redemption, can be found as a thread weaving in and out of the Hebrew Scriptures, the gospels, and the New Testament letters. Sometimes it is easy to see and sometimes it is difficult (say in books like Judges). Our passage in Isaiah 65 is one passage that clearly describes the climax of God’s story—we see history culminating in a radical vision of wholeness and transformation.

It would have been hard for the Israelites to accept this vision, because they were living during a time of exile and hopelessness. Our passage in Isaiah is set in the context of violence and oppression. The people have been suffering in exile and oppression from the Babylonians. It is bleak and hope feels far. They’ve been yearning for a word from Yahweh, waiting for God to redeem them.              

It is in this uncertainty, alienation, confusion, and despair that God provides a message of hope through the prophet. Isaiah illuminates a future that the Israelites hadn’t thought was possible; he reveals a vision of God’s Kingdom. A new heaven! A new earth! No more weeping, no distress, no displacement, no injustice, no early deaths. Instead, there is wholeness, basic needs are met, people are living and working with dignity, they have living wages and fulfilling work. In God’s kingdom, there is justice. In that day, there will be a profound ecological wholeness and renewal of creation. In the place where God dwells, peace will overcome violence.  

Throughout Scripture, prophets and gospel writers and apostles testify that God has the end results worked out. The grand story of redemption and reconciliation ends with Jesus as the crucified yet victorious risen one, with a Kingdom of justice and mercy and wholeness where all creation is restored and reconciled. We read in the New Testament that Jesus is coming again; that our prayer for the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven, will be realized. Revelation 7 describes how people from every nation and language will come together before the Lamb of God.

In our uncertainty about what lies ahead, whatever this administration may bring to us or to the many vulnerable people in this country, the end of the big story is already written. We know that nonviolent love, sacrifice, and reconciliation will win, so with that in our minds, we can be empowered to act out the gospel and proclaim the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, as we face these uncertain times, remember how the end of the story goes.

Don’t be terrified, testify.

Another lesson from our scriptures is the call of Jesus saying, “Do not be terrified” (Luke 21:9). The sense of the passage is to not be overwhelmed by fear in the face of opposition, but to use the opportunity to testify to the gospel. Don’t be terrified, testify.

Some of you may have read the children’s book by Dorothy Brandt Davis called “The Tall Man.” It is a lovely book, illustrated by her son Carl when he was a child. The Tall Man is about the true story of John Naas, whom the book describes as a tall man who was a head taller than most men. John Naas was a tall man and he lived in a village in Prussia, where he was a Brethren preacher. He roamed the countryside with a fellow preacher, sharing the message of Jesus.

The king of the region was looking for tall men to be his bodyguards, so one day, brother John encounters two soldiers who command him to be one of the king’s guards. John says no, so the soldiers take him into custody. As the children’s story details, the officers try to convince brother John. They pinch him and use thumbscrews on him—John still says no. They hang John up by his left thumb and his big right toe. John still says no, so they drag him in front of the King of Prussia. The King of Prussia asks John why he refuses to be his soldier and bodyguard. John says, “I cannot. Years ago, I became a preacher – a soldier for God and Jesus, my King and my Lord.” After hearing this testimony, the King of Prussia lets John Naas go. He eventually sails to Pennsylvania along with other early Brethren.

Whether the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, or even the King of Prussia, the people of God have often encountered resistance and opposition from worldly powers. In our gospel passage in Luke 21, the Roman Empire is in power and occupying the land of Israel. At the time, the status quo generally allowed the Jews to be safe and worship as they chose, though they were heavily taxed and sometimes abused and massacred.

We come to Luke 21 and we find Jesus in the temple with his disciples. Some people (unclear if disciples or others) are speaking about the temple and about how beautiful it was. It had been elaborately decorated and expanded by Herod the Great, a puppet king who paid homage to the Roman Empire occupiers. Jesus hears the comments and says, “All this beauty, the days will come when all this splendor will be toppled.”

Somewhat alarmed, the disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, when is this going to happen and what are the signs?” Jesus replies, “Watch out. There will be people saying, ‘This is the end!’ and you don’t want to be tricked. The end is coming, but the pundits are not going to predict it. Things will get bad. Wars will rage, natural disasters will be rampant, but do not be terrified.” Jesus continues, saying, “Before it really gets to the end, it won’t be easy. People will arrest you and persecute you. You’ll be dragged in front of the courts, in front of leaders. This is your chance to testify to the Kingdom of God; and I’ll give you the words to say. Many might turn against you and hate you. In the end, no one can harm you. Stand firm, and you will win life.”

In this passage, Jesus alerts his followers to the fact that the era of relative safety from their Roman occupiers would not last. In the days that were to come, the Jews would not be able to rely on the stability of the Roman Empire. The temple would come down; the era of relative safety and protection would be replaced by opposition and persecution.

Jesus tells his disciples that they should expect hardship and suffering. Though the status quo has been generally tolerant of them, if they are going to walk in the way of Jesus, they should expect things to get worse. While things would get worse, Jesus said, “do not be terrified.” The opposition was not something to flee from, but would be an opportunity for the disciples to testify in front of kings and governors. If they stood firm in the face of persecution—even if it cost them their lives—they would be vindicated and delivered, if not now, then in the resurrection. 

I think that this scripture passage can help the church interpret the events of this week. For sure, the rhetoric behind Trump’s election makes it very disturbing that he won. As I said earlier, many are afraid and it seems rightfully so. Yet we follow a Messiah who suffered and demonstrated the power of nonviolent sacrificial love. Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse here in Luke 21 teaches Christians that opposition, persecution, and unrest should be reframed. They are not a hopeless thing to fear, but rather, an opportunity to testify to the gospel of Jesus, the gospel that proclaims God’s good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed (Luke 4:16-20). Now is not the time to flee to Canada, but to persevere in continuing Jesus’ work, whether the government or culture approves. Don’t be terrified, testify.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer

Last week, during our potluck sermon discussion, we talked about Christian perspectives on politics, voting, and the Kingdom of God. We said that while the election of Donald J. Trump would certainly be disheartening, we acknowledged that we didn’t put our salvation hope in either candidate. Neither candidate was not going to usher in the Kingdom of God. Politicians are not saviors. Though we can use politics as a tool to implement values of peacemaking, justice, and equality, all our hope cannot rest in them.

From today’s gospel passage, we see that empires come and go. Some may be favorable to our witness; some may tolerate it; others may fight against it. Jesus prepared his followers for the inevitability of persecution and hardship and we too should be prepared for rough times ahead. Opposition and even suffering are to be expected when following in Jesus’ footsteps.

On the morning of election day, as I walked onto my school’s campus, a scripture from Romans 12 kept running through my mind—even well before Trump was declared the winner. We used it as our call to worship today: love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer (vv. 9, 12).

The resounding message of scripture is that love, mercy, and forgiveness transform lives, communities, and the whole world. Sisters and brothers, in this tumultuous and hateful time, let renounce what is evil—discrimination, injustice and violence. Let us cling to what is good—spread the love, kindness, grace, and mercy of Jesus. Let us take heart and find strength in the hope of God’s reign, be steadfast in the face of opposition, and pray that God would use the church to testify to Jesus’ gospel of reconciliation.

Consider how God has placed you in this world—your networks, your interests, your passions, your jobs, your neighbors. What is your setting and what does your call to testify look like? Is it through building bridges with Muslims? Is it through building bridges with Trump supporters? Are you a healer who can help hurting people hear the hope of God’s love for all people? Are you going to write the songs or the poems that mobilize the church for God’s justice? Are you a marcher, a researcher, an organizer, a pray-er, that you can prepare to march, document, or pray to protect the vulnerable? Sisters and brothers, as we move from mourning into action, let us consider how we can testify as individuals and as a church.

Remember how the end of the story goes. Don’t be terrified, but testify to Jesus’ gospel that brings good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, the oppressed. AMEN.

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