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Challenging Promises

Sunday, November 17, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

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Jesus and the early church had a funny way of recruiting and motivating his followers.  A lot of the time – I don’t know if this has happened to you – but when someone is trying to recruit you for a job, they will emphasize the good parts about the job, the perks of the job, the upside.  “Oh, man.  You’re gonna love it.  The people you’ll be working with are great, the projects are exciting, the work’s not that hard, it won’t take too much of your time, just a little bit, but the rewards are enormous.”  The general tactic of this approach is to make the task seem as appealing as possible, almost tantalizing in its attractiveness.

Jesus and the early church had a slightly different approach.  Here in Luke 21, where he is talking with his followers – some of whom had been with him for a while, but others of whom may have been fairly new to following him – he tells them, “There’s going to be some bad stuff.  Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues.  But before that stuff happens, they’re going to arrest you, persecute you, hand you over to the authorities; you’re going to be brought before kings and rulers.  You’ll be betrayed by your close loved ones.  Some of you will be put to death.  You’re going to be hated by all because of me.”

Doesn’t that sound great? All right!  Who’s in?  Where do we sign up?

The promises of God come to us; they are challenging, and they are energizing.

Jesus is very clear with his followers that he has not come to make their lives comfortable, and that the Christian faith is not about staying safe.  It is not about becoming the most popular kid in school.  It is not about having everything go your way. Jesus is very clear with them about what will happen to them as a result of their giving their lives to him.  Very clear.  You can accuse Jesus of many things, but you cannot accuse him of sugarcoating the hard edges of life.

Life is hard for all of us.  All of us go through hard times.  People are facing financial stress and living in poverty.  We face relationship challenges.  Our health situation can suddenly become fragile.  We live in a world that is undergoing enormous conflicts and changes. Institutions and organizations and denominations are wrestling with their purpose as well as finances. And it may very well be the case that our commitment to following Jesus will lead us to take stands on issues or to reach out to rejected people that will not make us popular.

What is striking about our story from Luke today is that Jesus does not teach us to feel sorry about ourselves, or to see these hard times as problems.  He does not minimize their difficulty, but he teaches us that they are also very real opportunities.  “You will be persecuted, arrested, handed over.  This will give you an opportunity to testify.”  The difficult things in our lives are opportunities for us to practice our faith.  The hard times that we go through are moments when our faith can show itself.  Easy times do not force us to draw on our faith and our trust in God.  The hard times in our lives do.

The promises of God come to us; they are challenging, and they are energizing.

Our other text, Isaiah 65, is a promise in the voice of God of what God is up to in our world, and good Lord, is it a vision to give your life to. “I am about to rebuild the city,” says the Lord. What’s it going to be like? (1) The city is going to be a place of abundant well-being and health. Verse 20 tells us that there will be no more infant mortality and that those who are old will live with vitality. (2) It will be a place of good jobs and good work. Verses 21-23 tell us that no longer will people be working in the fields or on construction projects for hard-driving task-masters. They’ll get to live in their own houses and eat the fruit of their own labor. (3) And it will be a place of mutual respect and regard for those who are different, a place without violence. Verse 25 tells us that the threatening wolf and the vulnerable lamb will trust and befriend each other. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Now we could say that’s just a sweet poem, but one that obviously has no connections with hard reality. Or we could catch it as a vision that stimulates our thinking about public policy about health care, and labor policy, and conflict resolution. We could see it as an “I have a dream” speech that is a promise of the future that is coming towards us.

The glorious promises of abundance and safety that are given us in Isaiah 65, and the haunting assurances of hard times that are given us in Luke 21, are, of course, of a piece. We should not imagine that the security and well-being of Isaiah 65 will come about easily, for they will require a whole lot of work and sweat and tears, and will likely provoke some resistance. And we must remember that the inevitable challenges and opposition of Luke 21 come as part of the larger pursuit of God’s peaceable kingdom, envisioned in Isaiah 65. They go together.

Our congregational work – loving and serving God by responding to human need – engages and lives from these promises. When we build community with each other – supporting each other in the youth group, caring for each other and making music together in the handbell ministry, reaching across the aisle to sit down with someone who views politics differently from us – we are, to use Luke’s words, “taking the opportunity to testify.” Perhaps we’re not being betrayed or hated to the point of death, but we should not underestimate the difficulties in building community during these polarized times. When we care for the earth, or build homes with the working poor, or support local elementary school students, we are engaging Isaiah’s promises of well-being and shalom in the neighborhood.

Your participation, your prayers, and your support make these things possible. Not all of us can climb on a roof to nail in shingles. Not all of us can sing with perfect pitch.  Not all of us can give large amounts of money. But all of us belong, all of us can pray for the healing of the world and for each other, and all of us are part of the ministry of this congregation. Next week, November 24, is Stewardship Dedication Sunday here at Lewinsville, and we would encourage you to fill out a pledge card, bring it with you to church next week, and share your commitment with us.

The promises of God come to us; they are challenging, and they are energizing. To God be all the glory, honor, power, and praise, now, through next year, and forever.  Amen.