Text: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Theme: “Be Not Afraid!” or “Choose Joy!”
On October 30, 1938, the day before Hallowe’en, Orson Welles performed on radio an adaptation of H. G. Welles’s novel The War of the Worlds. Presented mainly as a series of news bulletins, the play suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Adding to the realism was the fact that the program ran without commercial breaks. In the days following, however, there was widespread outrage in the media and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. Why not? The winds of war were beginning to blow. The stock market crash and the dirty thirties had challenged the world economy. Totalitarian governments were shaping world affairs by increasing territorial and political demands.Nations were re-arming. With their nerves already on edge, the smallest thing could set the American people off.
The future can be scary to contemplate. A day doesn’t go by without hearing a word of warning or calamity about something or other. Moral decay, environmental destruction, secularization, earthquakes, sunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, wars and the list goes on. Not only that but the older one gets, the worse, things seem to be getting. And if you probe a little deeper, you will notice that normal rank and file people like you and me are fairly fatalistic about it. “Not much to be done about it.” “I guess it was meant to be.” “What can one person do?” If it is a death, one may hear that “I guess it was their time” or “It was meant to be anyway.” And so we live our lives, expecting the worst, hoping for the best, and wondering what’s going to happen. Some claim to know what’s going to happen. Climate scientists talk about tipping points and “points of no return” when the world will become hostile toward much of existing life. Fundamentalists talk about “the end of the world” and “the rapture of the saints” who will be lifted from the earth before it is consumed by fire. For both groups there is a sense of inevitability about the future. But for many of us there is a sense of futility about doing anything. And so we grow in fear.
Some Scripture passages have functioned the same way over the years. There are some passages in Scripture which are notoriously hard to read, much less, understand. They are called apocalyptic. Apocalypse means revelation and refers usually to future-oriented Bible passages. Our text this morning is taken from a longer text, one in which Jesus speaks to his disciples about what was to happen. The present temple, a wonder of the world, beautiful now, the sign of God’s presence in Jerusalem and among his people, would be so utterly destroyed that not even one stone would be left on top of another. Jesus spoke of Israel moving toward a point of the destruction of the nation. Extraordinary events were about to happen. People would say all kinds of things about the meaning of events. But rather than offer them a blueprint about how this was to happen or what the sequence was to be, Jesus told his disciples: “Do not be terrified.” “Do not be terrified! When these wars and struggles arise, when these earthquakes, famines and plagues come, when everything seems to be falling apart, do not be afraid."
These are words for our time. Are you afraid? What are you afraid of?
Samuel Wells writes that fear isn’t itself good or bad. It’s an emotion that identifies what we love. He explains that “The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of. We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love. We fear for our children. We fear for our planet. We fear for our friends. But we also fear death. Stanley Hauerwas stated in a lecture in Winnipeg that North Americans are afraid to die. Why else are we spending so much money on health care at the end of life? He went on to say that we have changed the medical community’s emphasis from “care” to “cure.” Why? Because not only do we love life but we are afraid of losing our lives.
The disciples were not to worry about the future. When things started to happen around them, they were warned not to be led astray. They were not to make preparations. They were to expect trials and torture and perhaps death, but God would give them all they needed at the time they needed it. In other words, the disciples were to continue with their mission of sharing the good news of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world and calling people to become part of this good news. God would take care of the rest.
Jesus’ words hit us right where we live. We are concerned with security. Western countries have spent trillions of dollars on issues of national security. We are concerned with having enough. We look daily at the stock market quotations, the job market, prices for commodities, weather reports, and so on. We are told we have to prepare for the future, otherwise we may not be ready.
Again, Jesus’ message is very simple: “Don’t be terrified.”
And the reason we are not to be terrified is because in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future. And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well. It is this confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
For those of you who could not attend and as others of you have may have read in the bulletin over the last few weeks or heard announced in church on Sunday mornings, yesterday we held our Strategic Planning Session for the Covenant Mennonite Church. We looked into the future and tried to discern where God was leading us as a congregation. We had planned for this last February at our annual meeting and over a series of different sessions, activities and time, we looked to see how we could do some forward visioning and strategizing. We found out later that our National Conference, MC Canada, and our Area Conferences, like MC Manitoba, have formed a Futures Task Force to look at the future shape and mission of Mennonite Church Canada. Circumstances have changed. The ways we have done things in the past are not sufficient to our resources or our needs. What will the missional church of the 21st century look like in Canada? What is God calling us to here in Winkler?
These are daunting questions. For some of us they are difficult to answer. Looking back we see how God has blessed and sustained us. But looking into the future is less certain. Can we trust God with the future?
In several weeks we will begin Advent. I’m sorry to bring that up two weeks early. But I was reminded of that when I saw the Isaiah text for this Sunday. Into a world in which international tension was as ratcheted as tightly as anyone could imagine in this little nation of Judah, God chose to send Jesus, not as a fully formed divinity, or a super warrior or even royalty but as an anonymous baby born to ordinary folk. God has chosen to work with weakness because in the end, it is not our strength or preparedness which will determine the success of God’s purposes but God alone who will accomplish them. Our text refers to a future much different from that of Luke’s Gospel. This text, most likely written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the return from exile, shows what God ultimately will bring about.
This passage is about Jerusalem being a city of joy, its people a delight; no more sorrow, or pain; a baby will live to grow old; a hundred years of age will be a normal lifespan; one will live to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labour – houses, gardens, descendants; natural enemies will be together in peace, pain and suffering will be a things of the past.
There are many faithful Christians who practice the faith, know the truth, keep the commandments, pursue mission in many different ways, pray for the coming of the kingdom but never display the joy. In other words, good blameless people trying to do the right thing. But some of us are so worried about being right, about doing good, that we forget about joy. We forget about living. Do we trust God with our future? Wendell Berry once stated that we should "be joyful though we've considered all the facts." We tend to think in terms of success. But that is not how God thinks. We are called to trust in the God of the future and invited to live lives which reflect joy in the face of all that appears to be otherwise. Don't be terrified? I suggest that another way of saying “Be not afraid” is “Choose joy!”