This sermon is a conglomerate. It represents part of a sermon I read by Tony Campolo, and stuff stuck in my head from reading N.T. Wright’s book that I cite in the sermon.  The only reason I think that my pasting together of these snippets of wisdom from others is worthwhile is that someone told me at the door, “I couldn’t agree with you less.”




November 14, 2010

17 “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. 20 “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. 23 They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. 24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. [Isaiah 65:17-25]

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, . . . famines and pestilences, and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. . . . do not be terrified. .. . This will be a time for you to bear testimony [Luke 21:5-19].

The disciples were walking by the temple in Jerusalem one day, admiring its massive beauty. So many stones. Arches upon arches. Jesus then came out of the temple, and the disciples approached him to give him a tour of the temple buildings. But Jesus, who was their guide on a tour to a land called Hope, said, “The days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6)

It must have been difficult for the disciples to conceive that Herod’s great temple, one of the wonders of the world, would be torn down, stone by stone, until it was nothing but a heap of rubble. Such a thing was unimaginable. The temple, the very center of national life and pride, the very seat of God, destroyed? Unthinkable! I cannot think of a similar structure that we might give us a similar state of disbelief, the Lincoln Memorial? I don’t know.

Yet that is what Jesus told the disciples about this supposedly eternal temple of God, and barely 40 years after he spoke these words it lay in ruin. Jesus’ words rang true:

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; . . . terrors, . . . great signs.”

Most mainline religion — of the sort preached from this pulpit — has had as its goal adjustment to and satisfaction with the present order rather than speculation or concern about the future. And so believe me, I was not happy to see this trio of lessons appear in the lectionary this morning.

My only way out was to side with some of our best biblical scholars who have enabled us to read passages like Luke 21 without having to take them seriously. We could reduce these apocalyptic texts to mere metaphor. But talk about such biblical texts and about the end of the world is no longer the sole property of late-night radio preachers and shouting Bible-pounders. Why? Because strangely enough, we are coming to believe them.

Jesus says, “As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And we say, “Jesus, we believe you. Though there may be many who do not believe in you, we all believe you – economic catastrophe, we know about that; ecological disaster, check; thinning ozone, yep; shrinking resources, everywhere; exploding populations — tell us about it!” Jesus responded frankly to their questions, saying that, for us, there will be an end — stones cast down, famine, pestilence, terrors, signs from heaven. It’s in the Bible: the end is near.

Despite Jesus’ predictions, however, the world did not come to an end during his own generation. The temple was destroyed, yes, but not the whole world. The world went on. Paul told early Christians not to marry, not to worry about whether they were slave or free because this world was soon to end. But it didn’t. So Paul was wrong, too. The end did not come in A.D. 70 when the temple was destroyed, or when the Roman Empire fell. There have been wars and rumors of wars, but still the world endures. The end has not come. I saw a cartoon the other day with two Mayan’s and a stone tablet. One guy asks the other “why does it end in 2012?” and the other says, “I ran out of space on the stone.” And the other Mayan said, “bet it’ll really freak some people out in the future.” I do not believe the Mayans had it right either.

Yet, we do believe that the end has come. Let me explain; Christians believe that we have already seen “the end,” and that the vision we behold is not one that causes terror but one that stimulates hope. We believe that the world has come to a decisive crisis in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. In his death, the entire history of the universe has reached a turning point. At that moment, when he was nailed to a cross, the conflict between life and death, good and evil, God and Caesar was resolved in favor of God’s lordship over existence. A new Kingdom was established — a Kingdom not dependent on whether we work out a plan to deter Iran from creating nuclear weapons, but one based on what God has done and is doing for us and the world.

We might ask then, what does this kingdom look like? Then we go to the Bible, there it says this in the 65th chapter, starting at the 17th verse: The kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, the new society that God wants to create, will be marked by justice. It will be justice in this sense: everybody will have a decent house to live in, everybody will have a good job and have a good opportunity to earn a decent living in the vineyards of this world, children will not die in infancy, old people will live out their lives in perfect health and not have to worry about who’s going to take care of them. Read the chapter. It’s fantastic. It says when boys and girls are growing up, parents aren’t going to worry that their sons and daughters are going to end, “in calamity.” No girls getting pregnant before their time and boys being blown away in gang warfare. It even ends on an environmental note. It says when the Kingdom comes people will not hurt the Earth any more. It’s all there. It’s all there. It is a beautiful picture of the future in which (as N. T. Wright says) God has put the world to “rights.”1

You will notice that this kingdom is not built upon a slate wiped clean. This kingdom is about building upon the rubble of the original kingdom that God proclaimed Good. It is about transforming that creation into something new.

Now, there is one more thing that I need to say. This part of the sermon is the ‘so-what’ part. This will involve us in politics. What if during the mid term election we looked at the issues through the lens of the Kingdom of God as Isaiah describes it? Is there justice in the huge tax breaks for the rich while the poor get neglected? Is that right? In order to finance this tax benefit we ended 50,000 programs for inner-city kids who are getting tutoring after school. To finance what, a bunch of rich people? I don’t think that’s the justice of God. We have to begin to ask questions about our system of justice. You know there is one kind of justice for rich people and another kind of justice for poor people in this country. I know this is true because I’ve participated in this and benefited from it. Still; Not right. And the national budget. Do you know that of the twenty-two industrialized nations of the world, the United States is next to last in the proportion of the national budget that we set aside for poor people in the world? We give away less than two tenths of one percent. That’s not even one percent! To put it in perspective, for every dollar we Americans give to our national budget to help the poor of the world, the people of Norway give seventy. We’re six percent of the world’s population. We consume forty-three percent of the world’s resources and we give away less than two tenths of one percent of our national budget to help the poor of the world. That’s not justice. That is not what the Kingdom of God looks like.

We may not know how God means to transform the universe, but we can confess that we know it is within God’s power to do this. We may not know every specific of what we are to do, even while we know we should do something. We may know that God anticipates his people to be participants in the KOG, even if we realize we cannot do it all. What remains possible for us as individual believers, and us as a congregation, is to participate in this kind of transformation by following the patterns of God’s justice that have been offered to us.

Thus, I am convinced we need not worry or trouble ourselves over what is certain. It is so easy to focus upon the terrors and tremors in this life. Yes, things look bad, but don’t panic. What we need is to be assured of God’s promises and concern ourselves with is Isaiah’s vision for justice here in the present, how are we contributors to God’s reign and rule, here and now.

Why should we participate in this vision of a kingdom that seems to have just barely shoe-horned itself into our present reality? The earliest Christians did not believe in progress. Neither did they believe that the world was getting worse. They believed that God was doing for the whole cosmos what He had done for Jesus at Easter. There is a transformation on the way! And this belief, this faith is not an opiate; this faith is a stimulus to action.

See people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.2 Obviously we cannot build this kingdom by our own efforts, we look to the new creation; and we know that doing justice is the task of the Christian life, so we reject the idea that we shouldn’t even try. If you cannot see the wisdom in this, you are wrong because you either don’t know your bible or you don’t know God’s power.

Let us overcome our surprise that such a hope should be set before us and go to the task with prayer and wisdom.3 Let our faith be less about self-satisfaction and more about mission.

1 N. T. Wright, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,” Harper, 2008.

2 Wright N. T. “Surprised by Hope,” p. 214

3 Wright, p. 222