Texts: Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19
When the exiles returned to Jerusalem, their prophets imagined a time when the misery of former times would no longer be remembered: the fundamental injustice and corruption of Hebrew society in the period before Jerusalem's destruction; the fall of Jerusalem to the foreign invader; the captivity of Israel's noble families in Babylon. In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet declares that these memories of trauma and disgrace are to be put aside forever, because God has begun the work of making a new Jerusalem out of the ashes of the old, a Jerusalem characterised by peace, or Shalom.
Where the former Jerusalem had ignored the terms of covenant with Yahweh, this new Jerusalem would be a 'joy and delight' to its God. The resources of Israel would no longer be concentrated into the hands of the aristocratic few. The peasantry would no longer suffer the early deaths of malnutrition and disease, because they would now enjoy equal access to the land's bounty. Neither would the majority be alienated from the fruits of their labour. No longer would they work for others without just recompense. No, in this new Jerusalem of Yahweh's making, the poor would live in the houses they built and enjoy the harvest of their own planting. Shalom.
Alongside these covenantal social reforms, the prophet anticipates a new depth of spiritual communion between the people and their God. In former times, the people had cried out to God for deliverance from their ills. Yet God, on many occasions, had seemed distant and unresponsive: as distant and unresponsive as the people sins had made them from God. But now God would come closer than ever before. Even before the cry of distress came to people's lips, God would already be present to offer assurance and care. Here the prophet implies not so much a change in God as a change in the people's approach to God. In times gone by, the people would cry out to God for help. Yet they had shown little inclination to mend their ways by returning to the peaceful terms of the covenant. The prophet dreams of a time when the spirituality of the people is thoroughly covenantal, where the people are more intimately and wholeheartedly lovers of God. Shalom.
Finally, the prophet indulges in a little cosmological dreaming. Not only will the people enjoy peace, but the non-human order also. The imagery here is quite beautiful:
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;
the lion shall eat straw like an ox;
. . . they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.
This is a vision of cosmic peace, where even 'natural' enmities have been put aside; where even carnivorous animals become vegetarians!
Now, contrast all of that with the rather bleak vision of Jerusalem presented by Luke's gospel, a Jerusalem that would have been profoundly disappointing to the prophets we've been discussing. For this Jerusalem of the 1st century, far from experiencing covenantal Shalom, is once more the scene of terror and dismay, this time at the hands of the Romans. At the time in which Luke writes, the temple, which so poignantly symbolised the hope of Shalom for so many Jews, was once more in ruins. And with it, one might conclude, so was the ancient Hebraic dream of peace.
How does a community deal with disappointment on this scale, particularly a religious community, which has dreamed such wonderful dreams—dreams about a world reborn to justice, truth and love? How did the black community of America cope when their great dreamer, Martin Luther King Jr., was taken by a sniper's bullet? How did the Salvadoran community deal with the death of their courageous archbishop, Oscar Romero, who had dared to imagine an El Salvador where the poor would be destitute no longer? The easiest thing to do, it seems to me, is to give up the dream, to conclude that the dream is a hoax; or, perhaps, that such dreams belong to an era of idealism which we have wisely left behind. People who come to such conclusions often join the very forces against which they have raged for so long. Like the hippies of the peace and love generation, who grew up to become the kings of western capitalism, thus demonstrating that they were really just as greedy and individualistic as those they had formerly accused.
I must confess to having felt the temptation to abandon the Christian dream on many occasions. Whenever I see a disaster like the inter-ethnic massacres in the Sudan a few of years ago, I feel that temptation. Or the civil wars in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. For these conflicts are not, in any way, fated or necessary. They are the results of centuries of co-operation between ethnically-based oligarchies and foreign colonialism. They are the result of the greedy exercise of power and a basic lack of care and respect for people and their future. For years, ordinary people in each of these places have been agitating against the power of the privileged few over their lives. And, eventually, they each gained a victory of sorts. The promise of free elections and an end to violence. Yet now, as we speak, the dreams which came into being through the poet-politicians of each of these communities . . . with so many dead and dying, where is all that now? And when I see the decline of genuine Christian witness in the midst of our own increasingly stratified and materialistic society, I ask myself the question: what am I to do? How can I resist the power of these enormous forces?
In that context, the exhortations of Jesus for those who are being persecuted take on a new power. Here in the western church we are not being persecuted with the ferocity that Christians were being persecuted towards the close of the new Testament period. And we are not being killed and maimed like countless Christian workers in Africa, Burma, the Philippines and the Middle-East. But we are facing a time of terrible decision. In the face of the colonising and secularising forces of western capitalism, how are we to respond? Do we simply join in with it all? Do we simply capitulate to the New World Order where the rich get richer and the poor die young. Or do we somehow find the Christian dream once more, and live by it, no matter how difficult?
Jesus stands amongst us this morning, as he did in the Lukan community of old, and encourages us to keep living the dream. 'Don't run after false messiahs', he says. These are the American-styled ‘pentecostal’ preachers who promise peace when there is no peace, who promise a personal relationship with a ‘Jesus’ who does nothing except numb your heart and spirit to the realities of everyday life in much the same way as alcohol does. A real Messiah, I submit, would ask us to bear witness to the Christian dream right in the middle of everyday life, with our eyes open and our hearts and minds alert. Which is precisely what Jesus asks of us: to offer a critique of everyday life in the light of Shalom. To protest. To say it is not good enough that so many thousands of children die of malnutrition, that Aboriginal children suffer in squalor, that the resources of the future are being exported to provide for the greed of today. Don't be afraid, says Jesus, when you make your protest before even the captains of industry or the officials of government. If you keep living in the dream—if you allow it to well up into your thinking, your feeling, your praying—then you will find wisdom and words to do it justice.
But most of all, when all seems lost, when the whole world seems mad on destroying itself, keep believing the dream. For if you do this, you will, in the end, actually become the dream. You will, in the words of the new Testament, become its body and spirit in the world. For the dream is Christ—all that he did and said as an incarnation of God’s own dreaming or Spirit. Insofar as we allow Christ to become the primary compass for our own living, insofar as we allow his own dream and Spirit to become ours, that is the extent to which the kingdom of Shalom will arrive in our own place and time. That is how the dream will stay alive in the world. So what will you do? Capitulate to the way things are? Or make yourself available for God’s dreaming?