GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE
GETTING FROM HERE TO THERE
A sermon preached by Robert B. Shaw at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Easthampton, on November 13, 2022
[Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19]
Back in my professional life—my professorial life—I was used to explicating texts in lectures that ran to fifty minutes. Fortunately, I’m retired, so you don’t have to worry. I don’t want to be reported to Father Bullock for overreaching—or maybe I should say overpreaching. What I do want to do, fairly briefly, is to offer some thoughts on each of this morning’s readings, and on what they appear to be saying to us, taken together on a Sunday in November, 2022.
Although it isn’t immediately obvious in the case of the second lesson, all of these are concerned with expectation of the end time: for Isaiah, the promised reign of the Messiah, and for the first Christians centuries later, the approach of the promised second coming of Christ. Isaiah’s vision of the redeemed future is basically one of Paradise restored. In this great vision of restitution, predator and prey come together as companions, and the deceiving serpent, the source of all discord, is left to a diet of dust. The final verses of the reading, beginning “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” echo the imagery of a similar oracle in Isaiah’s chapter 11 (verses 6-9) where there is a much larger cast of animal characters enjoying each other’s company. And in that earlier, longer passage, after declaring “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,” the prophet adds, “and a little child shall lead them.” In the mid-19th century the self-taught Quaker artist Edward Hicks painted over sixty renderings of this scene from Isaiah. In each, the angelic-looking child in a pastoral landscape is surrounded by a crowd of unlikely animals gathered together like a well-tamed flock. Hicks depended more on imagination than observation in his treatments of animals, and one of the charms of his work is that the leopard, lion, and so forth look like toy stuffed animals in a child’s bedroom. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” it says in both passages in Isaiah. For this Quaker artist, God’s holy mountain looks like a gently rising Pennsylvania hillside. The title of each of Hicks’s many versions of the scene is “The Peaceable Kingdom.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks, reading the scripture or looking at the painting, “O that we were there.”
We are not there yet. If we need reminding of where we actually are at present, all we need to do is turn on CNN. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the natural disasters driven by climate change, the ever more numerous rents and tears in our social fabric, the poisonous and even violent quality of our public discourse—all this is now amplified by social media, which in many cases might better be called anti-social media. New vocabulary is coined to describe what confronts us, but in many cases the old words would do as well. For instance, what is now called “disinformation” has been around for a long time. It used to be called “lying.”
In times of stress, it is not unusual for groups of people to view current happenings as signs and portents, with fear of some final approaching ordeal, or with hope of some imminent rescue—or both. Obsession with what is feared or hoped to be coming can seriously distort human behavior. And in many early Christian writings on this subject, we sense a tension: we are told to be alert to what is coming; then, sometimes almost in the same breath, we are cautioned that the time is not yet at hand. How do we get the balance right? This is the background of the second lesson, though the way the passage has been excerpted makes that less than clear. Read in isolation, this passage seems to show us St. Paul being peeved at some Thessalonian slackers, who have been mooching off their more industrious fellow Christians. But if we look at the earlier part of this letter to the church in Thessalonica, it’s obvious that these apparent freeloaders were not first-century equivalents of present-day unemployed adult children living in their parents’ basements. They were, instead, people who had been affected by the social pressures and disturbing vibes that surrounded them, and they had become fixated on a mistaken view of the schedule Providence was following. They thought that the Day of the Lord had already come. Rather understandably, this led them to set aside worldly concerns like making a living, since they were convinced that life as they had known it was in the process of shutting up shop. Paul asks those he addresses to instruct these people that they are jumping the gun. Before the start of today’s lesson, he refers to all of the signs and portents which haven’t yet occurred, and which must happen before the great change is ushered in. In the meantime, he expects these enthusiasts to get back to work and not lean on their neighbors for support. The message that emerges is: There is no free lunch on the way to the heavenly banquet.
Signs and portents, which are in the background of Paul’s letter, are in the foreground of the lesson from Luke’s Gospel. Signs and portents, and prophecies which in the future are seen to be validated. At the opening of the passage Christ prophesies the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, so that “not one stone will be left upon another.” The Temple was in fact razed to the ground by the Romans in the year 70 AD, close to forty years after the Crucifixion. Luke’s Gospel is judged by scholars to have been written in about 85 AD, so its first readers, or hearers, would have known that this saying of Christ’s had been fulfilled within living memory. In the text, this Temple reference sets the stage for the disciples asking, no doubt with some anxiety, “When will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” Christ’s answer seems to play down the predictive value of any particular disaster. He warns against false prophets and describes a whole series of calamities as things to be expected, but not necessarily as leading immediately to the end. Basically, he seems to view the end as further off than any possible near-term general catastrophes, and he warns his followers to be ready for what he knows will certainly be happening soon: their being targeted for persecution, possibly to the point of death, by the religious and political authorities. And these ordeals, he says strikingly, will be “opportunities”—occasions to practice endurance. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Gospel’s inventory of disasters has to seem unnervingly familiar to us. Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues—we can check off all the boxes. Some of these terrors, natural or human-induced, have been around since Adam and Eve handed in their keys and trudged out of Eden. It would be strange, after witnessing such calamities ourselves in recent times, if we were not made jittery, wondering what might be coming next. As a poet friend of mine used to say, “The future is in the lap of the gods, and they’re getting ready to stand up.” Read carefully, both the Epistle and the Gospel caution against our becoming hypnotized—and in a sense immobilized—by future hopes and fears. Their counsel to us is that we would do better to turn our attention to the NOW (and I don’t mean the Parish newsletter, though that is not a bad idea). What I mean is that we should try our best to act in faith in the moment in which we find ourselves. It is unlikely that we will face imprisonment or execution as Christ’s disciples in some cases did. But there are plenty of what he calls opportunities to testify that are open to us. There is the daily work of putting others and their needs ahead of ourselves and our desires; the hard work of peacemaking; the vital work of charity. To ask that we focus on the present is not to echo the lazy, thoughtless phrase, “The future will take care of itself.” It is to take responsibility for what we do now, knowing that our actions have the power to shape the world we hand on to our posterity.
When I look at one of Edward Hicks’s paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom, I soon begin thinking of other paintings, too many to count, of a royal child surrounded by friendly beasts—depictions of the holy Infant in his manger in Bethlehem. “Ox and ass before him bow, / And he is in the manger now,” says the carol. Hicks’s paintings of Isaiah’s vision seem to show us a moment beyond time, or at least set apart from what we have come to know as history’s parade of nightmares. But the scenes of Christ’s Nativity I am thinking of are pictures of a child’s birthday from which we derive the yearly dates of our calendars—those calendars by which we differentiate our daily now from what has come before and what is yet to come. These Nativity paintings are attempts to depict the point at which eternity interfused itself with time in the person of Jesus. As another poet friend of mine wrote, there are times when hope and history rhyme. It is fitting that we should attend to the moment we are in because it was in such a moment—freighted, as this one is, with human hopes and fears—that the Savior came to us. The Peaceable Kingdom, the holy mountain: we are not there yet, although, without specifying a time line, there are those of us who believe that we will get there. In the meantime, we can only pray:
O Lord our God, our times are in your hand. Grant us grace to further the work of your kingdom on earth as we live in accordance with your will. And when the days of this mortal life are at an end, bring us, by your mercy, to the peace and fulfillment of your eternal kingdom. This we ask in the name of Christ, our alpha and omega, our forerunner and final refuge. Amen.