I don’t know how the Seasons of the Spirit crew pick their focus Scripture for the week. But this week we all might understand the switch from the depressing gospel lesson to the more uplifting vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” from Isaiah. In Luke, it’s bad enough that the “signs” of God’s reworking of the universe include nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heavens. But worse is what comes before: what happens to us--arrest and persecution, being handed over to synagogues and prisons, being brought before kings and governors because of Jesus’ name, betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends, even being put to death, being hated by all because of following Jesus.
But on the bright side—the Jesus of Luke concludes—not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I don’t know about you—but I’ve always had a reaction to this Scripture that might go like “Say what?” What do you mean that not a hair on my head will perish, if you’ve just told me that I’m going to have all kinds of things happen to me, that those, even those that I love and who are supposed to be in my corner are going to turn away from me, and in the end it might lead to my death. What part of that ISN’T “a hair on your head perishing?” It just doesn’t compute. I understand the “by endurance you will gain your souls” part (the Apostle Paul uses a different metaphor for the same instruction—he says, “let us run with endurance the race set before us,” and “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”) But when faced with this present world of divisive politics; worldwide calamities; the rise of hateful speech, thought, and deed; climate crisis; not to mention any number of soul-numbing issues on the horizon, I am having trouble seeing Jesus’ “bright side.”
And it doesn’t help that we know Jesus is right on the cusp of the end of his life. Jesus (in the gospel of Luke) will soon be arrested, and tortured, and be handed over to synagogue leaders and brought before governors, and betrayed by those closest to him, and eventually strung up on a cross. Where is the “not a hair on your head will perish” in that?
Even if we turn to Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, it doesn’t break the spell. Who knows when that “promised vision” is going to show up. Don’t get me wrong, it will be great when there isn’t infant mortality anymore, and all people get to live to a ripe old age. When peace will reign and people will be able to build houses and not worry about inhabiting them, or planting crops and not worry about getting to eat them—but look around you—that doesn’t seem to be anytime soon!
Now before you gather in the parking lot to gossip about whether your pastor needs a sabbatical, or a prescription for xanax or something stronger, I want to say—I am just channeling what many are feeling in this day and time. Or maybe what some have felt in every day and time. Oh, let’s be honest, What all of us have felt some day and time.
It is easy to find all the terrible things that are going on—easy to see the bad in situations and people—easy to give in to the pessimism and apathy and malaise—easy to say, there’s too much to fix, there’s not enough of me, it’s just not worth it to stick my neck out, let’s just hunker down until God shows up to make it all better.
I admit that there are days when I have to talk myself out this kind of mentality. I have to hold on for dear life to two things that I think we hear again, and again, and again in Scripture. And I can point to the bare bones of these truths in our morning’s readings.
1) The first point is that God never promised us a rose garden. Eden is something that is locked away, and we are barred from it by angels with fiery swords. No one gets a free ride. No one is handed a “get out of jail free” card. No one gets a blessed life without some unblessed things happening.
It’s almost as if Jesus is saying to us—life is what life is—in all its messiness, in all its joys and sorrows, in all its triumphs and failures. And believing in God isn’t going to stop those things from happening; praying to God isn’t going to protect you any more than the next person; following God isn’t a magic shield. Given that, what are we supposed to do?
We are to hang in there, in faith. We are to “run the race.” We are to “keep on, keeping on.” We are to do the tough things; to do the right things; to do the things that people of faith, people who walk the Way, people who believe in God and God’s vision do, no matter what.
So in this world in which we live—which isn’t paradise (and never will be), we aren’t to wait around for God to act. We are to make the best of it. We are to “endure;” we are to find a faithful way in this faulty world; we are to search for the bright side, search for the right side, search for the good and Godly. This isn’t a punishment, and it isn’t the mindless, and pointless, moving of stones from one pile to another pile, and then back again, that the Nazis (and other abusers) have used to try to break the will of enslaved peoples. Jesus’ “bright side” is that by doing this, by exercising our “endurance,” we gain our souls.
That is our part. But that isn’t all. There is a second part—God’s part. Now I know what I am about to say is not news, but it bears repeating. We don’t know or see all that God is doing. WE don’t know what God is doing in our world, in our neighbor’s life, sometimes even in our own life. WE don’t see every change, every step forward (after two steps back), every portent of the coming new heaven and new earth. That is not our calling. That is what God does. Isaiah says God says, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”
Isaiah is trying to remind us that God’s way is not our way. That we do not always see the big picture. That we cannot assume that nothing is happening, just because we don’t perceive it. Isaiah wants us to remember, wants us to hear God saying, “Before they call (I am already on the job). Before they call (I am sooo far ahead of you). Before they call (I have already put things in motion). While they are yet speaking (as if I didn’t already know). While they are yet speaking (I will listen, like you always listen to those very LONG descriptions of other’s dreams.) Whey they are yet speaking (I am nodding my head and a small smile is on my lips and I am so glad that you are finally beginning to catch a glimpse of what I have been trying to tell you). Yes, “Before they call I will answer, while they are still speaking I will hear.”
So our part is to run the race with endurance, and so gain our souls. And God’s part is to answer before we call, to hear even before we hear ourselves to speech. And the sneak preview, the trailer to end all trailers, the tease—is what happened on the third day, symbolized by an empty tomb, but meaning so much more than empty—meaning the opposite of empty.
Resurrection is why Jesus could make that cryptic statement “not a hair on your head will perish” as he is staring down the walk to the cross. Because perishing is all about this world. And not about God’s world.
Resurrection is why Isaiah can talk about a new heaven and a new earth. He puts it in terms of the wild animals—“the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” But really he is talking about is an upending of all that we know, and reworking of what our world is and has been. A truly NEW heaven and a NEW earth—not like anything we have ever seen. So unbelievable, so mind-blowing, so glorious, that it leaves us stunned, and then propels us to run and tell others.
For by our endurance we will gain our souls. And God promises that “before we call God will answer, while we are still speaking God will hear us.” That is the bright side of this thing we call life. May we live it, abundantly, joyfully, prayerfully, blessed to be in the company of each other, and our God.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.