Monday, January 9, 2017

The Wolf and the Lamb Shall Feed Together (11/13/16)
Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom

On November 13, 2016 we looked at a text from Isaiah and a lesson from the Gospel of Luke. There is a common misperception that the Scriptures of the Old Testament pain a picture of an angry, vengeful God, while the gospels present a kinder, gentler picture of God and Jesus. These two Scriptures turn that view upside down.
The Wolf and the Lamb Shall Feed Together (11/13/16)

          Good morning! What an exciting and newsworthy week this was. I’m referring, of course, to Wednesday, when I celebrated my forty-fifth birthday. Wait, something bigger happened this week? Are you sure? You have to understand, I’m an only child. It’s always about me. Of course I’m kidding—somewhat. And forty-five isn’t one of those momentous birthdays. But birthdays are times for reflection, an opportunity to consider my journey. It’s been quite a journey over the last five or six years.
          For my fortieth birthday I took a short trip to New York to visit one of my fraternity brothers and eat in some great restaurants. It had been a few years since I’d seen Frankie and we had a lot of catching up to do. I’d just started seminary a couple months before my birthday, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the conversation turned to religion and what lead me to go to seminary.
          In that conversation, Frankie told me that he had a lot of difficulty with the scriptures of the Old Testament. God seemed so angry, so harsh, and so judgmental in the Old Testament. Yet in the New Testament, God seems to be much kinder, gentler, and more loving. Frankie had trouble reconciling the two pictures. I told him that the Old Testament scriptures are about much more than judgment; more than fire and brimstone. I also told him that even if those scriptures are difficult to listen to, we need to understand them. Jesus frequently quotes the prophets of the Old Testament—we need to understand those scriptures if we’re going to understand Jesus’ call on our lives. That’s not a bad answer for a first-semester seminarian, but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t do justice to the depth of the scriptures of the Old Testament or the New Testament.
          Frankie’s reaction to the Old Testament is actually pretty common, even among practicing Christians. Frankie was raised Catholic and he went to a Jesuit high school, so I’m sure he had plenty of religious instruction. I’ve heard similar comments from many Protestants, too. Simply put, the notion that the God of the Old Testament is all about anger, judgment, and wrath is a very shallow reading of the Bible. And to say that the New Testament is all about love and joy is an equally shallow reading. Today’s readings from Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke turn those shallow notions upside down.
          The prophet Isaiah announces that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth; it will be a time of rejoicing: children will not die in infancy, men and women will enjoy the fruits of their labor, enemies will be reconciled with one another. This is the full of creation as God intends for all of us; this is the kingdom of God. It’s no accident that Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet.
          Yet Jesus does not sound a single happy note in this morning’s gospel lesson. Of the Temple at Jerusalem, Jesus says: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then Jesus speaks of wars and insurrections, nation rising against nation. This sounds more like the angry God of the Old Testament—the shallow reading of the Old Testament, that is. To avoid these shallow readings, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the historical context for each of these scriptures.
          Today, most biblical scholars believe that the Book of Isaiah is actually the work of several authors. The first 39 chapters, more or less, are attributed to the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, who was active during the second half of the eighth century, BCE; that is, from the mid-740s to about 700 BCE. The remainder of the Book of Isaiah was composed during and after the Babylonian exile, which lasted from 597 BCE to 539 BCE.
          The Jewish exiles were released after Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, defeated the Babylonians. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they destroyed the Temple that had been built by King Solomon. The city of Jerusalem was abandoned; the center of Jewish religious life was destroyed. The captives who were sent into exile in Babylon were the religious and political leaders of the Kingdom of Judah. What’s more, the Babylonians resettled some of their soldiers in Judah.
          In 537 BCE, Cyrus permitted the Jews to rebuild the Temple. The Temple was rebuilt, eventually, but the exiles were not welcomed back. The people who remained had learned to get along without the help of the Jerusalem elites. Some of them had intermarried with the Babylonian soldiers who had settled in Jerusalem. This created a new ethnic and religious landscape; after the exiles returned, there was a great deal of debate over who was a proper Jew.
          Though the Temple was rebuilt, the divisions in Judean society were never healed. The reconciliation was incomplete. Factions developed among the people and the divisions persisted for centuries. This was the religious and political landscape into which Jesus was born. It was a divided world; Jesus came to heal the world as it was and the world as it is.
          When Jesus is asked to comment on the beauty of the Temple, he responds by saying, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Then Jesus speaks of the coming wars and persecutions. This is scary stuff; it’s so scary that it’s easy to miss the grace that Jesus offers. I’m going to come back to the grace, but I think we need to stay in the fear and division for a little bit.
          In our corner of the world, it is clear that we are very much divided. We, too have factions that cannot seem to reconcile. We see this most clearly during presidential elections, but the truth is these divisions have existed for decades. While our political candidates can fan the flames of fear, anxiety, and hatred, the divisions have always been there and these feelings have long been in our hearts. It is clear to me that we are not good at listening to one another. At best, we are talking past one another. At our worst, we’re busy shouting at one another, trying to convict our political adversaries, calling out every bit of hypocrisy we see. If you don’t believe me, go on Facebook.
          In troubled times, when my heart is weary, I want comfort and I want to know that I’m not alone. But when that comfort doesn’t come right away, sometimes I want vindication. Fear and anxiety become a form of temptation. If I can’t get what I want, then I need to show everyone that I was right in the first place. Now maybe I’m the only one who’s afflicted with this desire for vindication, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. What do you folks think?
          When I hear Jesus talk the coming wars and persecutions, I am tempted to fall into the trap of self-righteousness. I don’t really want to see wars. I don’t want to be persecuted. But I do want to righteous and I want to call out the unrighteous! I want to say, “This is the consequence! This is what happens when you don’t listen to what I preach!” But that’s not righteousness, that’s self-righteousness.
          It is so easy to read our present situation into this lesson from the Gospel of Luke. That would be a mistake. First, we cannot ignore recent history—and by recent history, I mean the twentieth century. One hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme came to a close. That battle lasted from July 1, 1916 to November 18, 1916. The British and the French were on one side, the Germans were on the other. When the battle was finished, more than a million men were killed or wounded. For all that, the British and the French moved the front lines about six miles.
          The First World War visited death and destruction upon the world on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Between 1914 and 1918 nine million soldiers and seven million civilians were killed.[1] Poison gas was introduced as a weapon of war.
          One of the offshoots of World War I was a worldwide influenza pandemic that lasted from January of 1918 to December of 1920. Researchers estimate the total numbers of dead as somewhere between 50 and 100 million people.
          The Russian Revolution was another result of World War I. Millions died from warfare and disease. When the Communists came to power, they confiscated farmlands and livestock. At the same time, there were massive droughts. Famine and disease killed millions more.[2]
          Some twenty years later, and in many ways as a result of World War I, the destruction was repeated, but on an even grander scale. Between 1939 and 1945, some 50 to 85 million people were killed.[3] The Nazis attempted genocide on a scale that was unimaginable. Of course, the entire war would have seemed unimaginable a mere 50 years earlier. Again, the world suffered through wars, disease, and famine, but the end of the world did not come.
          While I don’t mean to minimize the problems of our world today, I think it’s important to keep our challenges in perspective. If we focus on the things that drive our fears, and then decide that those are the wars and persecutions of which Jesus is speaking, then we ignore the grace that Jesus offers. Remember, Jesus tells us, “do not be terrified.” It seems too easy to let go and trust Jesus, but that’s what we have to do. We have to let go, trust, and follow Christ’s call to reconciliation.
          That reconciliation never really happened for the Jewish exiles who returned from Babylon; the divisions in their society persisted. They were unable to resolve their own divisions; they couldn’t achieve the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah described. When they couldn’t do it on their own, God sent Jesus into that broken world. Jesus is the new creation that unlocks the new heavens and the new earth that Isaiah describes. Jesus is the answer to
          Jesus began the work of reconciliation among God’s chosen people, Israel. Jesus entered the world in a particular time and place. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus completed the job of reconciling us to God, yet he left some work for his disciples. He entrusted them with spreading God’s message of love and reconciliation in and through Christ. That job is still with us today. We must heal the divisions within the church and in the world.
          To do this, we have to abandon our self-righteousness, because it gets in the way of reconciliation. These are some of the “former things” of which Isaiah speaks. We have to step away from our desire to substitute our judgment for God’s judgment, our fears for Christ’s peace. To do this in our country, we have to begin by listening to one another. This sounds easy, but it’s not. Though we hear people when they shout their opinions, hearing is different from listening.
          Listening is an act of love. When you truly listen to another person, you acknowledge that the other person is also one of God’s beloved children. You acknowledge that the other person has dignity and value. You accept their point of view without attempting to change it or challenge it. That’s really, really difficult. At the same time, we all have to be open to being changed by what we hear and we have to put ourselves in places where we hear different stories.
          When I was in seminary I worked in a coffee and tobacco shop in Peters Township. Some of the guys who hung out there worked in downtown Pittsburgh, but most of the guys never left Washington County, and if they did, it was to go to South Hills Village.
          I went to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; it’s located in Highland Park, right next to East Liberty. As many of you know, East Liberty became a rough neighborhood in the 70s and 80s. But the neighborhood has changed a lot in the last 15-20 years. Developers have built new shops and apartments. Some of the best new restaurants in Pittsburgh are in East Liberty. It’s a very different place now. Yet my friends at the shop would constantly ask me, “Aren’t you scared to go into the city?” I would usually laugh it off. Sometimes I’d explain how much the neighborhood had changed. And still I would get the same questions, from the same guys, “Aren’t you scared to go into East Liberty?” I don’t understand why my word wasn’t good enough. No minds were changed, and nobody was willing to visit East Liberty to see if what I said was accurate.
          As we all know, there are deep divisions in this country. If you invite someone to tell you what he or she thinks, you’re likely to hear something you disagree with. If you are willing to sit with that person’s thoughts, without argument or debate, then you’re listening. This is true whether the subject is politics, religion, race, class, or gender. If we want to do the difficult work of reconciliation, we have to start by truly listening to one another. And then we have to be open to the possibility of change. Do not be terrified! We have the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit, and the witness of Scripture to help us in the work of building God’s kingdom, the peaceable kingdom, here on Earth. Thanks be to God. Amen!

          Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are all reconciled to God and to one another through the love of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit. So look for the ways that you can be agents of reconciliation. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. This is the truth and the love in which we were created. Go forth and live fully and abundantly into that love. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] H.P. Willmott. World War I. New York: Dorling Kindersley (2003).
[2] Ralph Raico, “Marxist Dream and Soviet Realities,” Mises Daily, April 20, 2012; retrieved from:
[3] Donald Sommerville. The Complete Illustrated History of World War Two: An Authoritative Account of the Deadliest Conflict in Human History with Analysis of Decisive Encounters and Landmark Engagements. Leicester: Lorenz Books (2008).

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