Stand Firm -- A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 65:17-25

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

Stand Firm

We hear complaints here and there that Christians in the United States face persecution. Usually the complaints center on rules prohibiting crèches or Ten Commandment monuments on civic property, or maybe the inability to have Christian prayers at high school football games. Most of these complaints have to do with loss of power and market share. Rarely, if ever, do Americans face true persecution. That is, their lives are not on the line, in the way that, for instance, the Chaldean Christians of Iraq are facing persecution at this very moment. In the lectionary texts for this week, believers are called upon to stand firm and to keep true to their faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. The passage from Isaiah speaks to post-exilic Jews who are facing difficult prospects for the future, while both the epistle and gospel speak directly to the reality of persecution. Where then does faith fit in this equation?

We start with the message from Isaiah – or more precisely – the third prophetic voice in the book of Isaiah. The Jewish people are living in the midst of ruin and despair. Their city lies in ruins and their Temple is no more. They build homes only to see others move in and farm land to see others eat of it. But a new day is coming; a day of new creation, when the old will be gone and the people will again rejoice and be a delight to God. In that day they will not “labor in vain” or bear children only to see them face calamity. Their days will be long in the land and they will prosper. Indeed, in that day the lion and the lamb will lie down together in peace, for in that day the lion will eat straw like the ox. Don’t give up hope, the prophet says to the people, a new day is coming. Live out the dream – build homes and plant vineyards, because a new day is coming. It is a beautiful vision, one we should grab hold of. It is a message of God’s blessings, for which we may give thanks.

But, even as we seek to live out the vision of God, we must remember that there are forces that would seek to prevent this vision from being implemented. In both the New Testament passages the topic of persecution is front and center. In the passage from 2 Thessalonians, which may or may not be written by Paul we hear encouraging news – the Thessalonians are faithful and loving. They long to see Paul, even as he longs to see them. As they face opposition and persecution, they draw strength from the fortitude that the Thessalonians have shown in the face of their own experiences of opposition. They have stood firm and therefore, Paul can rejoice in this. At the same time, Paul prays day and night for them, hoping to be with them face to face so that he can encourage them in their times of troubles. At the same time, Paul prays that they would increase in their love for one another and be strengthened in holiness, so that in the end, they will blameless before God, when Jesus comes with all the saints. This would seem to be a reminder that even as we stand firm in faith, we would not lose sight of our relationships with another.

If the Thessalonian letter encourages us to stand firm in the face of persecution, even as we are encouraged to increase in love and holiness, the Gospel text reminds us that this call to stand firm may not just be for a season, but be a perennial issue. Don’t be led astray, Jesus tells the disciples if you hear someone come in my name and say “I am he” or “The time is near.” Don’t follow them. If you hear about wars and earthquakes, famines and such, don’t be too concerned, such things will happen. There is this strong appeal to an apocalyptic sense – things are likely to get worse not better, but God will, in God’s time, intervene to bring order to disorder. So don’t be too concerned about what you see and hear – that’s just the way life is.

But, the word you need to hear is that when you face persecution – when you get hauled before religious and secular authorities because of my name, take the opportunity to testify. Give your testimony – tell the authorities about your faith – stand firm in the face of persecution. As I read this, I picture Martin Luther, standing before the authorities, both religious and secular, saying to them in those famous words: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Jesus tells us in this text not to prepare a defense, but to trust him for the words. Let the Spirit move, because in doing so, the testimony will be all the more powerful.

As I read these texts, I hear in them both a vision of God’s future and a warning. God’s future won’t come into existence without a struggle. There are forces that would seek to prevent God’s reign from coming into existence. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we may have to follow this path to our deaths, giving witness to the ways of God, knowing that in God’s time God’s realm will break through and there will be a new creation and the lion and the lamb will lie down together in peace.


Colby Cheese said…
(reposted from [D]mergent)

Isaiah 65:17-25

What I hear in the Isaiah passage is more than God wanting us to be healthy, long-lived, and have a life of joy and abundance. God wants restoration. It is not enough to be released from exile, God wants us home. It is not enough to be released from bondage, God wants us to live free. It is not enough to be cured, God wants us to be healthy. When we wrong each other, God wants justice – and the justice of God is not about capture, conviction, incarceration or execution. God wants the person who has been harmed to be healed and made whole, and whatever was damaged or lost to be restored. God wants the person who committed the wrong to be healed of a hurtful and angry spirit, to be healed of maddening hurts and insane losses, to be rehabilitated to completeness and wholeness, to be restored to personal and communal humanity – to be released from the bondage of self and the exile of others and be restored to family and community and to a resurrected and transformed self.

God wants restoration. It is an admission by God that God is aware of what we will have to endure living in this chaotic universe created and sustained by God. For us to exist, the universe has to be this way. Without chaos, we would not exist, life would not exist. Everything, from the vagaries of quantum mechanics to massive black holes to colliding galaxies has to be possible for life – all of it, from microbes to intelligent sentient life – to appear and thrive. For us to survive and thrive, God made sure we had two qualities – free will and discernment of the more. By giving us free will, God frees us from the mechanistic aspects of the cosmic chaos – we can chose our path. Free will also means that God expects to be surprised by us. By giving us the ability to discern more than the universe, God frees us from the limitations and inhibitions of the uncaring rule-bound patterns and sequences of the chaotic universe. We can transcend the ugly and the tragic, the ordinary and the expected. We can see and participate in the glory that is here and extends beyond the bounds of mortal and physical creation. We can be in relationship with whom created the universe.

God is not interested in just creating us. God wants to restore us.

Doug Sloan
David said…
"So don’t be too concerned about what you see and hear – that’s just the way life is."

I'm often impressed when reading these passages that they create and sustain apathy is some.

Collectively we needn't be weak.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings" (the fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars or our fate or destiny but in ourselves that we have become underlings or subordinates to Caesar)

Are we not to love all in need?

“He that is thy friend indeed,
He will help thee in thy need:
If thou sorrow, he will weep;
If thou wake, he cannot sleep:
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee does bear a part.
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe.”

William Shakespeare
David said…
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