As I began looking over the lessons for today, I began to experience a powerful sense of disorientation. It was like a movie that was full of flashbacks and flash forwards, leaving the viewer confused and uncertain of what was happening when, and hoping that it would all get resolved in the final reel.
Let me explain. There’s that wonderful passage from Isaiah 65, in which the prophet describes a vision of a new heaven and a new earth; a new Jerusalem full of joy, where there is no weeping nor untimely death; where the wolf and the lamb feed together, and the lion eats straw like an ox.
The prophet, writing after the return from Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE, is looking ahead to a messianic future where God has made all things new, right, and just. Contrast that with the gospel reading. Our gospel reading dates from some 600 years later. Luke is writing at the end of the first century, or perhaps even early in the 2nd, is describing the last days of Jesus’ life, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples spent the days of this last week in the temple, where Jesus overturned the tables of moneychangers, taught, and debated with various religious leaders and groups.
The temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, had been greatly expanded and renovated by Herod the Great, a building project that began decades earlier and was probably still underway when Jesus and his disciples arrived. It was, by all accounts, magnificent. It would have dominated the landscape and pilgrims would have been able to see its marble walls gleaming in the sun from miles away.
But, as the disciples, tourists from the hinterlands of Galilee, looked at it for the first time, exclaimed in awe at its beauty, Jesus predicts its destruction: Not a single stone will be left standing on another. And he was right. In 40 years, around the year 70, the temple would be destroyed by the Roman legions as part of their suppression of the Jewish rebellion. Ultimately, all that would be left was what remains now, the wailing wall, as it’s called, part of a retaining wall that had supported the temple itself.
That wasn’t all that Jesus had to say. He went on, as we heard, to predict a very different future than the peaceful , abundant, and joyous one described in the Isaiah passage: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
There is a more helpful message in the midst of the doom and gloom. Jesus urged his followers not to be terrified when they heard of wars and rumors of wars. And though he predicted his followers would suffer persecution, he promised that he would give them strength, courage, and the words they would need to testify to the truth of his message.
Luke was writing decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, decades after the destruction of the temple and the ruthless suppression of the Jewish rebellion that likely forced many of that second or third generation of Christians to flee Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The early expectation that Jesus would return in glory and power to establish God’s reign was slowly giving way to disappointment and bewilderment as Christians began to rethink that belief and develop theological coping mechanisms that would allow their survival into the future.
So to summarize, there’s an confusing, disorienting relationship to time and to history evident in these passages. This feeling of disorientation may be familiar to us. It’s not just the semi-annual changing of the clocks that requires our bodies to reorient themselves to the cycles of waking and sleep. There are all the ways in which our technology and lifestyles have collapsed traditional categories and experiences. We know what’s happening half-way around the world as it’s happening. Video and social media posts bring the experiences of war, natural disasters, and other events onto our screens and into our lives.
The dislocation and disruption of the last years have also contributed to that disorientation. The pre-pandemic world seems like a mirage, a fantasy that bears little reality to the lives we live now, the world in which we live, even as we desperately try to recapture that world in so many ways.
And still, in the midst of that disorientation, time marches on. We are nearing the end of the liturgical year. Two weeks from today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Christian year. Our readings are preparing us for that season of preparation. Advent is a time when we look ahead to Christ’s coming, both his coming at Christmas and his Second Coming in power and majesty. It’s a time of joy and hope but it is also a time of reflection during which we are called to open our hearts and cultivate the soil of our souls in advance of both of Christ’s comings.
Advent’s imminent arrival reminds us that the world we inhabit, the time that we inhabit, are transformed by the incarnation of Christ, the coming of Christ into the world. As we pass through the liturgical seasons year after year, from Advent and Christmas through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, we remember, we reenter that story of Christ’s coming, his death and resurrection, making it present to us, making it our present. But simultaneously the time and place of the world around us have their own rhythms and pace, their own presence.
The disruption and disorientation of our scripture readings careen us back and forth across different possible futures: a new heaven and a new earth; wars and rumors of wars. As they disorient us they also offer us orientation, toward Christ—toward the coming of Christ, the moment that transformed and continues to transform all of history.
We long for permanence. We want stability. The thick stone walls and spire of Grace Church are testimony to the presence of God’s people in this place over the last almost 200 years and many of us work hard to ensure that this place, this congregation, survives and thrives long into the future. Its sturdy structure gives us confidence, assurance, and hope. How often have we, like those around Jesus, praised its beauty?
The future may fill us with fear. We may mourn what we have lost; the past that we remember or half-remember. We may wish the world hadn’t changed, and that the rapid changes taking place would stop. We may worry about our own futures, the futures of our children and grandchildren, the future of the planet.
Christ promises to be with us, to be present with us, to give us, as he says in today’s gospel, word and wisdom to confess our faith in the midst of the world’s suffering. Christ is with us now, present among us. In word and sacrament, the disorientation of the world and of time, are reoriented toward the one who created time and redeems time; the one whose coming we await, and who comes to us now in the Eucharistic feast. Thanks be to God.