Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12; II Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19.
People of faith hear about paradise on earth, but also about watchfulness before the great time.
Lectionary Overview. This is the last set of readings in the long “Common Time” period that started with Pentecost of Year C. Only the special Sunday concerning the Reign of Christ remains before a new liturgical year begins.
The readings for this Sunday reflect this “finality” of the time, focusing on the glorious future that will be introduced by the judgment of God, which begins the “good news” of the chosen but humble folks who are God’s servants.
Isaiah 65:17-25. (The Alternate reading for this Sunday is: Malachi 4:1-2a.)
The prophetic reading proclaims God’s making the world new for the remnant of God’s chosen and suffering people.
It begins with God’s own joy,
…for look, I am creating Jerusalem to be ‘Joy’
and my people to be ‘Gladness.’
I shall be joyful in Jerusalem
and I shall rejoice in my people.
(Verses 18-19, New Jerusalem Bible Version.)
The visionary of our passage now pictures a restoration of paradise for God’s joyful people. Infant mortality will disappear, and all will live to enjoy a blessed seniority, with life expectancy well over a hundred years.
It will not be a world without work and constructive activity, but what is built will remain and be useful, what is planted will grow and be fully productive. No invaders will seize the goods and produce, no impersonal agencies will foreclose or repossess.
…For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree,
and my chosen ones will themselves use what they have made.
(Verse 22, NJBV.)
The comparison of human life with the life of a tree is very favorable, for a tree can grow again from a stump. So the sages understood it:
There is always hope for a tree:
when felled, it can start its life again;
its shoots continue to sprout.
Its roots may have grown old in the earth,
its stump rotting in the ground,
but let it scent of water, and it buds,
and puts out branches like a plant newly set.
(Job 14:7-9; NJBV)
The Egyptian Jews who translated Isaiah into Greek also saw hope in the comparison to the tree. They read the text as “for the days of my people will be like the days of the tree of life” – that is, like the tree of which the first couple could eat when they lived in God’s garden exempt from the power of death (Genesis 2:9).
The coming conditions of paradise will include blessings for future generations (verse 23), and even the animal world will become peaceful and no longer carnivorous – except for that wicked serpent who disrupted the first paradise; his diet will be dust (verse 25).
Repeating words of an earlier prophecy of paradise, the vision here concludes in peace: “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (verse 25b, NRSV, quoting Isaiah 11:9).
Isaiah 12 (as a Psalm reading). (The alternate reading is Psalm 98.)
This Isaiah reading is a liturgy, with different voices complementing each other in a thanksgiving and hymning of salvation beheld. The liturgy presents a glorious salvation suddenly at hand!
In the first scene, a singular voice speaks (“Israel,” in the voice of the Anointed king), expressing a straightforward thanksgiving:
Speaking to Yahweh:
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
Speaking to the world:
Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation. (Verses 1-2, NRSV.)
In the second scene (verses 3-5), a group is summoned to draw water from the “wells of salvation” – plentiful water, available as if access to wells was now possible after a siege. They will call on others to thank God for the victory. “Give thanks to the Lord / … make known his deeds among the nations …” (verse 4).
Finally, the last word of the liturgy (verse 6) is addressed to the mother city:
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
God is in your midst. This message is a fitting climax to the joy of the victorious figure who gave thanks at the beginning (verses 1-2) and of the grateful drawers of victory water who respond (verses 3-5).
As a part of this set of readings, this psalm-like liturgy is a vision of salvation ahead – salvation of a people finding its joy in a delivered figure (king) and a holy city.
II Thessalonians 3:6-13.
This reading is not directly about the coming salvation (as are the prophetic readings), but makes urgently clear what people of faith should do while they wait for the glory. They should WORK. The apostle has learned that some folks at Thessalonica have been living in idleness, which he insists is quite unacceptable.
The context of the letter suggests that they do this because they expect the world to end any day and there is no need to exert lots of effort. Paul insists that he has given them a different example: “With toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (verse 8, NRSV).
The apostle becomes a little tougher than usual. No work, no food. He insists that the rest of the community should make the idlers follow this principle, and “commands” (verse 6) them to shun these idlers until they straighten up.
The judgment of God may be at hand, but in the meantime the work goes on!
The Gospel reading introduces Luke’s version of Jesus’ last teaching in Jerusalem before the Passion. The whole chapter (except the Widow’s mites) is about the (final) judgment of God, though our selection deals only with the early stages of trouble and persecution. The climax of the Second Coming remains for other readings.
Early Christian tradition reported that Jesus delivered a discourse about the end times to the disciples. This final “apocalyptic” discourse of Jesus, set just before the crucifixion, is itself an important part of the meaning of Jesus’ death. (The Son of Man who dies on the cross is also the one who will come in glory at the end of the age.)
The three synoptic Gospels report this discourse somewhat differently – Mark giving the most flat-out apocalyptic version (Mark 13), Matthew expanding it with following parables (Matthew 24-25), and Luke dividing it into segments, one delivered in the “Journey to Jerusalem” section (Luke 17:20-37) and a second segment delivered in Jerusalem (21:5-36), as in Mark and Matthew.
Luke also changes the setting of the discourse: Mark has Jesus give the discourse to four close disciples as they sit on the Mount of Olives looking back across at the temple; Luke has the whole discourse delivered in the temple precincts, with an audience wider than just the disciples.
Our reading includes only the first two parts of the whole speech.
Watch out for false alarms (verses 8-11). Jesus warns his followers that there will be many alarming and false signs before the real show comes. Some will come who say, “I am he,” (literally “I am,” possibly a formula in a mystery cult), and “the time is at hand,” which is virtually what Jesus himself says at the beginning, according to Mark (1:15 ) and Matthew (4:17). These are deceivers or deceived; do not follow them.
Uprisings and wars will come and go, but the faithful must wait. There will be many opportunities to misread the times, and this is part of the challenge of living in the latter days!
You will be persecuted (verses 12-19). But even while all these false leads are appearing in the world, the followers will be abused and mistreated, because they are identified by Jesus’ name. In the face of persecution, the followers can be assured that Jesus himself will give them speech and wisdom to respond well and give a good “witness.” This concern about “witness” or “testimony” by persecuted followers reflects the later setting in which the Gospel traditions were shaped. Witnessing to the name of Jesus was to become the primary mark of the faithful Jesus followers. (See especially the “Name” theology reflected in Acts 3-5.)
But they WILL survive! While “some” of them will be killed, not a hair of their heads will perish (verses 16 and 18) – a paradox possible if they “endure” into the (qualitatively different) age to come. “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (verse 19, NRSV).
The judgment of God – which the peoples could not recognize in the death of the criminal on the cross – will finally include victory over oppression and death, a great joy for all the peoples to see and sing about (as in the prophetic readings!).