Justice and Joy

Nov 17, 2019 by

Sermon by Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Isaiah 65:17-25             Psalm 98                  2 Thess. 3:6-13                   Luke 21:5-19

 

I realized recently that it’s been 50-some years since I came to live in Hamilton to go to McMaster.  And wow!  Hasn’t this city changed?  Remember when you shopped at Eaton’s and got on the elevator that served five floors plus the bargain basement?  There was an elevator operator back then, wearing one white glove to open that metal grate, and at each stop she announced the floor:  second floor, Ladies Wear.  In those days Eaton’s sold yarn and fabric, as well as clothing and I spent hours poring over dress patterns.  Then I might go to the café for a sandwich and a cup of tea.  I’d exit on to James Street and cross over to Anne Fosters Music store or slip into Zellers or Woolworth’s.  Of course, the Hamilton Market was outdoors back then and I’d stop by there on my way back to the car.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about cities and the way they change.  They called it “urban renewal” in the ‘70s when they shut down and tore down all the rooming houses and low-cost housing near King and James.  Where did those people go after the building of Jackson Square and Hamilton Place and Copps Coliseum?  And remember the old central library at Main St. and MacNabb?  I went there to hear Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen read poetry.  Well, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new,” as Tennyson wrote.

Imagine what it was like for the people of Israel who’d spent sixty years in exile, in Babylon, to come home to their city, Jerusalem.  The writer of Isaiah 65, today’s reading, is preparing the exiles for that homecoming.  It was after the Persian Empire had grown more powerful than the Babylonian Empire and Emperor Cyrus of Persia had allowed the people to go home.  But they would not find Jerusalem as their ancestors had described it.  The wall surrounding the city was mere rubble and the Temple that Solomon built was in ruins.  Only a small remnant of Israel’s people came back and those who did and tried to reclaim their land found it occupied by others.

Perhaps there’s more than one reason why Isaiah prophesied, “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”  It might mean they were to forget the suffering they’d endured.  Or maybe this was a warning against nostalgia, against longing for the good old days, a pattern we sometimes fall into even now as we recall Sunday Schools bursting with children, new churches going up at a crazy rate through the 50’s and 60’s.

In an earlier chapter of Isaiah, the people were warned, “From this time forward I will make you hear new things, hidden things that you have not known.  They are created now, not long ago.” (48:6,7)  And today’s text from Isaiah 65 begins with the words, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.”

What I love about these ancient words is that they make clear the dreams of God for a city of joy.  Just listen to how contemporary God’s concerns sound.  “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in the city or the cries of distress.”  And I think of the Rohinga women whose men were slaughtered in Sri Lanka.  Clearly God is on the side of women and children mourning their war dead.

“No more shall there be in the city an infant that lives but a few days.”  God cares about the way we look after infants, making sure they have clean water and nourishment.  “No more shall there be an old person who does not live out a lifetime.”  Our concern for care of the elderly is God’s concern too.  “They shall build houses and live in them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”  Adequate housing and food are part of the day of God that is coming, Isaiah seems to say.  “They shall not labour in vain,” Isaiah writes.  Is God on the side of fair wages?  Yes, definitely.

It would seem that this dream for a city of justice and joy is the beginning of a transformation of heaven and earth.  Bring it on, God, we may say.  We want to live in a city that even now, you are recreating and restoring.  This is urban renewal on a cosmic scale, and it begins with those who have nothing.  Isaiah’s words gave hope to the returning exiles as they prepared to start over.

Jesus didn’t use words like “social justice” any more than Isaiah did to describe the concerns of God but he did talk about “the kingdom of God, the day of God, the reign of God.”  These issues concerning the poor are kingdom issues, as Jesus saw them:  shelter, a living wage, peace.  We tend to forget what a conflict-ridden time those years were in Jesus lifetime and just before and just after.  No wonder the gospels keep talking about the deaf, the blind, the lame, and those haunted by what they’ve seen in battle.  Many of those injured men had been in battles either as rebels fighters or as Roman conscripts.  And coming home from battle they found themselves no longer permitted to worship in the Temple because they were not whole.  Some, like the demon-possessed man chained up in the graveyard, couldn’t live in families or villages any more.

And the battles left widows and orphans, too—lots of them, just as in our day.  All through the Scriptures, the people of the conflict-ridden AME are exhorted to look after widows and orphans, to care for them, because they have no one to speak for them.

It’s no wonder Jesus responds when he hears people speak ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the Temple, adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.  Herod the Great had built this temple, completing it about 20 years before the birth of Christ.  Even in a city and an Empire crammed with temples to gods and goddesses, Herod’s temple was a splendid piece of architecture, all white marble with here and there plates of gold that shimmered in the sun.  Yet, Jesus, who is in Jerusalem for Passover with his disciples, says, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Did Jesus have second-sight?  No.  It didn’t take much imagination to see that the way things were going between the people of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire’s brutal quashing of rebellions by Judeans, would lead to a great reckoning.  The writer of this Gospel was there to see it happen, the destruction of the temple and city, about 40 years after Jesus’ death.

When the disciples want to know when these events will take place, Jesus gives them a straight-forward description of what the near-future holds:  wars, insurrections, people arrested, persecuted, imprisoned, including the disciples themselves.  But some of what Jesus tells them goes further into the future.  Jesus speaks of cosmic forces that will usher in a new age.  He speaks of earthquakes, famines, plagues, signs from heaven.  If it reminds you a little of the Book of Daniel or parts of Revelation, it’s meant to.  It’s what we call Apocalyptic literature.  And as fantastic as they sound, they are the writings that are designed to give people hope in hard times.  They speak of The Great Day of God, breaking into ordinary times, transforming the world, sweeping away the brutal and death-dealing regimes and systems.  Still, Jesus is careful not to put an actual date or time on these events.  He warns them not to be led astray by people who declare themselves the Messiah or who predict, “The time is near!”  “Do not go after them,” he says.

I wonder, are we too realistic or scientific to be moved or given hope for hard times by these apocalyptic writings?  Or can these prophecies still offer us hope, with their images of cosmic transformation?  Do we believe God is, even now, creating new heavens and a new earth?

What it comes down to is whether we want to believe the world is haphazard, headed toward catastrophe, with death as the final word; or whether we want to live trusting that the world is held in God’s hands and is already being transformed?  The hymn we will sing at the end of the service is, “Thy Kingdom Come, On Bended Knee, the passing ages pray.”  It has this line,  “And lo, already on the hills the flags of dawn appear.”  The transformation is already underway!  And the invitation from the Gospel is that we are called to be part of a new life, a new city built upon a foundation of justice and joy.  This recreation of heaven and earth is to be a partnership between God and faithful followers.

I’ve been listening to the Massey Lectures on CBC this week as I have contemplated what it takes to build a city, a way of life, that brings justice and joy and honours the life of each person.  Sally Armstrong is the lecturer and she’s well worth listening to.  She calls her lecture series, Power Shift:  The Longest Revolution.  Her thesis is that the future of humanity depends upon improving the lives of women and girls.  We need equality of women and men if we are to survive.  You might wonder how our often- misogynist Bible could be of any help as we struggle for equality.  But then you recall the emphasis, certainly in the prophets and the Jesus stories, to uphold justice for women and their children, for widows and orphans.  That call is clear even to our jaded ears.

Sally Armstrong calls the struggle for equality between women and men the longest-running reform movement in history.  But, she says, we’re getting closer than we’ve ever been.  The flags of dawn are already on the hills.  We’re seeing the movement for women’s equality include women who weren’t considered before:  Indigenous women, women of colour, lesbian, trans and bi-sexual women.  The Me Too movement has been huge in highlighting misogyny and the abuse of women, bringing to justice the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.

Who hasn’t heard of Malala?  She defied her culture that said girls couldn’t go to school.  Surely Malala is one of those flags of dawn indicating transformation.  Greta Thunberg is opening eyes and ears, despite the threats she receives daily.  These women – girls, really – didn’t wait for systems and cultures to change.  They won respect because they used their personal will to lead the way.  And these women have demonstrated that both women and men need to be at the table if we are to have justice and joy in our world; if we are to be partners with God in transforming a crumbling world into a whole and holy place.  Have a listen to Sally Armstrong giving the Massey Lectures if you want to think some more about this.

You’ll be hated, Jesus tells his disciples.  Even your family will betray you.  You’ll come to your office as a member of parliament to find a filthy epithet painted on the windows, but you won’t quit.  You’ll need security guards if you urge people to vote green, but you’ll stay the course.  And then these words to all who follow Jesus:  by your endurance you will gain your souls.   Amen.

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