Rev. Stacy Swain
Malachi 4:1-2a; Luke 21:5-19
I always dreaded the burning. At the end of the dry season when the sun was so hot and the air full of dust, the campesinos (or peasant farmers) of our village in rural El Salvador would head out to their fields on the hillsides to begin the burning. They would light the scrub and brush, the dried stalks of last year’s crops until the entire field was ablaze and great billows of soot and ash would twist skyward. We lived in a valley with the mountains rising up on either side so that when the burning began we were hemmed in by hills of flame. For days the air would stink. The sun would turn orange-ish, and everything looked eerie in its glow.
I dreaded the burning not only for the stink and the smoke, but also because afterwards, once the flames had burned their fill, when Mark and I would resume our visits to neighboring communities, we had to walk across those smoldering remains. I found this post apocalyptic landscape to be ominous and somehow threatening. I am not sure why exactly but I felt uncomfortably exposed, uneasy. Maybe it was because the war that had torn apart that land for so many years, that had shattered so many lives, had ended only a few months earlier and everyone was still feeling a little jittery. Whatever it was, I always felt tense on those post burn hikes, as if something bad were going to happen.
But Jesus, in the lesson from the Gospel of Luke this morning, tells us that the ominous landscape is not to be feared for it gives opportunity. Now we know that the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is full of paradox. We remember how scarcity reveals abundance, how power is found in weakness; how the “least of these” most fully reveals the kingdom of God. But devastation as a landscape of opportunity? That may be the most startling and challenging paradox yet!
Jesus says that the days are coming when not one stone will be left upon another. He tells those around him: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors.” And all of this will give you an opportunity, an opportunity to testify.
Now both the passage from Luke and the reading from the prophet Malachi speak of the things that are coming. The verbs are in the future tense. “this will happen, this shall happen.” Both speakers, Jesus in the Gospel passage and the prophet in the Hebrew scripture, are firmly grounded in the here and now of their time, but they look to the future. There is expectation and anticipation for what is just beyond the horizon line, just over the curve of time, for what cannot be seen but that is most surely coming.
This leaning into the promise God’s future has a name in Christian teaching. Some call it the Doctrine of the End Times. Some call it Eschatology. Some call it the Second Coming. Jürgen Moltmann, a 20th century German theologian, calls it the Doctrine of Hope. Whatever name you care to use, it is this idea that there is still more to come. That what is – is not what will be. And that what is coming will be the summation, the fullness of all God has promised us; that our redeeming and saving God will make all things new and that the peace that God promises will indeed reign.
But for now, all of this remains a promise. Something we hope for, anticipate, dream about, ache for but cannot quite fully see, not yet at least. Now some will ask “How can we believe in this promise?” How can we be sure that this is not just a good story – a good story that may comfort us when we are facing hard times, but that is really only a story without any power to change things now or to affect the future? Perhaps some of us sit here on Sunday mornings wondering this for ourselves. How can we take God’s promise seriously when fires of destruction burn all around?
The unnerving answer that Jesus gives is “try it!’, Try taking God’s promise so seriously that you dare to live into it. For when you do, the promise will be fulfilled in your living.
Jesus tells those gathered around him that when they are persecuted they do not need to prepare for their own defense, all they need to do is trust in the promise given to them and when they do, what they need will be given. They will be given words and wisdom that none of their opponents will be able to withstand. They will experience a foretaste of the fulfillment of God’s promise, that is coming.
Now it is particularly moving to remember that Jesus tells his disciples this, just days before he is to do exactly that which he instructs his disciples. He will be arrested, persecuted and killed and yet all of this will be an opportunity to testify to the salvific work of God. Jesus will be resurrected, death will be defeated and the he will return to the disciples to speak his word of peace.
Doing as Jesus does, taking up his charge to “try it” to try living as witness to God’s promise requires, what Moltmann terms, a certain “elasticity” – It requires a certain agility to not be boxed in by circumstance but to be continually open to the future for which one hopes. It calls for practical opposition to things that are not right, and demands a creative reshaping of them. Living as a witness to God’s promise means looking with expectation towards the horizon line while seeking opportunities right now for bringing history into ever better correspondence to that promised future.
For participating in God’s promise of new life not only gives us the strength to endure the hardships we face today, but actually empowers us to be part of the authorship of history. There is this sense that each time we participate in the promise, each time that we testify and become vessels for the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to enter our time, each time that this happens there is a kind of corrective action in history. Every time the words and wisdom of the Christ move among and in us, the trajectory of human living is pulled more and more into alignment with the promise of God; each act of witness, each moment of the goodness of truth telling seeds history with God’s promise and moves all of us closer to its fulfillment.
In two weeks, on November 28th, the first Sunday in Advent, we will step out onto the path of another liturgical year. We will set out to witness once again how God’s promise took on flesh in the person of Jesus. As the year unfolds we will walk again with Jesus through his ministry of healing, teaching, and proclaiming the Good news of the kingdom of God and on Easter morning we will witness in the light of the empty tomb how even death could not keep the promise from unfolding.
As we set out, let us go “leaping, like calves from the stall” full of joy and hope, assured that the fulfillment of God’s promise is indeed just beyond the horizon line. And may that assurance give us courage to walk across landscapes of hardship looking for opportunities to testify to the fulfillment of God’s promise right here and now. Let us not look away from pain and suffering but instead stand in their midst assured that the words and wisdom to minister to those in need will be given to us. Let us go to those who hunger and hurt and be apertures of God’s transforming grace. Let us be present to those facing violence and war trusting that God will make us instruments of God’s peace.
In the three years, that I lived in El Salvador, I never fully stopped dreading the burning, but I did begin to long for and expect the new life that came from those charred remains. I began joining my neighbors in scanning the horizon line for the gathering clouds, leaning into the promise of the coming rains. For when the rains did come, it was miraculous. Those blackened hillsides would burst into life right before our eyes. Tender shoots of the new year’s planting would explore in shades of brilliant, iridescent greens. And me? Well I just could not wait to tie on my hiking boots and set off into them! Alleluia — Amen
 Jürgen Moltmann. The Theology of Hope. Trans. James W. Leitch (Harper Row: New York, 1967). P. 330