A priest in imperial Russia was walking along minding his own business when a royal guard stopped him at gun point. The guard demanded to know: Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? The priest gazed quizzically at the soldier and then asked “How much do they pay you to do this work?” The soldier, somewhat taken aback, replied, “Why, three kopeks a month.” To which the priest responded, “I’ll pay you 30 kopeks a month if you will stop me every week and ask me these same questions.” Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going?
Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? Key questions. Fundamental questions. Questions that have the power to open our eyes, transform our heart, to turn our lives around. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Our two readings today give us visions that address these critical questions. Isaiah is addressing a people who are rebuilding their temple, reestablishing their life after 50 years in exile. The disciples on the other hand, are admiring this rebuilt temple, and Jesus, in his last week of life, is bluntly telling them what will happen to the temple. The disciples thought they knew who they were – why there were here, where they were going. Luke explains: “One day people were standing around talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and gifts dedicated to God.” Standing in the shadow of the Temple, the disciples were full of pride. They were Jews, the chosen people. Their magnificent temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt and enlarged by Herod the Great-- proof of God’s presence with the Jewish people, God’s chosen people. The disciples were awed at the beauty and majesty of the restored temple -- one of the great wonders of the first century. Didn’t it confirm their place in the world? Didn’t it give them a compass to point them in the direction God was revealing – their God, their Sovereign would throw off the shackles of foreign oppressio – a messiah would come to lead them to independence, power, and put Israel back on the map as a shining example that they were, indeed a chosen people?
Jesus questions this identity and purpose. “You see these stones?” Jesus said. All will be thrown down. Stones that weighted between 2-5 tons. There will be wars and insurrection. Great earthquakes, famines and plagues, dreadful portents and signs from heaven. Jesus goes further. His disciples will be arrested and persecuted. Betrayed by loved ones. Hated. Some put to death.
Jesus is speaking about the persecution of the Christians, as well as the destruction of the second temple, in 70 AD, described by the historian Jewish Josepheus: “While the holy house (The Temple) was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age...but children and old men...and priests, were all slain in the same manner... The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those who were slain... one would have thought the whole city would have been on fire. Nor can one imagine anything greater and more terrible than this noise. (2)”
The evangelist Luke is writing at a time when his congregation knows that the second Temple has been destroyed. And Luke is talking to Christians who are already undergoing the kind of persecution Jesus describes. Jesus’ vision of this terrible conflict, given days before his own death, is a wakeup call. Jesus promises to give wisdom in the midst of terror – all is under God’s care – even down to the hairs on their heads. Focus on endurance, Jesus recommends. How does one endure calamity? By continually reminding oneself: who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? The priorities we set, the decisions we make, the witness we give, is rooted in these questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Jesus gave a vision to remind his disciples who they were. A painfully honest vision that sought to correct the idolatry over the temple – an idolatry that held them bound to a building, and the functions and trapping of running a building -- not the living, all mighty, all loving God. The life of faith requires us to sacrifice and calls us to steadfastness – it requires us to reflect on our priorities: Where is this all leading? Where am I in the midst of all this change?
Jesus gave a vision to correct temple idolatry and prepare his disciples for the trials to come – when the synagogue would expel them and the Romans persecute them. Often experienced as “end time” prophecy, nearly every age has looked around and seen wars and insurrections -- earthquakes, famines and plagues. We look around and we see dreadful persecutions and suffering. We seem to be hurling toward economic and ecological disaster. Who are we –really?
The vision in Isaiah 65 also gives a purpose. It is a vision given to a people returning from exile and defeat. What God wanted them to know about themselves, and to where God was calling them. God’s vision for the people is a complete renewal of everything—there is nothing that is not covered in that phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” Instead of framing end times in descriptions of destruction, Isaiah speaks of God’s powerful acts of creation. The end times is a new times – a new times marked by:
Forever rejoicing, because Jerusalem will be a joy, and people a delight. God takes joy in his people. Did you know that you were a delight to God? God takes pleasure in you? God inclines God’s self toward us? This is who God is? So, where is God? God is with us. And the future God wants to lead us to is contained in the rest of chapter 65: Where God wants us to go, according to God:
To a time where there is no more weeping or cries of distress. No longer pain and sorrow do to human injustice. No more an infant dying after a few days because of illness, or lack or food or water– all people will live long productive lives. That’s God’s vision of who we are.
Isaiah says houses will be built and justly inhabited. Vineyards planted and the fruit justly consumed. There’s no more stealing, bribing, greed. Everyone will enjoy the long work of their hands. That’s God’s vision of where we are – in a just society – where all needs are met, no one goes hungry, homeless, or labors in vain.
Isaiah gives us God’s response to where we are going: The wolf and lamb shall feed together. Lions eating straw, like the ox. Who has heard of such a thing? No more hurt, no destruction on God’s holy mountain. That’s where God is point us to.
Two powerful visions that point to who we are. Why we are here. Where we are going. One vision of calamity. The other vision of God’s long-view for wholeness for his people. Both are important and informative. Both a part of the unfolding message we need to hear. Jesus points his disciples—and us-- away from temple idolatry; to enduring painful transformation, to see where God is: in a new heavens and new earth. We are children of delight, blessed by the Lord, called toward God’s Holy Mountain – where no longer are people hurt or destroyed. Between Jesus’ vision and Isaiah’s vision, it becomes clear we are God’s delight – God’s children – in the midst of transformation -- led to achieve the justice portrayed in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Tony Campolo, an evangelist and professor of sociology, challenges us -- on our identity as Christians and the decisions we make as a result. In his research, Campolo cites that the US-- long considered a Christian nation-- is last out of 22 industrialized nations in giving to the poor. We are 5 percent of the world’s population, consuming 43 percent of the world’s resources, and yet we give away less than 4/10s of one percent of our national budget to help the poor of the world. For every dollar we give, Norway gives 70. Dr. Campolo challenges us: Who have we become? Slaves to a consumerist, materialistic society? Are we here just to consume, or to make life better for all God’s creation? Are we heading toward a new heavens and earth, concerned with infant mortality and food security, or are we promoting a human-designed Armageddon—that profits from war, disaster and from creating gross inequality in income between the well-to-do and the poor?
Who are we? Our Thanks-Living project-- where you have been given seed money from the church to invest in the community -- and -- our food drive for the poor and hungry -- are just a drop in the bucket. They are projects designed to awaken the truth of who we are—as followers of Jesus, we are a delight to God, and we give pleasure to God when we are givers of love, of hope, -- sharing in the vision of a new heavens and a earth. That’s where we are – that’s where we are – that’s where we are headed. Imagine. No baby dying from starvation, dirty water, or disease. Imagine. Everyone having a home, and sufficient food. Imagine – everyone experiencing joy. Imagine:
Those who watch Glenn Beck dining with those who watch “Democracy Now.” Hamas and Zionists breaking bread. Al-Qaeda and families of 9/11 victims sharing a meal. Like Julia Grant, the widow of Union General Ulyssess S. Grant, and Varina Davis, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lived near one another and became best friends.
All the wolves and all the lambs of our great world gathered to share a meal: everyone listening. No more devouring each other, but sharing together in the abundance of the world. No more fear. No more distress. Delight and joy. That’s the future God calls us to – and calls us built.
That is who we are, why we are here, where we are headed. We are God’s delight. We are transforming our world – to a new heaven, a new earth, beyond anything we have experienced. It is worth all the kopeks, all the money in the world, to know that -- and to go head there – with the grace of Jesus. Amen.