23 Pentecost: Eschatology or the Theology of Framing

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Okay, this is about eschatology.
Yep, I knew that would move you
to the edge of your chair!

So, we are sitting between
Isaiah and Jesus this morning,
and it is like pulling at both ends of a cherry popper
or snap dragon – the fireworks are in the middle
and you have to pull at both ends.

Isaiah is all dreamy-eyed
and gushy
while Jesus is dark and morose.

Both are eschatological,
which traditionally is a form of theology
focused upon death, judgement,
and the final destiny of humankind.

Eschatology is a lens
through which we look at life on this planet
and proclaim what it all means.
We are tiny neck hairs
on a small planet lost in space
and with a growing sense
of just how infinitesimal and vulnerable we are.
Eschatology reels that in a little bit.

It can be grand and inspiring to sit on a mountain top
and savor the blue-green vista
and feel awed by the beauty
and intricate balance of nature
and our small part in it.
But it is another thing altogether
to sit naked beneath the stars
and recognize that beauty
is actually massive hot gaseous explosions
into which everything we know
will be incinerated
in a Nano-second.

It is a deep well of ponderance
we can easily fall into
and never come out of,
which is why taking one step at a time
is such sage advice
for little creatures like us.

So eschatology is a lens we inherited
to help us see the enormity of life
a little closer.
Like those funny glasses
used to look at a solar eclipse,
our eschatological lens
allows us to stare into something
that might otherwise harm our soul
if not our mental health.

A lot of Christian tradition
has treated biblical eschatology
as if it were the Farmer’s Almanac of Earth time,
a kind of folk art
that can predict with precision
what science can’t quite get right.

But eschatology
is not a sundial of the universe
that will tell us
how and when or why
all things come to an end.
Rather, it is an act of imagination
that seeks to understand
how and why the events of the moment
are connected to the movements of God.

Just like physics wants to understand the Big Bang
and everything that has taken place
between then and now,
biblical eschatology
wants to understand God
and the relationship of God’s best dream for us
with all that has happened
and is happening now.

It has to be an act of imagination
because we are too small
to truly comprehend the massive whole
in which we are but a teeny tiny part.

So Isaiah is imagining how it all works out
given the horrendous history he is navigating.
Jesus is imagining how it all ends,
so that God’s best dream for us
can finally come to pass.

Where they are standing
in the context of their own lives and nation,
and their own moments in history,
effects what they see
and what they say.

When Jesus pushes before the faces of his friends
his shocking and traumatic vision
he is standing at the end of his life.
His context is grim.
He is about to go toe to toe
with the Roman Empire
and get rubbed out.

His compatriots may not have understood
the trajectory of Jesus’ prophetic ministry,
but he surely did.
Jesus also likely understood
that many of his friends
were living close to their end too.

In the midst of such a grievous moment,
someone makes a stray comment
about the beauty of the stained-glass windows
– oops, I mean the glory of the Temple.

Their ogling at the glory of the architecture
sends Jesus into a wild-eyed explosion of emotion
with him muttering all kinds of images
related to his and our mortality.
It was as if to say,
Focus on what is important!
This thing you think is so great
is nothing.
This building
you think is so awesome
is meaningless and irrelevant.”

And then…that’s it.
That is literally the end of Jesus public statements.
He’s done preaching.

His dark prediction
about the demise of the temple
is end of the story for Jesus.

Now, every story has an ending.
We tend to think of the Gospel
as ending with the resurrection –
a kind of tortured happy ending.
But that is not how Jesus chose to end
the story of his public ministry
in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
His last public story
in each of these Gospels,
is the one we heard in part today.

It is a story about the end of time
and it is pretty dog-gone dark.

And in all three Gospels
Jesus’ last story is provoked
by a knuckle-headed pilgrim to the city of Jerusalem ogling at the Temple
and exclaiming over how beautiful it is.

Something about marveling at the Temple
sends Jesus into his darkened depths
to forecast what is going to happen
at the end of time
when God runs out of patience
or humans run out of options.

But honestly, we actually do not know if
Jesus ended his public teaching
with this little apocalypse,
or if the editors of the gospels
were the ones to use it as a period
at the end of his public ministry.

Here is what I mean.
If it was Jesus predicting the Temple would be destroyed,
then he was doing it
in the year 30 or so of the first century.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke
are editing their Gospels 45 to 60 years
AFTER Jesus is already dead and gone.
In-between Jesus’ death
and the writing of the Gospels,
there is a terrible Jewish/Roman war.

The war lasts for three years
and ends with nearly every Jew in Palestine
killed or fleeing for their lives.
When the Romans march into Jerusalem
they destroy the Temple.
So, in the year 70 of the first century,
Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple
comes to pass – forty years after he made it.

Now, the descendants of those first followers of Jesus
remember his prediction.
“Wow, it happened just like he said it would”
they marvel forty years later.
So all those early Christians
begin to attach other signs and meanings
to Jesus’ original prediction,
things like warnings about being arrested
and persecuted.

They attach those warnings
to the memory of Jesus’ prediction
because they are being arrested and persecuted.

The fact that Jesus’ prediction is born out
in their present moment,
even though it is through repression
and violence,
is a kind of twisted hope for them.
“Nation will rise up against nation,
and kingdom against kingdom…
and there will be dreadful
portents and great signs from heaven.”

So IF this dreadful apocalyptic vision
was something the editors
put on the lips of Jesus,
instead of some kind of verbatim memory
of his last teachings,
then they were saying it to their tormented
and targeted generation:
“There is hope.
After death comes resurrection.”

They can say that
because they know how it turned out
after Jesus was tortured and executed.
So it helps them FRAME their moment
and face their struggles.

What is happening here
is that the original prophecy
is contextualized
by the succeeding generation
to FRAME the crisis of their own day –
and as always,
each generation thinks its crisis is the last crisis
of human history.

Framing or contextualizing
is exactly what should happen with the bible.
Each generation
should take the ancient words of our wisdom
and contextualize them
for own day
and own crises.
The words of Jesus or Isaiah
are not to be pheasant under glass.
This wisdom is not frozen in time
with a meaning limited to a single historic occasion,
rather, it is to be made present
in each new generation.

The “So What?” in this sermon,
as with the implications
of the poem from Wendell Berry
and the visions of Isaiah and Jesus,
is to ask ourselves
how we are framing OUR moment?

How are we framing our lives
in this moment,
and is the way we frame it
empowering us to act
or disempowering us?

In every single moment
we face a life
and a world
that is at one and the same time
Isaiah and Jesus –
both hope and dread,
both life and death.
They are always the possible next moment,
and every breath we take
holds both possibilities.
How do we frame that?
In fear
or commitment?
In anxiety
or resolve?
In resignation
or passion?

How we frame the moment,
how we frame our lives in any given moment,
and how we frame the opportunities and challenges
of the moment we are in,
makes all the difference in the world.
It makes all the difference to the world.

I want to end with one of the primary
ways I frame my life –
especially when things get dark and wiggly.
It is really just a metaphor,
probably one you have heard me use before
in one form or another,
because it is my eschatology.

The light from the star closest to our sun
(Proxima Centauri)
takes four years to get here.
Light from the most distant stars we see at night
has taken up to ten millennia – ten millennia –
to reach us.

So while we see those sparkling orbs up there
the light we are seeing from them
was actually created
between four and ten thousand years ago!

In other words,
we are not actually seeing those stars
when we look up;
instead we are seeing the past.
Think about that…just hover on it for a moment.

What we see is not what is, rather,
what we see is what was –
what was years and years and years ago.
In some cases thousands of years ago.

We think we are seeing those stars
and that light as if in real time,
but we are only seeing what they once were.
In fact, some of that light
is emanating from sources
that no longer exists.
Some of that light is but the ghostly image
of what was
but is no longer.
And yet that light,
even the light we see from the sources
that no longer exists,
has lasted longer than all of human history
and will outlast any of us here.

If you will forgive a movie reference here,
it is Rick’s line to Ilsa at the end of Casablanca,
when he explains why he is suddenly
going to act against his own self-interest
and risk everything
to join the Resistance:

“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble,
but it doesn’t take much to see
that the problems of three little people
don’t amount to a hill of beans
in this crazy world.”

Our lives are small
and our smallness is in fact,
part of the beauty of God’s creation.
What WE imagine is hopeful
or dreadful,
is not the last word.
And the point is,
we do not get to know the last word.
So how we frame our lives
on this planet, and in this vast cosmos,
will make an enormous difference
in how we live our lives.

As weird as it is to say, eschatology matters.

How we frame this crazy life
and our place in it,
really does make a difference.
And here is the money part –
since this is stewardship season
and I am really supposed to preaching on money.

What we do with our money,
at least that which is somewhat discretionary,
reveals better than just about anything else,
how we frame our lives.
Time and money are the currencies
in the economy of God.
How we spend them
and what we spend them on,
declares our values far better
than any words we use.

So it is worth thinking about
and actually doing a little research on
how we use our money
and what it may say about our values
and even our eschatology.