Do Not Be Weary
Robert S. Turner
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17–25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–13; Luke 21:5–19
It may simply be a function of having endured a presidential campaign that dragged on for a year and a half, or it may be that my obsessive rumination on the results of the election has affected my entire worldview, but today’s passage from Isaiah 65 sounds to me like a series of campaign promises. And the gospel reading from Luke 21 reads like a negative campaign ad.
Let’s take Isaiah first. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (v. 17). If you vote for me, it will be like a brand new universe; I will make creation great again. So great, in fact, that you won’t even be able to remember those bad old days from before.
“I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed” (vv. 19–20). My plan for health care will be so phenomenal that you will forget to die. Infant mortality will be a thing of the past, and people will look with a jaundiced eye at anyone who dies shy of a century.
“They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (vv. 21–22). My economic plan will bring back all the jobs lost when the economy changed or manufacturers moved their companies out of the country. We’ll have 0% unemployment, and full profit sharing for every employee of every company. I will renegotiate our trade deals so that we will have the advantage. I will cut taxes on corporations to foster job creation. The rising tide will lift all boats.
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!” (v. 25). I will bring peace to the world. I will defend our allies and come to the rescue of all victims of oppression. I will utterly annihilate ISIS and Iran and all who would seek to threaten our citizens with harm. The whole world will be made new! If you elect me, everybody will get along; I will work with the other party for the good of the nation. There will be no red states or blue states, but only the United States. I am the great uniter.
The prophet who wrote these words in the fifth or sixth century before the Common Era was claiming to speak for God, of course, and was predicting a golden age of peace and prosperity under God’s leadership. But don’t some of the claims political candidates in our country make sound similarly lofty and grandiose? “I will eliminate college tuition.” “I will destroy ISIS.” “We’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.” “If you like the insurance plan you already have, you can keep it.” “We will smoke the terrorists out of their holes.” “I will shut down Guantanamo Bay.” Promises, promises. If you vote for me, the world will be transformed into a paradise, and you will get the benefits of all this bounty because you are the chosen people. You are special. You are God’s favorites.
The flip side of all this positivity can be found in Luke 21. This is the apocalyptic hellscape you can expect if my opponent wins. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven” (vv. 10–11). My opponent is so clueless, so lacking in leadership abilities, that the world will fall apart under his (or her) watch. He will get us embroiled in conflicts we have no business being involved in. She will embolden our enemies. He will abandon our allies. My opponent has no plan to respond to natural calamities or international intrigues. Her foreign policy will be a disaster.
“But before all this occurs, 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 because of my name” (v. 12). If my opponent wins, he will unleash violence and persecution against religious minorities. If my opponent wins, she will carry out a crusade against Christians. Your civil rights and religious liberty will be infringed.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (vv. 16–17). My opponent is such a divisive figure that the rifts in our society will never be healed, but will only grow wider. The inevitable result of her victory will be armed conflict. If he wins, blood will run in the streets.
I suppose it’s natural, in a political campaign, to tout your own virtues and highlight your opponent’s failings, but what we saw in the presidential contest just concluded beats anything else I have seen in my lifetime. Negative campaigning, proven to be a winning strategy decades ago, has been honed and perfected by candidates and their advisors to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine a time when our politics will ever again be characterized by civility and respect. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I doubt I am.
In this election, the rhetoric was not so much negative as apocalyptic. The choice was dire: we could pick a secretive, deceptive political lifer who had enough skeletons in her closet to start a medical school and who belongs behind bars, not in the Oval Office, or a misogynistic race-baiter who boasted about committing sexual assault and gleefully fanned the flames of his supporters’ basest impulses. To choose Hillary Clinton would be to surrender your individual liberties, allow foreign powers to dominate and manipulate us, and let thousands of terrorists, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers into our country with impunity. To choose Donald Trump would be to turn back the clock on race relations by forty years or more, to legitimize religious bigotry and hate speech, and to invite nuclear annihilation. It was right versus wrong, good versus evil, truth versus lies, and either candidate could fit in any of those slots, depending on whom you asked.
We have been through the wringer in the last year and a half, haven’t we? Especially in the last week. For many of us, the realization that what few had expected but many had feared, Donald Trump’s victory, had actually come to pass was a bitter pill to swallow indeed. It has been a week of soul-searching, of weeping, of anger and confusion and fear. It has been a week in which many of us spent more time in fervent prayer than perhaps is our normal practice. I hear many voices asking, “What do we do now? What’s going to happen? How should we respond?” One of those voices is mine.
It may help to take a closer look at that passage from Luke 21. This scene appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and many of the themes are the same across all three versions. But each one has its own special emphases, too. Luke, for his part, is interested in the possibility that all the turmoil Jesus describes will have the happy effect of advancing the gospel, and he writes an entire second volume, Acts, to show how that does indeed happen.
The occasion for this discourse of Jesus’s in all three gospels is that someone comments on the massive stones and beautiful adornments of the temple complex. It was, in fact, terribly impressive, according to all contemporary accounts. Herod the Great had begun renovating the temple decades before, and the work continued until well after Jesus’s death. Until it was burned by the Roman legions in 70 CE, the Jerusalem temple was considered one of the wonders of the eastern part of the Empire. Its white walls and gold accents were visible to travelers miles away, and all who saw it for the first time must have sucked in their breath in awe. It was incredibly beautiful.
But Jesus is unimpressed, because he knows that the alabaster, marble, and gold are merely the decorative façade of a corrupt system that contributes to the oppression of his people. In fact, he may be thinking about the temple when in Matthew’s gospel he calls the scribes and Pharisees “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23:27–28). So when the people around him go all googly-eyed at the beauty of the temple, he rains on their parade by predicting its downfall.
When they ask him when this will take place, he launches into his apocalyptic discourse. “Apocalyptic” was a genre of literature that flourished in the two centuries before Jesus’s birth and remained popular for another hundred years or so after his death. Revelation is written in the apocalyptic style. The main features of the genre are its deep symbolism and its depiction of a cosmic showdown between good and evil, the outcome of which will usher in a golden age like that described in our passage from Isaiah. According to this worldview, events in the spiritual realm get played out on earth, so the heavenly battle between God and the devil will manifest itself in terrible battles and calamities here below.
In his “little apocalypse” in Luke, Jesus focuses on the persecution that will come to those who follow his way. He warns them that they will be subject to arrest, betrayal, imprisonment, and in some cases even execution. He predicts that everyone will hate them because of their allegiance to him. It seems like a bleak forecast for the Jesus movement, but he sees in it a silver lining. When they are brought before the kings and governors, he says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13), and he promises to empower them to bear witness to the truth and proclaim God’s reign right in the belly of the beast known as the Domination System. They may be put to death, but he promises, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (vv. 18–19).
This word is not just for Jesus’s first-century disciples; it is for us as well. Terrible things may happen, but this will give us an opportunity to testify. We may witness a coarsening of public life the likes of which we have not seen in ages, but this will give us an opportunity to testify. We may come in for criticism or persecution or violence when we speak up for justice and stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are immigrants or Muslims or gay or transgender, or who don’t meet the standards Trump’s more hardcore followers establish for what makes one a “real” American, but this will give us an opportunity to testify.
What we have to testify about is the unfathomable, inexhaustible, matchless love of God that embraces all of creation and draws us gently but inexorably into deeper communion with the divine Center, with the world God loves, and with one another. We will testify to the boundless grace that has brought us out of the darkness of self-centeredness, sin, and isolation into the light of love and community. We will testify about the way God has obliterated the walls that once kept us in fear and suspicion of one another, so that now we find our enmity replaced with oneness in Christ. We will testify that the reign of God is already present in these circumstances, and will someday be the rule rather than the exception; in the words of the prophet, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of [God] as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9). We will testify that one day the vision of the prophet will be realized, so that “they shall not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain” (v. 25).
Terrifying things may happen, but Jesus tells us explicitly in verse 9 of the gospel lesson, “Do not be terrified.” Wrong may seem triumphant, but the advice the writer gives the Thessalonians is for us as well: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (v. 13).
When it comes down to it, that’s the answer to those questions I posed earlier: “What do we do now? What’s going to happen? How should we respond?” The middle question we have no control over. Donald Trump may surprise us all and turn out to be a competent and effective President. Or our worst fears may come true and our nation will descend into violent chaos that will threaten the very future of the republic. We cannot control what is going to happen.
But we can control our response. We must control our response. We must not become weary in doing what is right. We must not give in to cynicism or despair or the temptation to take up arms. We must neither withdraw into our enclaves, refusing to confront the new reality, nor run away … to Canada or anywhere else. We must stand forthrightly and unapologetically for peace, love, and justice for all. We must become engaged in the Resistance, employing creative nonviolence to defy those elements of Trump’s America that run counter to Jesus’s vision of the reign of God.
The prophet’s dream of the new heaven and new earth, where people live in security and abundance, where violent conflict is a relic of the past, where even the fiercest of enemies are reconciled and cosmic harmony overcomes discord, will come true. No human machinations, no quirks of history, no antiquated electoral system can thwart the purposes of God for long. The destination of the moral universe is justice, no matter how long its arc or how many detours it has to take. Love will win. Do not be terrified. Do not be weary.