Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
Do Over, Do Now
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • November 13, 2016
“I want a do over.” I was standing in the cockpit of my boat, trying to back out of the slip. There were two things different about this time. First, we had an audience; some friends had come over to say goodbye. Second, it had gone totally wrong. Jacquelyn cast off the lines at the front perfectly. I put the boat in reverse, all 17,000 pounds started to move backward and then it stuck and swung the wrong way. Everyone hurried to help, but the boat didn’t respond. Finally I figured out that I had left one of the lines on the stern tying us to the dock connected; as soon as I untied it, we were fine. But I had looked ridiculous and created a dangerous situation and all in front of our friends. I wanted a do over.
“I want a do over.” The first time I remember hearing the phrase was from my son. We were playing with a basketball; some game where we took turns throwing it at a basket, trying to get to a score. He would miss and say, “I want a do over” and come up with some excuse, some reason: he was off balance, the ball had slipped: something. Later on, I came to the same feeling on my own, mostly as a parent. No one prepared me for the fact that parenting was so arbitrary, so make-it-up-as-you-go. There were so many times I wanted a do over. Have you ever felt that way? I wonder if that is how God feels about the world: “I want a do over”. In English, we have “Behold I make a new creation” but the Hebrew really says, “Look at me, I’m making a new heaven and earth. “I’m having a do over.”
Understanding Isaiah’s Word
We have to understand the setting to which Isaiah brought the word we heard this morning. God’s people had been disastrously defeated 80 years or so before, a defeat that shook their souls as well as destroying their nation. Thousands became refugees and many were taken into captivity in the foreign city of Babylon. Ever since, God’s people have listened to their grand parents tell them, “In Jerusalem, the gardens were better…in Jerusalem, the weather was better…in Jerusalem, the temple was better”. Now the Persian king has released the Jews and some have returned to Jerusalem. But they’ve gone home to something like Berlin in 1945 or Aleppo today: a wiped out city with ruined buildings. This is the moment in which Isaiah speaks this Word from God and he speaks it to people who must have thought, “We need a do over.”
So we have this Word and the Word really is about where we’re going. What is our ultimate destination? I’ve lived most of my life along the great parallel defined by I-90, a road that begins in Boston, runs through New York, loops south to take account of the Great Lakes, runs through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then across South Dakota and Montana, where it rises into the mountains and snakes through the passes of Idaho before it flows out into the desert of Eastern Washington, jumps the Columbia River and ends in Seattle. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Boston, and no matter which I was in, I never forgot the one at the other end. I knew the road had a destination; I knew where it was going. God is offering a vision here of where we are going. I’m making new heavens and earth and this is what it’s like: you’re going to enjoy it, you’re going to build houses and live in them, have a vineyard and enjoy its wine. It takes a long time for vineyards to bear fruit but you’ll still be there. I’m going to be there and I’m going to anticipate your every want. Thirdly, the wolf and the lamb are going to lie down: in other words, there is going to be peace, even the natural world is going to be at peace. That’s where we’re going; that’s what the do over is for: that’s our destination. Don’t worry about the trip: God knows where we are going.
The same faith flows through what Jesus says in the reading from Luke. Jesus is a rural person and so are most of his followers. Think how they must have been dazzled by Jerusalem; think how the big buildings, the sights, the sounds, the smells must have impressed them. They must have felt this was a permanent place. Yet now Jesus tells them it’s all going to be destroyed, desolated: “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Just 35 years or so after Jesus said this, it came true, and Luke’s readers know it’s true. Like the shock of Pearl Harbor or the towers falling on September 11, they are living in a moment of shocked grief when it must have seemed, as the poet Yeats said,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
He goes on to warn them about the immediate aftermath: violent times, demagogues, false preachers, persecution. All these things have happened in the life and experience of the Luke’s audience. Yet at the end Jesus invites them to this one faith: that in the love of God, there is a permanent place: “…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Our future is in the hands of a God who loves us.
What About Now?
So: we know where we are going—what about now? What do we do now? Because we know it’s not like that now. The wolves and lambs are not lying down together now. What we are doing is living between the past and that vision. These readings have two ideas about what to do now.
Work Here, Work Now
The first is to work here and now toward that vision. Someone said the Puritans were so effective because they believed everything depended on God but they acted like everything depended on them. They believed God’s faithfulness; they lived faithfully to God. Our nation has come through a long and divisive campaign. Some are triumphant today; many are despondent. But our future is in God’s hands. Our mission remains the same: to sustain here a community of care, where God’s love is evident in the embrace of people who have been embraced by Christ. The Rabbis say: if the Messiah comes, still finish your Torah study for the day. Work is the creative activity by which we are carrying out God’s will in the world. So we are called to work now, we are called to work here, for justice, for the embodiment of peace. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of forgiveness. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of finding the lost. We change the world when we do this now.
The second thing to do is witness. Luke is writing about 15 years after everything he says in this section has already happened. The temple is already destroyed; people are already being arrested for being Christian. What Luke understands to be our job in the present is to witness. Don’t worry about how you do it either, Luke says. This part always makes me smile at books on how to witness. How do you witness? Live your life: that’s your witness. Live your life in a way that allows Christ to make a difference. A number of social researchers have looked at Christians and others in terms of their behavior; what they find is being Christian often makes little difference. Your witness is to let Christ make a difference in your life now.
Because Christ can make a difference, in good times, in bad times. In 1945, just before his execution by the Nazis for resistance, a German soldier wrote these words to his mother.
Dear Mother: Today, together with Jorgen, Nils and Ludwig, I was arraigned before a Military tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this, but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it, you must also understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere— in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile. You will encounter that something which perhaps had value in me, you will cherish it and you will not forget me. And so I shall have a chance to grow, to become large and mature.
God’s work in the world through people who endure in faith is amazing.
The people that went into exile in Babylon did return and rebuild Jerusalem but they did something far more significant. While they were in exile, the stories, the teachings, the books that now know as the Hebrew Scriptures were brought together and given their final form. The kings and armies and politics of that time are just obscure footnotes read by historians today. The scriptures they brought together have inspired three great faiths and people ever since.
The little group, not as many as are here today, who heard Jesus and endured in their faith in him and his teaching and his vision of God’s reign did see the temple fall, did see the persecution but they endured. They kept his memory; they became his body. Through all our stumbling history, that faith continues today and we are their inheritors. In our lives, in our witness, it has, as the resistance either said, “..a chance to grow, to become large and mature.”
So grieve, celebrate, take a moment to bind up wounds and see where you are. But remember that where we are is not where we are going. Where we are going is in the hands of a God beyond our vision of greatness or defeat. When we grieve, we should not do it as people without hope, as Paul says, but as people who have put their hope in the God who doesn’t fail. The creative God who when all seems dark still can say: “I’ll have a do over: behold, a new creation.” Let us give thanks to God as we work, as we witness, as we wait for God to make the new creation.
“Where we are is not where we are going.”