Now and Not Yet
Based on Isaiah 65:17-25, 2Thess 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Have you ever in your life been caught in-between; between the “now” and the “not yet”? Maybe it was working in a position and envisioning a time when there would be a promotion? Maybe it was finding the perfect gift for someone and having to wait an extended time to give that gift? Maybe you thought you were old enough already, but you had to wait until a specific birthday (sweet 16) in order to be able to drive independently? Maybe you had done something you regretted and were waiting for that act to be discovered and the consequences to be handed down? Whatever the situation, the in-between time of “now and not yet” is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing at best, and down-right paralyzing at worst. Things move forward seemingly in slow motion and the “not yet” always seems to be just out of reach.
It is that way in our spiritual lives as well. Our scripture readings for today speak to us about this “now and not yet” in relation to what God is doing in our lives and our world. The reading from Isaiah speaks of God creating new worlds and how all of God’s creation will interact in a new and unified way. The letter to the believers in Thessalonica points to the need to continue to work to spread the gospel and not to “weary in doing what is right”. Jesus tells the star-stuck Disciples that though the Temple is beautiful, there will come a time when it is totally destroyed. He speaks to them of coming persecutions and other difficulties and tells them that they will need to endure all this in order to “gain your souls”. Let us go to God now in prayer asking for patience and persistence as we live in our “now and not yet” time…
The Book of Isaiah is 66 Chapters long, and we find ourselves today in Chapter 65. Isaiah is divided into three sections corresponding to the oracles delivered to the people of the Northern Kingdom as it was being destroyed by the Assyrians. This last section of Isaiah is much more forward looking that the bulk of the Book which dealt more directly with Israel’s apostasy and lack of repentance. In today’s reading we hear the writer exalting the creative powers of God who shall make all things new again. None of the former times of struggle and death will be remembered – there will be no more exile. Before they even speak, God will hear and answer them. God will be very present and will rejoice with God’s people in their land. The “not yet” time is right around the corner – don’t despair…prepare!
The verse right before our reading is a good introduction to where we are in 2Thessalonians. That verse says, “…May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ….” This sets the tone for our reading which is a strong admonition against idleness in the faith. Again, the writer believes that the Christ is coming again soon, so there is no time to waste in not working to spread the gospel and other kingdom work. The writer tells the believers to not associate with others who do not have the fire in their hearts to win new disciples for Jesus. They are not to be made into enemies, but the laggards are to be warned to work diligently or suffer the consequences. The imperative of the “not yet” time coming quite soon impels the believers into a very active “now”.
Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world in today’s reading. We know this to have happened in 70 C.E., but the Disciples had no way of knowing just how close at hand was this tragedy. The Disciples ask about signs and portents, trying to get a handle on how soon this “not yet” time would be for them. Jesus speaks to them about coming persecutions and about how Jesus will always be with them to prepare them to testify. Jesus says, “…So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict….” In the time to come, Jesus encourages them to keep spreading the gospel and to endure so that they will “gain their souls”.
The Church teaches, “Christ has died; Christ is Risen; Christ will come again”. This holy teaching circumscribes for us the essence of what it means to live a Christian life during our in-between time. God’s kingdom – that is, God’s reign over the things of the world had it’s beginning with the Incarnation. God’s divinity coming down to earth in the human form of Jesus, began the final act in God’s plan for all creation. The return of the Christ will happen in God’s Kairos time (as we talked about last week) and not a moment before. Our job as disciples, is to do what the Thessalonians were encouraged to do – get to work spreading the gospel and don’t let idleness, gossip or Jesus-wannabe’s get in the way of accomplishing our mandate.
Yet, it is really not that simple, is it?! Take The United Methodist Church and where we find ourselves in this “now and not yet” time. Just this week, a new chart was released showing the four different versions of what the UMC might become after May 15, 2020. Let me make one thing clear before I go any further, I am not in any way conflating the return of the Christ with whatever becomes of The United Methodist Church. I don’t believe for one moment that God cares one way or another about the fate of any particular denomination. I do believe that God cares quite deeply about the individual members of the Body of Christ – and the health of the Body as a whole, but not about how they organize themselves into doctrinal and dogmatic belief models trying to explain a God who is and will always be beyond our understanding.
I do think that our readings today offer us something to work with in this time of new beginning in The UMC. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that no matter what we as humans do, God is always creating God’s preferred future to achieve God’s plan. The writer of 2Thessalonians speaks to us about being good disciples and spreading the good news according to Jesus, and to not be idle about this important task. We are to continue to reach out to those who do not know why belief in the Christ makes such a positive difference in our lives and in our world. Jesus tells His disciples that even when the hallowed institutions that we invest so much of our belief in lie in rubble, when we are beset by persecutors, and when we are dispersed away from all that we have known in our lives, still He is with us helping us navigate the in-between times. Jesus wants us to discern where it is we can best serve in our time and then go out and do just that.
No matter what form Methodism takes in our time, we know that in all the iterations that have preceded this “United” form our spiritual ancestors found their way. That’s because they and we serve a God who creates a way where there seems to be no way. Let us not be fearful of what becomes of The United Methodist Church, but let us be bold in our witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, who tells all disciples in every time that there is much work to do for the kingdom. Let us not get all balled up over what denominational structures remain, but let us renew our commitment to grow in the mind and heart of Jesus no matter the human-made doctrine within which we operate. God has made it clear what it is that we are to do with our lives – our job is to get to doing it and stop being distracted by earthly matters of denominational affiliation and sexual orientation. We live in the in-between time just like so many have over the last 2000 years. Let us trust in the God who is present with us in our time; the God who creates our futures. Let us not be paralyzed by the anxiety of an unknowable future, but let us use our time and our God given talents to spread the gospel so that when the Christ comes again that He might find the world ready to move into the dream that Isaiah saw. I’ll give the benediction to the unknown writer of 2Thessalonians who wrote, “…pray for us so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you, and that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you are doing and will go on doing the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ…Brothers and sisters do not be weary in doing what is right….” Amen!