The Common Good
November 2013

Becoming Fluent in the Language of Hope

by Martin L. Smith | November 2013

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

THE CELEBRATED PHILOSOPHER Ludwig Wittgenstein used to speak—disapprovingly—of “language going on holiday.” For example, sportswriters often free language from the drudgery of everyday common usage to let it spread its wings in glorious hyperbole about their favorite teams.

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Our biblical heritage gives us examples that are much deeper. When we read the prophets especially, we hear language liberated from the constraints of the everyday to give it a sacred vacation, a true “holy-day,” so that it can return to us reinvigorated. We hear them sending language on an adventure holiday into the realm of God’s future. When they receive the words back, the prophets find themselves recounting visions of a new world that God has in store.

Eschatological language that has been to the future and back exerts a powerful authority over us. In this month’s scriptures we experience that authority again in Isaiah’s unforgettable oracles about the holy mountain on which no one shall ever again hurt or destroy. We shall see, with our mind’s eye, the rising of the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings. We shall hear Jesus speaking of the life waiting for the children of the resurrection. The church’s year ends by inviting us to enter under the authority of the coming kingdom, to become fluent in its strange language of hope, harmony, and ultimate reunion with the Holy One who has reconciled all creation through the cross and resurrection.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ NOVEMBER 3 ]
The Eyes Have It
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

SOMETIMES ONE OF our five senses has special prominence in scripture readings. This week the eyes have it. We hear about vision, watching, seeing, and looking. In the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, we are drawn first into the kind of looking that is full of curiosity but keeps its distance. The tax collector wants to catch a glimpse of the notorious Galilean prophet, but the backs of the crowd shut him out. He clambers into a tree and peeps down through the leaves at Jesus, who unexpectedly looks up and catches Zacchaeus, the voyeur, in the act.

This looking up turns into a looking in, as the Lord sees something in the tax collector that perhaps no one has seen before. In James Baldwin’s book The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin describes his first encounter with artist Beauford Delaney. “When [Delaney] had completed his instant X-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels, and spinal column ... he smiled and said, ‘Come in.’” Elsewhere Baldwin wrote, “The reality of [Delaney’s] seeing caused me to begin to see.” Have you ever had someone look at you that way? Jesus’ penetrating look instantly begins to dissolve an inner dam that has been holding back Zacchaeus’ latent joy and his latent generosity. No one else had ever suspected what was in him. Jesus gets himself invited in, and after an hour or two the floodgates have opened, revealing Zacchaeus’ true self. He insists that Jesus get a good look at his real self in action: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor” (Luke 19:8).

The prophet Habakkuk “sees” the oracle he has to proclaim. He is stationed as a watchman on the ramparts, surveying a scene of political and judicial corruption in the nation. He must rivet his disillusioned gaze on this vista of political hypocrisy, institutionalized violence, and national polarization. Like us, he protests the horrible toll that this looking takes on the heart and nerves (1:3): “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” But only vigilance will detect the signs of God’s redemptive action among the people. The signs must be written down and published immediately to stimulate people to urgent action in the cause of God’s justice.

[ NOVEMBER 10 ]
That Resurrection Nonsense
Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

WE WHO COMMIT ourselves to the gospel’s socially transformative power sometimes risk a too casual approach to the ultimate promise of the resurrection. It’s understandable that we might react vigorously against versions of Christianity that focus only on “getting to heaven,” while also compulsively threatening eternal damnation. But if we align ourselves with Jesus’ firm and calm insistence that God is the God of the living, not the dead, then there is no danger of a pie-in-the-sky religiosity. The dead, in fact, are alive to God and have a role in a future fulfillment for humanity in which death has no more power.

There is something chilling about the Sadducees speaking with such certainty that the resurrection is nonsensical wishful thinking. They are confident that they can make the belief seem ludicrous by positing the case of a woman who marries seven brothers in succession. Jesus deflects their complacent agnosticism with sober insistence. God has a future for us, in which the ceaseless round of procreation will no longer be relevant, as there will be no need to replace the generations mowed down by disease and decay. In the resurrection, there will be fullness and completeness of life.

Sharing Jesus’ resurrection hope places us under no risk whatsoever of slackening our commitment to justice and peacemaking here and now. We can enjoy the comfort of a hope that actually releases our energy for social change, along the lines of Paul’s blessing in 2 Thessalonians. “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father [and Mother], who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2:16-17).

[ NOVEMBER 17 ]
No Stone Left Standing
Isaiah 65:17-25; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

“AS FOR THESE things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). Luke records Jesus’ chilling words in response to the disciples’ awestruck admiration of the mighty Herodian Temple, one of the most magnificent buildings of their age. What a disillusioning moment! I once tried the experiment of evoking this same sentiment by preaching on this text in the Washington National Cathedral, very soon after it was completed. “In a couple of thousand years,” I asked, “when no one is around anymore to imagine what the great American empire used to be like, will radioactive bats be flying through the empty window sockets of the ruin?” Judging by the stricken expressions on their faces, these musings must have had quite some effect!

For those who were the first to hear Luke’s gospel, the unthinkable had already happened: There was only rubble where the temple had once stood. But in the meantime, something greater had been steadily growing in the community gathered under the lordship of the crucified and risen one. Even the destruction of the temple—and the wars and revolts that continually provoked the empire into more reprisals—could be spoken of as something to be patiently endured.

[ NOVEMBER 24 ]
The Church’s New Year
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The church brings its liturgical year to a close by evoking the theme of Christ the King. This solemn Sunday actually deploys the supreme irony and paradox of a universal Messiah reigning “from the tree,” as the ancient hymns put it, a naked and battered victim of torture on the cross of shame. The Lukan passion narrative proclaims the good news to be a message about the cross—as Paul would put it, “the foolishness and weakness of God”—but in fact it is none other than the power that holds everything in existence together. The magnificent first chapter of Colossians, which we read in conjunction with the story of Good Friday, proclaims that the crucified one is the image of the invisible God, in whom all things in heaven and earth were created. The cross is the axis around which all our destinies now turn. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of [the] cross” (1:19-20).

Where will we hear this message proclaimed with clarity and passion? Are we in a setting where the universality of the gospel’s reach is fatally weakened? At times a concern for religious pluralism and inclusiveness gives rise to a notion that the way of the cross is really just an option for those who happen to be drawn to it or that Christ is a king for the few, not for all. We must cling to the notion that the cross is not a “setback” to be hastily cancelled by the resurrection. It is the revelation of “the love that moves the sun and all the other stars” in decisive action to change the fate of the world for all.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw.

Image: holding hope, 2jenn / Shutterstock.com

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