Imagine that it is the predawn of human history. You are a human inhabitant of the Northern Hemisphere of the planet Earth. You know nothing of written words and your language is plain and simple. And all around you the world is full of terrible dangers. Your life is threatened everywhere you turn.
But there is one thing you can be sure of. That one thing is the constant and predictable movement of the lights in the sky. The stars, the moon, and the sun are the certainties you can depend on. Once you learn the courses of these heavenly bodies, they are always where you expect them to be. By their constancy they promise you there will be another day, another month, another year. It is not surprising then that as a prehistoric man or woman you know the heavens better than you know the features of the earth around you or even better than the back of your own hand.
This constancy and faithfulness of the heavens is never more important to you than it is in this season of late fall and early winter. For several moons now the light of daytime has been growing shorter and shorter. The arc of the sun begins and ends further and further to the south. If it keeps on it will disappear altogether. You would then be left to freeze and die in darkness. You are anxious.
But you are also hopeful. On the southeast horizon there is a certain hill, and on the southwest horizon there is a certain gnarled tree trunk. When the arc of the sun descends to those two places it will stop moving south, and it will stop getting smaller. The following day (wonder of wonders!) the path of the sun will be MOVING NORTH! Its arc will get longer each day. On that day when the sun turns you will breathe easier again. You will know that once again spring has come. You won't be able to see spring or feel spring for another two or three moons but you will know it is there. On that day when the sun turns, the constancy and faithfulness of the heavens will be proved to you once more. And so this is the season for waiting; the season for keeping a watchful eye on the heavens; the season for keeping a hopeful heart.
Now let us jump ahead some hundred or so millennia. It is now about 1500 BC. You are no longer huddled under the open heavens. You are wandering inside a walled city. If you have ever visited the remains of an ancient walled city you can imagine the feeling. There is a sense of enclosure and safety. There is a sense of compactness. Narrow streets are filled with shops and stalls teeming with commerce and life. There is a sense of being in the center of the rest of the world. People speak in every sort of strange tongue and the air is full of every sort of exotic fragrance. It is this image that moved the heart of Isaiah whom we have just listened to and that moved the heart of the Psalmist of Psalm 122 whose prayer we have just sung (recited). In a world full of dangers and calamities, Isaiah and the Psalmist try to imagine what the Lord has planned, and they picture a safe walled city, compact and at unity with itself. They picture a city to which all the people of the earth will stream and be at peace in the safety of one wall. This is Jerusalem. Not the Jerusalem that is, but the Jerusalem that is meant to be. This is the promised Jerusalem.
Now let us come into our own time. It is the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1998. It is November 29th and we are approaching the last month of the year in the secular calendar. It is the very season when our ancient forebears waited for the turning of the sun with anxious but hopeful hearts. And it is no coincidence that in the church's calendar this is the first and not the last season and month of the year. The church begins our year of worship with the reminder that we, too, wait anxiously for a constant and faithful light. And we, too, still wait for the peace of Isaiah's Jerusalem. The constancy of the heavenly bodies is still a thing of astonishing beauty, and the ruins of ancient walled cities still fascinate us. But we have long ago learned that neither the beauty and faithfulness of the sun and stars nor the strongest city walls can save us from the darkness of our own inconstant and sinful hearts. We wait for a greater light. We wait for a Jerusalem not yet seen in this world.
And never have we waited more anxiously than now. This will be the last worship year of the 20th century. This has been, arguably, the darkest of centuries. This is the century that opened with the genocide of Armenia, and has murdered whole nations on every continent and in nearly every decade. This is the century whose high water mark was the slaughter of six million of the Chosen People. This is the century when many wonder if the Light is now sinking below the horizon of the world forever. It is no wonder that book stores are filled with religious books obsessed with prophecy. We are like small children in the back seat of the car demanding to know "how much longer?" and "are we there yet?" We itch for secret bible codes, or for Nostradamus-like bible prophecies in the Book of Revelation. We demand that heaven reveal the pattern to us and make us feel safe again. We want a new Jerusalem: compact, teeming with life, at peace within it's walls, and under the protection of the eternal heavens. We are waiting. Some of us are patient, some of us impatient; some of us cynical and doubting; some of us despairing.
And to all of us, Jesus Christ speaks this morning in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus has come from preaching on the hills and plains of Galilee under the open heavens. He speaks from the Mount of Olives looking down on the streets of Jerusalem, thick with conflict and politics. The Jerusalem that Jesus has entered is both the image and the contradiction of the Jerusalem in Isaiah's vision. The Jerusalem that Jesus has entered is very much like the world we live in. It is divided and dangerous. And his words are troubling. We want to know how it will all end. We want to know if, when, and how the new Jerusalem will come to be. We want to know how much longer, and if we're there yet. We want him to tell us that we are safe. We want him to tell us that in the end the world and our own individual lives are secured. It's finally all going to come out right for us. Please just tell us that much, dear Lord!
What Jesus tells us instead is that we are no more privileged to know when or where the world's end or our own ends will come than were the people in Noah's day. Nor are we to know who will be lifted up and who will not. We are only to know that our ends are to be a surprise and we are counseled to live as if we were certain the Lord is coming today. Believe it or not, had the reading started one verse sooner, we would have been shocked to hear Jesus tell us that the day and hour are hidden even from himself, the Son of God!
Jesus' obtusely refuses to tell us what we think we must be told. Only if we follow him in the rest of his sojourn in Jerusalem and his return to the Mount of Olives will we understand why. We must stand near at his suffering and death. We must wait broken hearted at the tomb and we must take the time to let the joy of his risen life overtake our fear. Then we will be set free from the demanding need for privileged knowledge or the smug assurance that we are saved just because we take shelter in the walls of the right religion. We will know that the only real safety is in giving up all demands for safety and in freely abandoning our hearts to the love of Jesus Christ. We will see that this Jesus Christ gains all power and safety by giving up all power and safety. His only safety is in his love of the Father and the Father's love for him. Only by such naked trust will Jesus finally triumph.
In the next four weeks, we will be waiting for the celebration of Christmas. As Christians that means to celebrate Jesus Christ coming into our world and our lives in the form our own human flesh. May we watchfully read the scriptures and pray often in the days ahead. May we abandon all our anxiety to take control of our lives and our history by our own wisdom and accomplishments. May we be awakened to the joy of finding the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and through him our love for one another.
In those twin loves are our only heavenly light, our only safety, and our only peace.