Our readings for this fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost give us direction for uncertain and troubled times: look forward, focus on the future, and prepare yourselves to do good work.
The first lesson, from the beginning of the book of the prophet Isaiah, takes us back to a time in Israel’s history when the nation was in disarray, desolate. Giving voice to the Lord, the words of the prophet tell us that God has grown tired of and no longer desires the ritual sacrifices of the people. This does not mean that Isaiah opposes such ritual on principle, but rather indicates that God calls for moral action accompanying Temple worship. God instructs them, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” And he holds out bright hope for the future if they do so: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
The letter to the Hebrews hearkens to history to demonstrate the life of faith that Isaiah espouses. The “great cloud of witnesses” constituting Israel’s ancestors maintained right action in hope of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith, the letter says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Abraham embodied such faith, leaving what he knew for the unknown, believing God’s promises, even though he did not see their fruits. Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring saw and greeted these promises “from a distance.” They did not think of what lay behind, but made clear by their looking forward that they desired a “better country, that is, a heavenly one.” This is pleasing to God, who has prepared a city for them.
The heavenly country that they desire is also the focus of Jesus’ teaching in Luke’s gospel. He continues his point from last week’s lesson about being “on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Jesus is not necessarily telling his followers that they have to get rid of all their possessions; he is advocating the opposite of focusing of “getting and spending,” encouraging them to focus on being “rich toward God.” The “treasure in heaven” is not the reward you will get after you die. “Heaven” is God’s reality, God’s way of being, here and now and always. When we say, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” this is what we are speaking of. The more we focus on the finding the “treasure of heaven” here, of making this present reality more like God’s reality, the closer to heaven we will come. The second half of this week’s lesson focuses on preparation, being watchful and ready for the coming of the kingdom, here described as the coming of the bridegroom to the wedding banquet. Jesus is giving advice in this passage that would have been familiar to his audience as the advice given to people preparing for a journey like that of Israel in the Exodus-dress properly, be ready to eat the meal served to you, and then follow the master. You do not know when the coming of the kingdom may occur, so always be looking for it.
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons to Living
1.) We often speak of preparing for the future in terms of financial planning or education or strategic thinking. While these things are not worthless or wrong, our lessons suggest that in God’s terms preparation for the future involves something else. What might that be?
2.) The Greek word translated in Hebrews as assurance might also be translated as reality. Likewise, the word translated as conviction might be translated as evidence. In that case, “faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” How does that change your understanding of the lesson-and of hope and faith?