Texts: Isaiah 65 17-25 (new heaven and earth); Luke 21 5-19 (signs of the end)
The baptism of a child is always a time for joy, thanksgiving and hope. As we celebrate Jason's baptism today and look forward to his life, we might also think back to the baptisms of others and confront the wonder of all the changes we have experienced so far in life. Today, I use our two Bible readings to help us in this work of looking forward and back.
Today feels special for me. This will be the last baptism I will be part of here in Borderlands before I leave for Mill Woods United Church in Edmonton. It also has echoes of my first summer here 2.5 years ago when, in August 2011, I presided at my first ever wedding, which was that of Jason's aunt and uncle, Amanda and Jerrod, and who are here this morning.
In between the joys of weddings and baptism, I have been changed and deepened by weekly worship, by walking with grieving families, and by becoming involved in the life of our communities. I will leave at the end of December with both sadness and gratitude. Ministry here has changed me.
But viewed in conventional terms, my ministry might not be considered a success. The same small numbers come to Sunday worship today as in 2011. There have been more funerals than baptisms. No new group of lay leaders has appeared to take over from the few who have been the sparkplugs of the life and work of the churches for the last 30 years. The future of our congregations is in question, as we will discuss at three meetings this week.
Today's Gospel reading points to massive changes in religious life during the time of Jesus. Jesus is confronted with the beauty and majesty of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been the focus of Jewish worship and community life since it was rebuilt 600 years earlier. But Jesus says that it will be thrown down.
His prediction is confirmed 40 years later when a three-year long rebellion of the people of Jerusalem against the Roman occupiers is defeated. The Romans enter Jerusalem, slaughter thousands of people, burn the Holy City to the ground, and utterly destroy its beautiful Temple.
Out of this trauma, Jewish leaders find new ways to worship God in synagogues all around the Mediterranean. Others who follow Christ write the gospel narratives of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and use their new Scriptures to found what becomes the Christian Church.
Jesus' brief remarks point to a terrible trauma, but they also contain a seed of hope that will lead to new ways of revealing the God who is Love and new ways of worshipping and serving our most sacred values.
The decline of our churches may seem mild compared to the bloody tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem more than 1900 years ago. However, I see some parallels. What we face here and in churches all across the former European empires is a faint echo of the disaster of World War One, I believe. I will speak more on this next week when we celebrate the end of the Church Year on Reign of Christ Sunday.
Today, suffice it to say that changed social conditions have left our churches searching for a new thing, which might be as different as the worship of the early church was from Temple Sacrifice in Jerusalem before the year 70.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the followers of the resurrected Christ must have been disoriented and scared. So many people had been killed. So many hopes of the years of the rebellion had been crushed. So much tradition lay in ruins amid the rubble of the formerly great City.
And yet, it was in these dire circumstances that new life in Christ was discovered by more people. Because of this new life of Love, they must have been grateful for sacraments such as baptism that formed their worship life.
I don't imagine that their gratitude meant that they looked down upon the previous generations who had sustained Temple worship in Jerusalem or who had rebelled against the hated Romans.
In retrospect, we can see that the Temple priests who collaborated with Rome during more than 200 years of occupation comprised their religious ideals. At the same time, I can sympathize with their choices -- they tried to maintain ancient rituals and learnings amid harsh conditions.
In retrospect, we can see that the young zealots in Jerusalem who broke off from their elders to rise in armed rebellion against the Romans compromised their ethics. Still, I can sympathize with those who chose a path of armed resistance. Like Jesus, they were trying to build a society freed from foreign military domination. They failed, but don't most such noble efforts fail?
When we look back, we can usually find something to criticize in previous generations. As Jason grows up, he will break free of his parents by finding things he doesn't like about their traditions and rituals. Our prayer is that he will do so for the same shared sacred values that guide his parents: faith, hope and love.
Each generation tries to find a trusting faith, tries to experience hope amid all of life's ups and downs, and tries to give and receive love. They do so in conditions that are different that those of their parents. As newer generations look back in the future, I expect that they will realize that we tried to keep the faith, live out of a sense of hope, and express love as best we could in difficult conditions.
We also confident that all are travelling to the same destination. Amid Jesus' dire warnings today, he also assures us that "not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."
In the reading from Isaiah, the Prophet paints an idyllic picture of a new heaven and earth where "they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain." It was to this vision that the Christian prophet John of Patmos turned as he wrote the last chapter of his apocalyptic book Revelation.
Each generation builds upon the efforts of its predecessors, and also criticizes and changes some of what it receives. Each generation is fated to search again for a trusting faith amid all that we fear; to live with hope despite not knowing what lies just around the corner for our communities or families; and to give and receive love despite the violence that sometimes clouds our minds and disturbs our world.
Today, by being baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Jason has joined the Body of Christ. The form and function of that Body is changing as is the society in which it exists. But we are certain that the promise of his baptism will be fulfilled in Jason's life again and again. It will find him dwelling in a new heaven and earth in which his faith is secure, his hope is realized, and love is his watchword, both now and always.
Thanks be to God.