The prophecies in the second half of the Book of Isaiah came to an exile in Babylon. He or she spoke to other Jews in exile, whose condition was a constant reminder of the horrors of war and starvation, of the destruction of Jerusalem and the bitter shame of captivity and deportation. To these people their historical situation was not simply the result of failed policy. It was not merely a national defeat. It was a divine judgment. The memory of horror, and the pang of loss, and the burden of oppression were constant reminders to these people of their collective sins. They had squandered the blessings of God’s covenant with them; they had betrayed God with idolatrous worship, and injustice to each other, and violence toward their neighbors.
But the word of God to them, through the prophet, is that the memory of guilt will not decide their future —“the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” says God, “for I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” In spite of their hopeless situation, God’s dream for them is not over. If anything, it is coming more clearly into view. God’s dream is of Jerusalem as a place of peace and safety and justice. It is a vision of a community living life to the full, without fear or sorrow or want.
These words must have seemed remote from the everyday experience of the people. But that is what makes them like a sudden dawn breaking what felt like an endless night. The vision of the prophet was like a dream, but it was a dream that awakened them from the slumber of numbness and despair. It rang with a truth that ran counter to everything that they could have reasonably assumed from a practical assessment of their real life situation. The vision of the new creation was a dream that could only have come from God.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke speaks to the turmoil of the second half of the first century. It was the time of the Jews’ bloody revolt against Roman rule, of the Romans’ savage campaign of re-conquest and their destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple; it was the time of the first waves of official persecution of those who identified themselves with the name of Jesus Christ. These verses remember a time when Jesus himself spoke of the fall of the temple, and of turmoil and trouble and suffering in the world. They recall his words of warning about those who would prey on the fears and doubts that fill the air in such times, and put themselves forward as Messiahs, claiming the power to make God’s promises come true.
And we hear a further warning to Jesus’ disciples, that they would be put forward, not as victors but as victims, as scapegoats and criminals. Jesus tells them of the ironic twist of history by which their accusers will bring them before kings and governors, giving them their moment to testify. It will be their part, in the confusion of a world that seems to be coming to an end, to speak the word of God; Jesus will put his own wisdom in their mouths, the words of judgment and promise that open the door to the new creation: “The kingdom of heaven has come near to you.” “Love your enemies and bless those who curse you.” “Those who are called great among you must be last of all and servant of all.” “Have courage, for I have overcome the world.”
I grew up with a rather dismissive opinion of President John F. Kennedy. Once as a child I became fascinated with a book in the town library; a coffee-table book full of photographs, it was about his assassination and the days that followed, I went back to it again and again. But somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that President Kennedy hadn’t really accomplished anything, and that if he hadn’t been young and handsome, and given a great speech at his inauguration, and died the way he did, he would be a minor figure in our history. And I didn’t find any reason to fundamentally reconsider that opinion until very recently--just a few weeks ago, as a matter of fact.
My wife was out of town for the weekend, which meant that on Friday night I got to watch what I wanted on TV, and maybe because of the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death, I selected a documentary on JFK. In the course of the film they showed some footage of the speech that he gave to the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 20, 1963. In that speech President Kennedy hailed the signing of the first major nuclear arms-control treaty, the ban on atmospheric testing which he’d proposed two years before. And he took the moment to insist that this should be the first step toward ending the Cold War, not a brief pause in its continuation. While acknowledging profound differences between the superpowers, he laid out a clear path toward comprehensive disarmament, and an intention to follow it, “building,” as he put it, “the institutions of peace as we dismantle the engines of war.” He made bold proposals for cooperation among nations, including the Soviet Union, in science and technology and economic and social development, and recommitted his support to the United Nations as the cornerstone of global security under the aegis of international law.
Near the conclusion of the speech, he said the following: “But peace does not rest in charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people. And if it is not there, then no act, no pact, no treaty, no organization can hope to preserve it without the support and the wholehearted commitment of all people. So let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and on paper; let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace, in the hearts and minds of all of our people. I believe that we can. I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.”
The thing that was most stirring to me about these words was that I could see that he meant them. The film shows President Kennedy leaving the podium after he had spoken, and making his way back to his seat. And watching it I was transfixed by the way he lowered himself tenderly down into his chair, his body in evident pain, but even more I was moved by the expression on his face—humble, even a little shy, but luminous with wonder at the privilege of speaking such hope to a world in the grip of confusion and fear; it was the face of a man who has tasted peace in his own heart, and knows what the word really means.
We all know what happened next, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that terrible day, the most important questions are not the unanswered ones about his death, but the ones about memory. Is it just a memory of shock and grief, of where you were when you heard the news? Is it memory of the man, of glamor and charisma and glaring personal failings? Or is it a memory of the vision, of words spoken at great political and personal risk, with the resolve do something about them? Is it a memory of something more than a murder, something more even than a man, something about God’s dream for the world?
That dream did not die in 1963 in Dallas, or in 1965 in Harlem, or in 1968 in Memphis or Los Angeles. It did not die on September 11, 2001, because violence cannot kill God’s dream of life and peace for the world. It rises again and again from the graves of its fallen witnesses and speaks in new voices and new visions, because it is God’s promise to all people for all time. It is the new creation for which all things in heaven and earth were made. That is the message we come to this place, week by week, to remember, to say aloud, and whisper in our hearts. That is the hope we cherish here in large ways and in small, for nations at war and children in the hospital, for families in need and a planet at risk, for the unknown and unborn, and for the beloved dead. It is the promise that gives power and purpose to our lives, because it is the dream that makes the world come true.