Isaiah 65:17-25 – See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
Going Out on a Limb
Nov. 14, 2010
If the ending of this passage sounds familiar, that is because it echoes the words of Isaiah 11, a text traditionally read during Advent. That passage talks about the shoot coming from the stump of Jesse who will have the Spirit of the Lord and will usher in this time of peace when wolves will lie down with lambs and cows will eat beside bears and everything and everyone who is usually opposed to each other will actually get along. That is the kind of peace toward which the anticipation of Advent points us.
But we’re not there yet. We’re still a few weeks out from Advent, and who knows how long away from this peaceful vision coming to fruition. Before we move into this new time, we must go through a time of transition. We are leaving behind the time of year the church calls Ordinary Time but we’re not quite to the season of Advent. We are leaving behind the fall but we’re not quite to winter. Even our church is going through transitions as we live into this new era of leadership and ministry.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that, things will someday stabilize and return to normal. We are all in transition. Every day is a transition. Sleeping to waking is a transition, and not always an easy one. We transition from vacation to work, weekend to work week, full house to empty nest, single to married or married to single. Every day is a transition.
I heard about one group of men that liked to celebrate their life transitions in specias ways. When the men all turned 40, they decided to go to dinner together at Jimmy’s Restaurant because they had the cutest waitresses. When the turned 50, they decided to go to Jimmy’s because they had the best prices. When they turned 60, they celebrated at Jimmy’s because they had an early bird special. When they turned 70, they ate together at Jimmy’s because they gave a senior citizen’s discount. And when they turned 80, they chose to eat at Jimmy’s because, as they told me, “We’ve never been there before!” All of life is a transition.
Including the text from Isaiah for this morning. The Israelites could be poster children for transitions, as they moved from slavery in Egypt to wandering in the wilderness, from moving into the Promised Land to being exiled out of it. And now, as they transition back to their homeland from their exile in Babylon, they are questioning where God is in all of this change.
God’s answer to them, through the prophet Isaiah, is this vision of a new heaven and a new earth, which echoes the language at the end of the book of Revelation. But whereas that book talks about new heavens and a new earth in apocalyptic or “end times” terms, Isaiah is talking here about how God will act within history to make this happen. God is in the midst of their latest transition.
And doesn’t it just sound wonderful? All the bad things removed from life, no more weeping or crying. Babies won’t die prematurely, people will live full lives. Enemies won’t invade our minds or our homes, all our work will be fruitful and productive. Peace and harmony will reign and we’ll all live happily ever after.
But here’s the problem: Have you seen the world lately? Can we get much further away from this vision? How are we supposed to anticipate the coming of the messiah or God’s kingdom when there’s hardly anything in our world to give us hope that what Isaiah forecasts will actually happen? It’s easy to dismiss this as the prophet’s wild-eyed dreams or rhetorical excess. Lions and lambs cuddling together makes for a great mural on a child’s wall, but will any of this stuff really happen?
And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Just exactly when will people of all religions stop their destructive hate and work together for peace? Just when will preventable childhood diseases finally be prevented so infants do live full lives? Just when will cancer be eradicated so that old people can live to be 100? When will there be food enough for all, houses enough for all, good and enriching work for all? This vision is great and everything, but just what are we all to learn from this expansive dream of the reign of God?
I’m reminded of a scene from the movie, “Grand Canyon.” Kevin Kline plays a rich lawyer who ends up in a bad neighborhood trying to find a shortcut home after a Lakers game. As movie karma would have it, his car breaks down. He calls for a tow truck, but before it arrives he’s surrounded by a group of teenagers ready to rip him off – or worse. Just then the tow truck driver, played by Danny Glover, arrives to save the lawyer. The teenage thugs protest that the driver is interrupting their business, and the driver responds, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to be like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without asking you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to different than what it is here.”
Maybe the purpose of this vision is to create that sense of disconnect between where we are and where God promises us we will be. After hearing the joy and shalom of Isaiah’s vision, maybe we are called to look at our world and say, “Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.” That disconnect forces us to see the creation of the new heavens and new earth not as something to wait for at the end of time, but something to work for during our time. Maybe, as we anticipate the season that ushers in the Christ child, Jesus isn’t coming to get us ready for the next world, but to transform us into people through whom he can do his work in this world.
That requires us to have the courage to begin living into Isaiah’s vision. We are called to believe that God is active and working to bring about this vision of peace, and until then, we are to look for God in the transitions. As we move from familiar to unfamiliar, God is there. As we move from known to unknown, God is there. As we leave behind the past and step toward the future, God is there.
One of the ways we can acknowledge God’s presence and God’s promises is to creatively run with the statement in v. 22 that says “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.” That made me think of all the ways our lives could be tree-like. We could strive to root ourselves in God’s word; we could focus on bearing fruit and reaching upward. We could be a place of shade for others from the harshness of the world. But in the context of this conversation, I think there are two tree-like things we can take away from Isaiah’s words.
First, a tree is a master of transition. Each year, a tree goes through the full cycle of life, from buds to full bloom to fading glory to bare branches. And yet, in the midst of the constant transition, the tree stands tall, supported by the nourishment it receives. We, too, go through similar transitions each year. At times our hope springs eternal; at other times our joy is in full bloom. Sometimes our dreams begin to fade and at the lowest times our hearts are laid bare by pain and grief. And yet, as God’s people, we can gain strength from the promise of nourishment we receive each and every week from the table. Through all the seasons of our lives, through all the transitions we experience, Jesus Christ is with us, uplifting us, supporting us, cheering us on. As we live into that vision, as we witness to this truth in our lives, the kingdom of God take shape.
The other tree-like thing that applies to our conversation today is the idea that as followers of Christ, we are called to walk by faith, not by sight. Even though all our senses tell us that “everything’s supposed to different than what it is here,” we are called to live as if what God has promised us will come true, is coming true, through Christ’s work in us. All our rational and logical sensibilities might be screaming, “Are you crazy?” but our belief in Christ tells us that sometimes we have to be willing to go out on a limb, to live as if God’s kingdom is here, even when it most certainly is not. If we are willing to take that leap of faith and live into the future God has promised to us, God will bless our faithfulness.
When we do that, we begin to provide answers –albeit it imperfect and incomplete – the question about the presence of God in the midst of this mess we call our world. When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the rule of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of preventable childhood diseases in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. When we sacrifice what we have so that others get what they need, it is a sign of the reign of God. When millions are fed, when children are properly inoculated, when Habitat for Humanity builds another house, these are signs of the reign of God.
This vision with which Isaiah presents us at first glance sounds imaginary, but seen through the eyes of faith it becomes imaginative. Instead of being something make-believe, this vision becomes a beacon, calling us to use our imaginations as we make God’s kingdom real, one prayer and decision and interaction at a time. We are called to hold this vision up in front of us, constantly reminding us that everything is supposed to be different and God is actively working to make that happen. Are we?
Each Sunday we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” not really knowing what we’re daring to ask for. In just a few weeks, we’ll once again start the journey to Bethlehem, which will lead us to the manger of the Christ child. Are we ready for God’s kingdom to come? As we move through this time of transition, may we remember that God is walking with us, and may we look forward with great hope and anticipation to the new creation that awaits us.