SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
An Imaginary Faith
Nov. 17, 2013
When I first felt the call to go into ministry, I had a lot of reasons for resisting it, but maybe the strongest one was the profound feelings of inadequacy. Maybe you’ve had that reaction when asked to serve the church in some way. Me? Really? That’s what I was struggling with. Was I really ready to go to seminary for three years, to sit at the feet of theological masters? Was I prepared to spend all day talking about God and Jesus and stuff? I was sure I would be surrounded by far superior students who wore haloes and floated down the hall on little clouds. I imagined seminary as some sort of heaven on earth where only the truly devout were invited to learn and getting a B in a class would get me thrown in a fiery pit they kept around for imposters like me.
Guess what I found when I got there? It wasn’t Heaven; it was school. I had to write papers! And take tests! And read big, boring books! Seminary wasn’t any different from other schools I had attended, even if the subject matter was a bit more divine. Hmph. So if my vision of seminary was disappointed, I was sure that my first church would not be. I knew my dreams for ministry would truly be realized once I got out into the real world. I’d preaching stirring sermons, people would throw money at the pulpit, hundreds would join each week, and Jesus himself would drop in every once in a while to pat me on the head and see how I was doing. Yes, the church was where I would find heaven on earth!
Guess what I found when I got there? People! Mostly nice people, but not all of them. Some of them were needy, and cantankerous, and stubborn, and didn’t want to do what I said. Some didn’t come to church every Sunday, or only pledged a small fraction of what they had, or talked in the parking lot about things that should have been saved for the board meeting. So twice, I learned a lesson about expectations. There are the things we imagine will happen, and then there is real life.
Shattered expectations are what the Israelites are dealing with in our passage today. It comes at the tail end of Isaiah, when the Israelites are confronting the fact that their hopes and real life are two very different things. Isaiah is divided into three different parts. In the first part, the prophet warns the Israelites if they don’t shape up and start obeying God, God is going to punish them. That prophecy comes true as Israel is conquered by Babylon and the Israelites are sent into exile. The second part of Isaiah was written during this exilic period and speaks a word of comfort to the Israelites who have been uprooted from their homeland and forced to live in a foreign country. While they are away, they dream of Jerusalem, their home, reminiscing about it and imagining the day when they return to that land flowing with milk and honey. But their hopes and real life are two very different things.
In the third and last part of Isaiah, the Israelites have been allowed to go home, but it was not the homecoming they expected. Guess what they found when they got there? The lush fields were now scorched earth; the homes and buildings were either destroyed or withered by neglect; and their beloved temple, the centerpiece of their faith, was in ruins. This was not what they imagined would happen. They wanted things the way they used to be, you know, the good old days. But in reality, those days were gone, if they every truly existed at all. The Israelites are caught in a state of transition.
Have you ever been in transition? Have you ever NOT been in transition? I believe we tell ourselves a myth that there used to be a “good old days,” but in truth, our whole lives are nothing but transitions from one thing to another. 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 grade to grade, from school to work, from full house to empty nest, from single to married or married to single. And, maybe most painfully, we transition from what we hope will happen to what actually happens. We are always in transition. Our life takes a turn, our plans change, what we thought was going to happen doesn’t happen, and we’re in another transition. We keep waiting for things to return to normal, but normal is an illusion.
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 from Isaiah 65. Isaiah is reminding the Israelites that God is in the midst of their transition.
And doesn’t this vision God is casting 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, glory hallelujah and amen.
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? We are promised lush fields of tranquility but we see earth scorched by poverty and disease. We imagine a land flowing with milk and honey but instead see a land torn apart by hatred and prejudice. Lions and lambs cuddling together makes for a great mural on a Sunday School classroom wall, but will any of this stuff really happen? It’s a nice escape it imagine these things, but that’s not real life.
And just when can we all expect to see this magnificent reign of God? Exactly when will people of all religions stop their destructive hate and work together for peace? When will preventable childhood diseases finally be eradicated so infants do live full lives? When will cancer be cured 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 if you ask me, compared to the state this world is in, it sounds like a fairy tale, and imaginary dream made up by Isaiah to give hopeless people something to dream about in the midst of their despair.
Or maybe…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 realize that God didn’t make the world this way. We made the world this way and God has empowered us to change it. 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 transition into the season of Advent, a season when we welcome 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. And God has said, “Here’s the kind of world I want you to work for. This is what it looks like. I may seem imaginary, but you can make it real.”
So what do we do with this vision? It would be very easy to lift it up as a reward for crossing the finish line, telling ourselves that if we can just endure life on earth, doing our best to be faithful and not break any rules, then when we finally leave this earth we’ll get our reward. I bet many of us spend time imagining what Heaven will be like when we get there. But there’s a selfishness to that line of thinking. If I can make it to the finish line, then I’ll get my reward, and I can let others deal with this mess down here. But I wonder how this world would change if we didn’t give up on this world in favor of the next, but instead worked to make this vision a reality here and now. Instead of imagining Heaven as being some far-off place, this vision calls us make it real here on earth, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. God’s kingdom is not about you or me; it’s about us.
When we do that, we begin to provide answers –albeit it imperfect and incomplete – to 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 God’s presence. When people band together to feed children half a world away, it is a sign of God’s presence. When we sacrifice what we have so victims of typhoons and tornados get what they need, it is a sign of God’s presence. When millions are fed, when children are properly inoculated, when a stranger is welcomed to the table, these are signs that God is present with us in the transition from this world to God’s kingdom.
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 God has called us as believers to be more than what this world offers.
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? What would it be like for that to happen? Let’s imagine that…and then let’s make it real.