November 13, 2015
William G. Carter
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.
It has been quite a week. Do I have an amen?
There have been a lot of conversations around the nation since Tuesday. Many of the conversations have been trying to make sense of what has happened. Some are trying to explain the outcome. Others are looking for someone to blame. Some are calling for the abolishing of the electoral college, so that the person with the most votes will actually win. Others are worried that their kids are going to lose their health insurance. Some people are relieved at the outcome, some are terrified. Some are gratified that half the country agrees with them, while others under the same roof of a divided house are planning to protest.
With all of these conversations, the preachers have been talking among themselves. What will we say after a national election? What will we say when our nation is clearly divided in half, where there are no clear winners, and where there is no mandate by one side or the other. We have lived through an election season where, at some point or another, the only majority of the population preferred “none of the above,” yet a vote had to be taken and a decision had to be made. Those are the facts. So what does the preacher say?
Of the scripture passages appointed for today, some would turn to the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It’s a passage where Jesus is talking about the end of the world, and that’s precisely why I did not include it within the readings for today. We studied it with our men’s Bible study last Thursday, and it shook them up. Jesus says, “The heavens will be shaken, there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, signs in the heavens. False prophets will declare, ‘I am the one,’ and they are lying.”
I thought about reading that one, but it would scare the children. By the time I got to the end, where Jesus says “those who endure will be saved,” I was afraid nobody would be enduring. So I didn’t read Luke 21.
We did include 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, or as one comedian called it, “Two Thessalonians.” In that passage, the apostle Paul is very clear: “if you don’t work, you will not eat.” Now, that might sound like a criticism of those who are lazy, and in a way, it is. But Paul has something specific in mind when he speaks. He is denouncing those he calls “busy bodies.” That is, those who might have a lot to say, but don’t actually produce anything.
I wonder if he was referring to all those talking heads on cable TV, the pundits and commentators. They have plenty of opinions, but for months they have been filling the air with a lot of blather. Certainly they have to claim no small responsibility in stirring up controversy, replacing truthful reporting with unnecessary drama. Or to use Paul’s phrase, “busy bodies.” We could talk about that, I suppose, but it would be a huge distraction, and we would never hear Paul say, “Do not weary in doing what is right.” (3:13)
So we turn to the choir, and ask them to sing the third reading, often called “the First Song of Isaiah.” That one is really good. It’s helpful. We hope the melody sticks with you for a while: “Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid.”
As for me, the text for the day that provides a gravitational center is the poem from Isaiah 65. One of my friends said, “I don’t know; Isaiah 65 smells of funeral lilies. That’s the only time I ever hear it.” I went back at him and said, “It’s not about death. It’s about life.” God’s going to make new heavens and a new earth. That’s a profound hope that recurs through the Bible, and this is the first time the Bible says as much.
“New heavens, a new earth” – sounds like the hope for the season of Advent, which starts in a couple of weeks. Why new heavens, and a new earth? Because the old ones are worn out.
Imagine a world, says the prophet, where everything fit together. Imagine what it would be like if all the pieces fit.
Isaiah gives us such a scene near the end of the collection of his writings. It is a picture of joy and delight, no weeping or distress. Life is never cut short, and people live out the full length of their days. There is continuity between their dreams and their fulfillment: families build houses and live in them, farmers plant vineyards and then enjoy the wine. Everybody will enjoy their daily work, and everything will fit.
That’s the picture. At the heart of it is an astonishing vision of peace: predators aren’t consuming, the prey aren’t hiding or running away. The wolf and lamb are at peace together. The ravenous lion is a vegetarian, and steps up to the feed trough next to the ox. Imagine this, says the prophet Isaiah. Imagine a life where everything fits.
This is what God dreams for the world. This is the dream that God implants in the imagination of the prophet Isaiah. This is the dream that lingers to be written down in the Bible, where it is waiting to be rediscovered by every generation and lived with fresh energy.
It is a powerful dream, because it is an alternative to most of the stories that actually appear in the Bible. The Bible is honest about the way life normally is. God creates a new earth in the book of Genesis, and by page three, Cain rises up against Abel. Pharoah enslaves a whole race of people as his work force, and pretty soon, people are trying to destroy one another. These aren’t ancient fairy tales. They are honest observations about the human animal. We live in a world where good work is met with resistance and the innocent are crucified.
It suggests the problem with the human race, in a nutshell. God implants this dream within us, and we keep choosing something less than the dream. Don’t blame the devil or anybody else for this. No, it’s what we keep choosing. In our world, women are demeaned and treated as something less than the image of God that they bear. Those who are deemed different are shunned or cast out. The weak are plundered, often to improve the profits of the arrogant. And everybody interrupts or shouts over one another.
This is why we regard the Bible as truth: it’s the truth about real people.
But the Bible also speaks the truth about God. For our sake, God is “slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love.” And every day, we have the opportunity to live out the dream that God has for us. See the wolf and the lamb feeding together. Imagine that. Nobody gets hurt, there is no destruction, only peace on God’s holy hill.
That’s the ultimate truth, where God declares, “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Then God says, “I will rejoice and delight in my people.”
One of the reasons why we come to church is to catch one more glimpse of this grand dream. One of the reasons why God calls us to church is to keep planting this dream in our hearts and minds. Left to our own devices, we will never hear the promise that God wants all creation to flourish and live in peace. We will merely slide back into the mud and muck, and act like wild animals. All our imperfect progress would be lost.
Someone was telling me about a terrible scene she observed. An angry man was bloviating about science. He said all kinds of nasty things about scholars who spend their lives trying to study and explain how nature works. Then, of all things, he started ranting about evolution, yelling “Evolution cannot be proven. There’s no evidence of evolution.” My friend looked at him long and hard, and then she declared, “In your case, you’re probably right.”
Haven’t we had enough of the rants, the anger, the put-downs, and the destructive speech? Haven’t we had enough of distorted truth, public information withheld, and outright bullying? Haven’t we had enough of people who make fun of others, in order to advance themselves? Haven’t we had enough of the wolf attacking the lamb?
Yes, I think we have. Because Isaiah 65 says this not the way it’s supposed to be.
Our Christian hope is that the peace is something that God is always creating. The Hebrew Bible calls it “shalom.” It refers to a balance between all the forces of life. Shalom is about the continuity of past and present. It’s about a life lived without aggression or its damage. It’s about welcoming one another as neighbors, and not competitors. It’s about the possibility of living in peace with everybody we meet. This is God’s dream, given to us.
So let me make a modest proposal – that we live the dream, specifically this dream. That we live as generously and graciously as Jesus. That we set an example among ourselves how to respect one another, how to serve one another, how to love one another. Let it start here. Let us be a church where God’s love for every person is palpable.
The first Christians forged the church by living like Jesus as best they could. They didn’t take their orders from the Roman empire. They lived the dream, God’s Isaiah 65 dream. People outside were drawn to that, because they knew it wasn’t just a church dream. It is a universal vision of how we can build and spread God’s shalom. Even the critics admired the church and said, “Look how much they love one another.”
What if the people of this community could look to this church and say the same thing? What if we could treat one another with such respect and compassion that our neighbors said, “We want to be part of a group like that?” Now, that would be living the dream.
And maybe it starts with small, steady steps that benefit the lives of others. Like my friend Jenny, who lives out in Kansas City. She heard a loud noise and went outside to see what it was. It was a guy with a leaf blower working his way down her street. He doesn’t live there, but he’s clearing all the leaves from everybody’s yard. Why’s he doing that? And he said, “It’s been a weird week, and this is a way to bring some goodness and blessing to it.”
And I think that’s what I want to say after a week like the one that we’ve had.
God bless you. May you be a blessing for others.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved