(Isaiah 65: 17-25, Revelation 21: 1-6)
Oftentimes, it seems, “new” is nothing more than a tagline; a sales pitch to garner attention when in fact nothing is really “new” at all. The “Under New Management” sign hanging over the restaurant entrance doesn’t change the fact that the food is still average and the service sub-par. The front cover of the football team’s program proudly proclaims, “A New Season!,” but halfway through the schedule and six losses later, it sure feels an awful lot like the last one.
Sometimes, “new” means something is different, something is not what it was before. It’s that lingering smell of fresh paint when you walk into your home for the very first time. It’s the way the sun casts its rays on a brand new day in a manner it never quite had before, and never will again. It’s every single time a baby is born and a totally unique life makes its entrance into the world. It is the day that has greeted us today, mere hours into a new year.
And then there are times when “new” doesn’t mean something is just different, but something has changed. What’s old is gone, forever. This is the kind of “new” that’s talked about in our two scriptures today – two different passages, two different audiences, but a very similar message.
It’s the kind of “new” that the writer of Isaiah wrote frequently about; a former resident of the city of Jerusalem and later a captive in Babylon. For a generation or so, the people longed for something new, longed for something to change. They had lost so much when they were forced to leave their beloved Jerusalem and live in Babylonian captivity. And yet with Isaiah’s words, the people are put on notice: something is changing, something is new.
That same “newness” would resurface some 700 years later, located this time not in an Old Testament prophet but in Jesus of Nazareth. It wasn’t easy following this man. Rome was the new world power, ruling over the faithful without mercy. The Jews and early Christians were one of dozens of nations oppressed by this empire. As before, the city of Jerusalem fell, leaving God’s people without a home. And yet with Jesus’ words that came to John of Patmos in a vision, the people are put on notice again: something is changing, something is new.
It is tempting, especially on this New Years Day, it’s tempting to read these two passages and ask ourselves: so what’s really new? That’s the obvious question. But here’s the thing – I wonder if the more relevant question today is not “what” but “how” – how those Babylonian captives and first-century Christians grabbed a hold of the newness? How they were not only able to believe in the ridiculous, outlandish hope but live into it? No one would’ve faulted them if they decided to throw in the towel and call it a day, as the saying goes. No one would’ve blamed them if they looked around and resigned themselves to the same old, same old. So how were they able to stand there surrounded by all that “old” stuff, in the midst of their suffering and pain, and dare to proclaim “all things new?”
Because that’s not how you and I typically respond, is it? When we get the “same old same old;” when those old familiar powers come crashing into our lives, we often tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do. We might even convince ourselves of the greatest lie of them all – that this is the way God wants it. We let the powers of Rome and Babylon dictate not only what we do but, more devastatingly, who we become.
It would’ve been easy, for instance, for Oskar Schindler to have reasoned that using his position to save Jews from the Holocaust wouldn’t have amounted to much – not to mention putting himself in extreme danger. It would’ve been easy for Jackie Robertson to prematurely hang up his Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap because the racial slurs hurled in his direction at every bat simply were not worth being the first African American to play in the big leagues It would’ve been easy for Rosa Parks to heed the bus driver’s demand and relinquish her seat to the white man standing there, as countless people of color before had always done. Just as it’s easier for you and me to go with the flow, not create waves, not rock the boat; because to suffer in silence seems simpler and safer than sharing our heart.
So where exactly do people go to find this hope for God’s newness?
You know, I look at the images conjured up in our readings today – pretty unorthodox stuff, isn’t it? The prophet Isaiah paints this scandalous picture of the wolf and the lamb feeding together, and the lion eating straw like the ox – things that are not at all in their nature to do. The writer of Revelation dares to portray a time when God wipes away every tear from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Is it even possible these days to consult the news – the real news – and not have those very things slap us in the face?
I wonder if these unorthodox images are doing more than communicating a message. I wonder if they are announcing a reality that we cannot yet see; a reality that goes beyond what mere words can describe. Because there is something deeply evocative that Isaiah and John are trying to get at here; something that goes beyond simple “inspirational reading.” Like Oskar and Jackie and Rosa, Isaiah and John declare loud and clear: something has changed, something is new. Something has fundamentally changed in this old world of ours; and we’ve got a term for this new world. We call it the kingdom of God.
Now you and I have talked about this kingdom before – that when Jesus and others speak of the “kingdom of God,” it’s not heaven they’re talking about. It’s not some far-off possibility in the distant future. On the contrary, both our writers today are pretty clear – it is this life they’re referring to. When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, he speaks to the possibilities that exist when we as God’s people follow Christ and live lives that reflect that following – even and especially when it’s not easy. Even when we must contend with our own Babylons and Romes. Oddly enough, it’s at that point where the kingdom of God is most obvious.
And you know what? This isn’t some “pie-in-the-sky” theology here. This isn’t a crutch designed to provide a semblance of comfort to the downtrodden at the end of their rope. This is real. This is what Isaiah and the writer of Revelation had in mind when, in the midst of their loss, their suffering, their hopelessness, they put pen to paper and with broad strokes painted scandalous pictures of God’s kingdom. For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the prophet proclaims, the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. The old is gone – there goes God, making everything so new!
That last sentence, by the way, is not original to me. It’s a parapharase of a verse in our Revelation passage today But more to the point, it’s a phrase used often by Margaret. Margaret was a former church member of mine. She died about a year before I left the church. On the day of her funeral there was this terrible blizzard. Seeing the forecast days before, the other pastor and I tried to convince her family – who were from Minnesota – that we ought to postpone the service by a day, when warmer temperatures would lead to more passable roads and a cleared church parking lot. Because we knew that, as much as everyone in the church absolutely loved Margaret, very few would brave icy roads to make the service. Which is unfortunately exactly what happened.
Still, there the few of us were, literally the frozen chosen, standing at her graveside under the tent. And with swirling snow blanketing my robe, I told my story of Margaret, the story I wish more people were there to hear. It had happened just a few weeks before when I had gone to see Margaret at her home. She was ill, very ill; and even she acknowledged that, as she would always put it, my time is coming quick.
It had been a long, hard road for Margaret. She’d lost nearly all of her eyesight years before – I still remember the way she used to sing hymns in church with her eyes closed because she knew them all by heart, and couldn’t read them anyway if she wanted to. Her hearing was fading, too. On top of that, it had been nearly a year since she was able to walk on her own, and she only got up when she absolutely had to – and always with help. In recent months she’d lost her appetite and the simple pleasure of enjoying food. It almost seemed like a cruel joke that the cancer in her body, the cancer that would eventually take her life, had to take a back seat to everything else going on with her. So you never tried to convince Margaret otherwise when she’d say “her time was coming quick,” because you knew it was true.
It didn’t seem fair, Margaret having to suffer like that. It just didn’t. One time I made the mistake of saying it right in front of her, right to her face – it’s not fair!. Margaret’s response to me was swift, compassionate and firm. You better start reading that Bible of yours, Margaret gently scolded me, looking right at me with her blind eyes that saw more than mine ever could. You better start reading it. God’s got a new heaven and a new earth for us. There won’t be any more death, Steve. Look it up, that’s what it says! There won’t be any more crying or pain. The old is gone – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
And so, shivering uncontrollably in the blizzard at her graveside service, I shared that story. I shared it even as I couldn’t feel my feet standing on that frozen earth; an earth Margaret said God would be making new. I shared that story, and as I did I found that the chill of the day wasn’t as chilly anymore. The old is gone – there goes God, makin’ everything so new! When you hear something like that coming from a blind, deaf, bed-bound, emaciated, cancer-ridden child of God, it is hard to stay cold for very long.
Because if someone like Margaret can experience God making all things new, then imagine what God can do in the rest of us! Imagine what God has in store for this church – this body of believers and Christ-followers. Imagine what God has in store for us on this very first day of 2017 – a new year, full of promise and hope. It is true – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
In a few weeks our session will have their annual retreat and dig into the 2020 Vision they adopted back in June; a 2020 Vision that Grace and I will be preaching on in the coming weeks – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
After much waiting and certainly patience and prayer, our campus will begin undergoing a transition as the third phase of our capital campaign comes to fruition, making our facility as welcoming as our church family already is – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
In the coming months we hope to build on our joint ministries with Smallwood Presbyterian in the West End, M2M in NoDa, and NationsFord Elementary School, living into the connectional church God calls us to be and expanding Trinity’s mission beyond Providence Road – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
And one thing I have my heart set on in 2017, and that I would invite any of you who might be interested to speak with me about in the coming weeks, is creating a group of Trinity folks who’d be willing to be part of an interfaith relations initiative from our church, leading us into deeper conversation with and understanding of our Charlotte sisters and brothers of different faiths – there goes God, makin’ everything so new!
And that’s only what we know about right now – what other new things might God be stirring up in our midst? What other things will we learn of as the year goes on?
There is no doubt, my friends: newness abounds! And not just because it’s a new year. Not just because, as Isaiah and John would certainly want to clarify, something’s “different.” No! Because we are the church of Jesus Christ, because we are followers of the One who is doing a new thing in our midst, something has changed. The signs of it are all around us. They are found wherever God’s people stand together and put their faith into action, one step at a time, one tear at a time, one hope-filled moment at a time.
And so may our lives as people of faith never fail to radiate God’s newness in and around us. Even in the darkest of places, there is hope. There is always hope. For our God, a God making every so new, is a God of hope. Now and always!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.