(Isaiah 65: 17-25)
Our second scripture reading comes near the end of the book of Isaiah, a book that scholars traditionally see as a composite of three parts: the first section points to the 8th century BCE, before the common era, prophet who warned the Israelites that God’s judgement was coming; the second section addresses the Israelites living in exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE; and the last section, where we find our text, suggests that it was written after the exiles had returned to Israel in 539 BCE and were rebuilding the cities and the Temple. We sometimes forget that, when the Israelites were taken out of their land to Babylon, we forget that only some of them were exiled – the wealthy, landowners, religious and political leaders. The common folk remained in Israel, living in occupied territory, making do the best they could. So, in the third part of the book of Isaiah, we get glimpses of the ensuing conflict between those who had stayed, who were not worthy of being taken into exile, who were left behind and those who left and had now returned. Listen now for God’s word for you today:
17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
18 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.
19 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.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant who 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.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 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.
23 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.
24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Wow! Isaiah paints a stunning picture of the vision God has for creation. It draws us back to the vision from the first section of Isaiah in Chapter 11 that we often hear during Advent: “The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child shall lead them.” And a few verses later, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” Some of the language in chapter 65 is a direct echo of chapter 11, showing us that in God’s vision for creation, human relationships will be mended; the hunter and prey will eat side by side; the serpent, an image of evil and sin, will be reduced to eating the dry ground; violence will cease; weeping and mourning will be no more. Why? How? Because God is creating a new world – a new heavens and a new earth. As one commentator writes, “this is not creation out of nothing; this is creation out of the chaos of human endeavors, of spoiled nature, and everything in between.” God is joyfully transforming a broken reality into one of wholeness and harmony. The Hebrew word – bara – that is used three times in this passage for God’s creating, this is a word that is only used in the Bible with God as its subject. Other words are used when humans make things. Only God creates – bara. It’s the word used in Genesis 1, “in the beginning when God created – bara – the heavens and the earth…” It’s the word used by the Psalmist who asks God to “create in me a clean heart.” Bara tells us that this is God’s work. The transformation that takes place in Isaiah’s vision is God’s work. Isaiah shows us what God’s kingdom, what God’s holy mountain, will look and be like.
This is a beautiful vision, a promise to hold onto, hope. And yet, there is more to this story than a someday promise of shalom, of peace. It serves as a challenge and call to us.
We need to consider the context of the passage in the book of Isaiah and in the lives of the Israelites. The previous chapter of Isaiah is a lament by the people for the suffering they have endured, a suffering that they blame God for. “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” So, the beginning of chapter 65 is God’s response and judgement. God points out that God had been available for those who would seek God, but they had not. The Israelites had been focused on themselves, “on following their own devices,” as it says in verse 2. They had not paid attention to God’s will. When they did “worship” God, they engaged in pagan practices and “reviled” God. Next, God says that some will be judged, but not all. God’s servants, those who remain faithful, they would be preserved and would flourish. So out of this “salvation-judgement oracle,” we have this vision of God’s intention, God’s will for the whole of creation.
So, we can just sit back and relax, sure in the knowledge that all of this is in God’s capable hands? Alas, no. While God is certainly capable and powerful enough to create, re-create, and transform the world, God in God’s unknowable wisdom has called us to participate in making that vision, the promise of wholeness, peace, and justice, in making it a reality. This is called “realized eschatology,” when the promise of the eschaton, the end times, the kingdom of God on earth, when it is realized, made real, at least in part, now, today, in our midst. Jesus is our model for participation in making God’s vision come to life, and we are called to follow and imitate him. God can and will transform, but, as one theologian said, “what remains possible for the single believer, the single congregation, is to do the work involved in such transformation by following the patterns of mercy that Christ has laid out for us.”
What patterns of mercy do you see in Christ’s example?
What patterns call to you as things that you could do?
How can Trinity Presbyterian Church follow Jesus’s patterns of mercy?
In October, we spent some time hearing about the needs in our community. The panel discussion during worship with an advocate and ministry partners showed us some of the things in our midst that break God’s heart, that do not even remotely reflect God’s vision captured in the book Isaiah: racial injustice and inequity; homelessness and hunger; the struggle of people to be respected for their full humanity, particularly in the LGBTQ community; education of children in underfunded schools… These are just a few of the areas of need in our community, and avenues that we already walk along.
But, I wonder, where does this congregation’s passion lie? Where does your passion lie? What makes you want to jump up and shout, “No! That’s not part of God’s vision for peace, justice, and wholeness!”? What makes you want to do something, anything, to be involved, even if you don’t exactly know what to do or what needs to be done?
With your bulletin today, for those of you worshipping in the sanctuary, you were given a short survey looking for answers to these questions. Our search for justice, the mission and outreach of Trinity will be strengthened and energized if we can better match the needs of the community with your passions and interests. So, take a few moments to check the items that you’re passionate about, as many as you wish; mark whether you are interested in hands-on activities or advocacy or both. Your name is optional, but if you provide it, we will be able to connect you with future opportunities. During the offering, you may put your survey in the offering plate. For those of you worshiping on line, we have not forgotten you! The survey will be sent out via email this week so that you can fill it out online and let us know about your passions for justice and mission. In the meantime, you can think about which of these issues sparks your passion:
Racial justice and equity
Homelessness and affordable housing
Childhood hunger and poverty
LGBTQIA+ justice and equity
Climate change and ecology
Illiteracy and education
And, of course, you can write in something that’s not listed.
Friends, as it says in Micah 6:8, we are called to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. In doing so, we are living into the hope that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s will, God’s intention for creation, will be done on earth as it is in heaven, that God will create new heavens and a new earth. But living into hope is not merely trusting that someday God will come, that someday justice and mercy will prevail, that someday there will be peace, wholeness, equity, and flourishing for all people. Living into hope means believing these things so truly and whole-heartedly that we live and act as if it is already here, for it is, in part, and it becomes ever more present when we participate in the transforming and transformed reality of God’s beloved creation.
And, yes, this can be so hard, especially when hurricanes bear down on our neighbors in Florida, again, and when election results and the divisions in our country are disappointing and God’s vision seems far off… Despite these things, we have an alternate perspective in Isaiah 65, as one commentator notes, a perspective that “envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.” Living into the hope of God’s vision and promise means that we seek justice, not just for ourselves, but for all of God’s children. Living into hope means sharing the good news of God’s love and grace to the world around us. Living into hope means hearing the cries of those in distress and responding with love and compassion. We do not do these things in order to earn salvation, to earn our place in God’s kingdom; we do these things in response to God, because God has first loved us; because God’s grace abounds, and we are grateful. In the name of the One ever for us, the One ever with us, and the One ever through us. Amen.