a sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on Sunday, November 14, 2010
I’m always amazed at the power of words to create new worlds, to stimulate the imagination into dreaming of something new. Children of all ages were entranced by the incredible new world created in the words of the Harry Potter books in recent years, and even for someone like me who hasn’t read them, their images of a world defined by wizards and magical powers somehow have carried over into a broader part of our lives. Other books transport us to times and places that seem impossible to access otherwise, and suddenly we are linked with people who have very different experiences or who lived in a different day and age. And still other words imagine what things will be like in a time yet to come – or offer some variation on our current world that nonetheless is somehow different. When I was in junior high, I was a big fan of a series of books known as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that imagined that Earth, from this perspective a small and insignificant planet circling an ordinary star on the outskirts of the Milky Way, had been destroyed to make way for a new intergalactic superhighway even as a few Earthlings took up a role in the strange and wonderful story of things beyond this planet. All of these incredible words invite us to imagine something very different from what we know ourselves, a world where things are somehow different yet that is strangely familiar.
Our reading from Isaiah this morning stands among these great words that create new worlds. However, unlike these great literary examples of words that create new worlds, Isaiah’s vision, by its very nature, must move beyond words to become real in the world. These beautiful words suggest that things as they are now will not last forever and the world will be transformed by the power of God. They paint an incredible image of new heavens and a new earth, a holy city filled with joy, people living the fullness of life as God intends, a vibrant and verdant land filled with houses and fields and vineyards, blessed by God in ways beyond all imagination.
These words are so beautiful that they bear hearing again, this time in a paraphrase by writer Eugene Peterson:
“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
create my people as pure delight.
I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime;
One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal—
anything less will seem like a cheat.
They’ll build houses and move in.
They’ll plant fields and eat what they grow.
No more building a house that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.
They won’t work and have nothing come of it,
they won’t have children snatched out from under them.
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
Before they call out, I’ll answer.
Before they’ve finished speaking, I’ll have heard.
Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
but snakes—they’ll get a diet of dirt!
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
anywhere on my Holy Mountain,” says God. (The Message)
The beauty and power of these words is clear to me, but they nonetheless cannot just be enjoyed – they must be lived!
However, some people of faith, past and present, have insisted that these words and others like them are only promises for the future, absolving themselves of responsibility for the things that get in the way of this vision of something new in the present world. The reality is, though, that these words offer just as much of a vision for the immediate future as they promise something new for all eternity. The full hope and vision in these incredible words is something that we will almost certainly not see with our human eyes, but that does not excuse us from being a part of doing what we can to help make them real in some small way in our own day and age. These words demand that we move beyond just enjoying them and the world they create in our minds into trying to make these things real each and every day. As our Presbyterian sisters and brothers put it some thirty years ago,
The people of God have often misused God’s promises
as excuses for doing nothing about present evils.
But in Christ the new world has already broken in
and the old can no longer be tolerated. (A Declaration of Faith 10:5)
And so we must join in what God is doing even now to transform and renew the world, stepping into places where the new creation of Isaiah’s vision needs nourishing and nurturing. We look for places around the world that are in need of God’s transforming justice and peace, places torn apart by war, places in need of clean water and safe housing, places where people suffer because of their gender, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, religious practice, or any other human classification, places where the world needs a concrete and real reminder that we are all children of God. We look for places in our own nation where people struggle to make ends meet, places where women and men are forced to hide because they are considered “illegal,” places where poverty cripples life and opportunities simply don’t exist as they one did, places where God’s good creation is devalued, pushed away, or abused. And we look for places in our own city and neighborhood where people are forced to hide their pain and suffering in uncertain times, places where children are kept from flourishing as their gifts and lives would allow, places marked by unmet need and indifferent leaders, places overlooked by even the most observant among us. Once we look and we see and we find, we can and must act, moving beyond words to bring our gifts, our talents, our wisdom, our commitment – what the vows church officers take describe as “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” – to this work of transformation.
But we do not approach this work alone, limited by our humanity and only able to do a little here and there. This is God’s new creation, and God has been at work on this for a long time – so we simply seek to join in what is already going on. And that is truly the wonder of this new creation – we do not have to reinvent the wheel but instead seek how we ourselves can join in to help this new way flourish and grow. We can’t do it all, but we must do something. That same statement of faith continues:
We know our efforts cannot bring in God’s kingdom.
But hope plunges us into the struggle
for victories over evil that are possible now
in the world, the church, and our individual lives.
Hope gives us courage and energy
to content against all opposition,
however invincible it may seem,
for the new world and the new humanity
that are surely coming. (A Declaration of Faith 10:5)
And so we are called and challenged to be a part of this new creation even now.
Today, as some of you may know, is stewardship commitment Sunday for us as we consider how we in this congregation can commit to God’s work in this place over the coming year. In these days in our life together, I think Isaiah’s vision of God’s new creation is so very important for us – it invites us to remember that there is something new and different being created for us and yet we must join in making it real in our midst. Isaiah’s vision pushes us to both imagination and action, both vision and work, so that we can join in this incredible thing that God is doing all around us.
We have great and unusual potential in the coming months, an opportunity to continue the new things already happening in our midst, a chance to do not just what we have done before or what must be done now but the new thing that God is preparing for us, a possibility of embodying what God intends for all the world in our life together in this place. Nonetheless, this new thing requires more than my commitment, more than the commitment of a few key leaders, but rather the commitment of the entire congregation. As much as we need financial support, we probably need other things more – participation in our work of outreach and faith-sharing, leadership in new things and new ways, support and encouragement from those beyond our congregation, and most of all your prayerful engagement as we seek to see what is ahead – to dream and vision how God is inviting us to step out together and move beyond words to be a part of this new creation in the world.
As powerful as these words from Isaiah are, as much as they themselves embody and envision a new world, we still must make them our own. We still must use the power of these words to sort out what God is doing in our midst and how God invites us to join in. Then we must respond to this vision with commitment to the journey ahead, with the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that we have seen in countless women and men over the centuries built on the incredible witness of none other than Jesus Christ, the one who shows us the way of mercy, peace, justice, and love and invites us to join in.
May God guide us in hope and love as we move beyond words to join in God’s work of bringing in the new creation in this place and so in all the world through the power and mercy of Jesus Christ our Lord until he comes again to finish this new creation once and for all. Lord, come quickly! Amen.