Sermon for Sunday, November 14, 2010 || Proper 28 Year C RCL || Isaiah 65: 17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5-19
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
Since October, more than 11,000 cases of cholera have been confirmed in Haiti. Last week, a thousand new cases were reported every day, including 200 now in Port-au-Prince, where more than a million of God’s precious, beloved, children have been living in tents since the catastrophic earthquake last January.
In Indonesia, more of God’s beloved people are suffering, hit not only by a series of earthquakes, but by a devastating tsunami, and now by repeated volcanic eruptions that have left more than 400,000 homeless and 200 dead.
In flood-ravished Pakistan, God’s precious people are still suffering from the effects of the most devastating natural disaster in their country’s history, huge areas still underwater and as winter approaches more than seven million are homeless.
Right here in the US, we’re going through the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression, with nearly one in four homes worth less than what their owners owe on them, and with experts predicting an all time record of 1.3 million foreclosures this year.
This, on top of the more than 3 million beloved children of God who are already homeless in this country—an increasing number of them the elderly—and the more than 14 million among us who are unemployed.
The UN is reporting that a quarter of the land mass of this fragile earth, our island home, is degrading into drylands—and that about 1.5 billion of God’s people depend on that land for their supply of food.
As it is, one in six of God’s beloved are already going hungry in this sadly broken world of ours.
Meanwhile, we’re killing and maiming each other in at least 20 wars or armed conflicts around the world—not to mention in our streets and in our home–we live under the constant threat of terrorism, and even Iran, of all countries, is rumored to have nuclear weapons now.
So who could blame us if we get a little edgy when we hear apocalyptic gospel readings like this morning’s? You needn’t be a radical fundamentalist or a wild-eyed dispensationalist to hear echoes of the evening news in Jesus’ description of “wars and insurrections…nation against nation…great earthquakes…famines and plagues.”
In contrast to all of this, our Old Testament reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah—with it’s soothing vision of a new heavens and a new earth—washes over us like a soft summer wave. Isaiah paints an idyllic picture of a world with no weeping, no distress, no grief or loss. Just joy, delight, abundance, and peace. Long life, warm, secure, homes, rich harvests and food aplenty– for all of God’s children. And a kind of holy intimacy with God where at last our thoughts are God’s thoughts, our ways are God’s ways. Our prayer is answered before it is uttered, we receive even before we ask. God has searched us out and known us, but we know God too. And in a complete reversal of the story told in Genesis, we will enjoy the work of our hands, women will not labor in vain or bear children in calamity, the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox—i t’s life as a return to Eden and the Peaceable Kingdom all rolled into one—how divine! And the serpent, “its food shall be dust.” Finally!
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;” says the Lord, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…” “No more shall there be…an infant that lives but a few days,” he promises, “or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…” “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
Now I know I can’t be the only one who hears this passage against the horrifying realities of current events and wonders what, in heaven’s name, God is waiting for. The amazing thing is that the original hearers of this prophesy did the same thing in the 6th century BCE.
You see, the parents of those to whom Isaiah spoke God’s promises had been conquered by the Babylonians and taken into years of captivity in exile. And they’d survived captivity in Babylon precisely because of prophetic promises of a New Jerusalem like these. Their parents had hung all of their hopes on God’s promises of restoration, salvation, and justice. But when they returned from captivity they found Jerusalem still in ruins and the holy temple a heap of rubble.
So those who first listened to this brilliant vision of a new heavens and a new earth, listened with their parent’s painful laments of, “How long, O Lord, how long?” still echoing in their ears. And what we need to know but that is in no way apparent, is that unlike those early listeners, we’re hearing this beautiful passage—one of the most lyrical and uplifting in all of scripture— completely out of context. What we need to know is that if we had read the previous two chapters of Isaiah, we would realize that like many of us, that second generation after the return from exile had become so weary of wondering what God was waiting for that they were no longer sure this vision would ever be realized.
So meanwhile they’d been lighting a little incense here, making a little sacrifice there, making idols of other gods as if to hedge their bets against a God they feared either could not, or would not, fulfill his promises. And in their doubt and their fear as they looked at the world around them they had cried out painfully, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”
It’s a timeless question. How can you let your people suffer like this, God? How can you allow such injustice? Will you keep silent?
But God answered their frustrated cries, making three things abundantly clear in his divine response. And it too, is timeless. Listen:
First, God pointed the divine finger right back at his accusers and defended Himself against their charges of absenteeism. “I was right there all along,” God said. “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me…I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people.”
You can almost hear God saying, “You’re asking me, ‘How long?’ How long indeed! How long will you blame me when you wander from my ways? How long will you continue to follow your own will, rather than mine?” To us, as Christians, he might add, “I even became one of you so show you how to live, yet still you go your own way!” We are stunningly slow learners, we humans.
The second thing God makes abundantly clear earlier in Isaiah is that there are consequences when we fail to seek justice and to do righteousness. “I will not keep silent,” God says, “but I will repay…you who forsake the Lord…” Seeking justice and “doing” righteousness includes everything that has to dowith being in right relationship with God, with each other, and with God’s creation. Seeking justice and doing righteousness is God’s desire for us. It is how we are meant to live. But we “forsake” God by failing to do so. And we suffer the consequences—or what our biblical forbears called God’s “judgment.”
The third thing that God makes exceedingly clear earlier in Isaiah is that with God’s judgment comes God’s mercy. There will always be servants of God who can “rejoice and sing for gladness of heart.” God will never abandon God’s faithful servants. The question becomes who these faithful servants will be.By beginning today’s reading with this iconic vision of the new heaven, new earth, we might naturally assume that we are—that we will be the blessed inhabitants of this new state of being. Beginning the reading here, we’re not confronted, as was Israel, by the disturbing rebuke that immediately precedes this beatific vision. It’s a rebuke aimed directly at Isaiah’s first hearers—delivered in the inescapable, conscience-seering, first-person “you”: “…You who forsake the Lord…You who worship false idols…you shall be put to shame…because, when I called, you did not answer…when I spoke, you did not listen…but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.”
Now, it’s not tough to understand why our lectionary skips this portion of the text. Yet sadly, it saves us from facing the difficult questions we all need to face from time to time in our spiritual journeys: Have I been worshipping false gods? Have I been deaf to God’s call? Have I lost hope in God’s promises or, as a Christian, given up on the Gospel?”
These are critical questions for us to reflect on today as Advent approaches, because as Christians, we have no right to stake a claim to being the “they”who will delight and rejoice in the new heavens and new earth without first recognizing ourselves in the “you” of a disobedient people in need of repentance.We can’t possibly appreciate the full import of “…the former things will be forgotten, and no longer be a burden upon the heart” without realizing that it’s our own sinfulness that will be forgotten, and that it is God in His mercy who will do the forgetting! Only when we really get that—only when we get the astonishing gift of God’s mercy in the face of our unfaithfulness—can we really appreciate the words of this morning’s passage, “Rejoice, and delight forever in what I am creating: For I am creating Jerusalem, a delight, and my people, a joy!”
This passage is more than a comforting salvo of pie in the sky promises. God is constantly creating new heavens and a new earth—it’s an ongoing process! And we’re being invited to participate! Rather than offering a comforting vision of future glory, what God is doing here through Isaiah is in fact explanatory and prescriptive. God is saying, “Wake up, get busy–I need your help in this business of creating!
God is telling us in no uncertain terms what reality would look like if we were faithfully living out our part in the process of creation by fulfilling our call to “keeping justice and seeking righteousness.” He became one of us in Jesus Christ to show us what that living out our part in the process looks like. Because there can be no new heavens and new earth without us. We hear this vision of the new heavens and the new earth, and we ask God, “What are you waiting for?” But maybe what God is waiting for is us!
What if God is desperately waiting for our cooperation in fulfilling this vision? What if it actually pains God to see us living so out of sorts with his divine will for justice, mercy and right relationship? What if God dreads having to watch us suffer the consequences of our alienation from him? And what if God’s self-revelation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ was the “ultimate act of God’s justice and righteousness” — that when Jesus commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, and our neighbors as ourselves, he is simply instructing us on how to “keep justice and do righteousness”?
My Old Testament professor used to say that justice is “God’s stake in human history.” Perhaps God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is yet another manifestation of a merciful and persistent God,va just God hopelessly in love with His people and reluctant to damn any of them to a life without Him… a God who calls us back again and again to our vocation in the ongoing process of creation; a vocation to “keep justice and do righteousness,” to be in right relationship to God, to one another, and to all of creation so that this vision may become reality.
See, I imagine God longs for that new heaven and new earth even more than we do. After all, he’s been yearning for it a lot longer than we have…yearning for that time and place when the “former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…when no more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress… when before we call, God will answer, and while we are still speaking, He will hear…”
As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Do not be weary in seeking justice and doing righteousness. By your endurance you will not only gain your souls, you will be active participants, with God, in creating that new heaven and new earth we pray for every week called God’s Kingdom. Amen.