Sunday 17 November 2019
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33C
New heavens and a new earth. It sounds quite a lot like another bible text we know. Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
Hundreds of years before John the Revelator had that vision while in prison on the Aegean island of Patmos, a prophet in Israel received a word from the Lord with a very similar theme. “Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind.” It’s a promise of a new start. A promise of a world that is different than the old world. A promise that the things to come will be better than the things that are now.
And it is a beautiful vision of a world to come. Every child lives into adulthood. Every adult lives long enough to see their labor bear fruit. There is no war. Even the carnivorous animals refrain from hunting and eat straw instead. No one hurts anyone else, ever. No one steals. No one oppresses. No one kills.
The Irish rock band, U2, has a song called “Peace on Earth.” It responds to words like the one’s we find here in Isaiah 65, and it is a sort of prayer. “Heaven on Earth, We need it now. I’m sick of all of this hanging around. I’m sick of sorrow. Sick of pain. Sick of hearing again and again that there’s gonna be Peace on Earth.”
Heaven on earth; we need it now. And I have to admit that sometimes I feel a bit more in sync with U2 than I do with Isaiah 65. We read words like these over and over again. Especially as we approach Advent and Christmas, we hear these prophecies about new heavens and a new earth, about a new order where there isn’t any more mourning, where there aren’t any early deaths, where there is no more sadness.
And every time we hear those beautiful words, we continue to live in a world where tragedy is still alive and well, as strong as ever it has been. We live in a world that keeps producing storms bigger and more deadly than any we have ever seen before. We live in a world in which wars continue to take lives and displace entire peoples. We live in a world in which disease and death continue to stalk us, continue to take people long before their time.
The promise from Isaiah is a little too specific, isn’t it? “No more will babies live only a few days, or the old fail to live out their days. The one who dies at a hundred will be like a young person, and the one falling short of a hundred will seem cursed.” The Book of Revelation has the decency to tell us that there will be no more death. But here in this passage, Isaiah puts a number on it. No more will a child live only a few days. What does that do except remind of the children who have died within only a few days. The one who dies at less than a hundred years will be considered cursed. Why put that number on it for us? What does that do except remind us of all of those who have died at less than 100?
Just in this last week we have had two of siblings in Christ die. Barbara Beardsley died on Monday morning at the hospital in Portland from septic shock, complications after a surgery. She was 81 years old, but it was still a shock. In fact, her mother, Helen, is over a hundred years old and still living in The Dalles. And Mickey Stubbs, who moved to Nampa, Idaho a few years ago, died yesterday. We’ll be holding services for both in the coming weeks, Barbara’s on November 29th and Mickie’s on December 8th. And we continue to pray for Frank Moore, as he is in and out of the hospital as he waits to die from terminal cancer.
In the face of all of that, what are we supposed to do with these words from Isaiah? The one who dies at a hundred will be considered a youth, and the one who falls short of a hundred will seem cursed. What are we supposed to think? How are we supposed to deal with the distance between what has been promised and what we continue to experience each and every day? How can we maintain hope in a world to come when our world right now is so full of pain? How long are we supposed to keep on waiting?
And that is precisely the struggle for people of faith. We live in anticipation. We live in the realm of right now, but not yet. We look forward to a greater future, but we live now in the world as it is, with all of its suffering and pain and death. And what are we supposed to do about it? Should we just give up on our world and look forward to a better time, a better place in the sky by and by? Is that what we are supposed to learn from this vision of a perfect world?
Or does it stand as a call to us? Does it stand as goal and target toward which we can work, in our own small ways? Aren’t we called to cooperate with God in making our world more and more like the anticipated Kingdom of God? Aren’t we called, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to transform this world that Christ has come to save? To make a world where everyone has food. To make a world where everyone has health. To make a world where everyone has freedom. To make a world where everyone has love. To make a world where everyone has peace. To make a world where everyone has life. That is our calling. That is our mission. That is our task. As we look forward to the more perfect that God has in store for us, we are called to transform this world.
There are some parts of this passage that frustrate me. We don’t yet live beneath a new heaven on a new earth. We don’t live in a world where wolf and lamb lie down together, and the lion eats straw like the ox, and no one hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain. And that is frustrating.
But there is a part of this passage that sings out to me as eternally true every time I come across it. God says, “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.
Because we do have a God who listens. We do have a God who hears. God knows our needs before we even know them ourselves. No matter what we face, no matter where we go, no matter what we have to endure, God is there with us. Whether we are celebrating or grieving, whether we are happy or depressed, whether we are calm or anxious, whether we are confident or afraid, whether we are hopeful or hopeless, God is there with us. God walks right alongside. God answers us before we call. God hears us while we are still speaking.
And we know we have a God who understands our struggles and our triumphs, because God has shared our experience in Jesus Christ. Jesus has known our joy, and he has known our pain. God meets us in every part of our human experience. As Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
Yes, this world is sometimes full of pain for us. There is disappointment and illness and heartache and anxiety and grief and disorientation and uncertainty. But we don’t face any of it alone. We always have God with us, just as close to us as our own breath. “Before they call, I will answer,”God says. “While they are still speaking, I will hear.” Thank be to our Emanuel, the God who is with us.