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 that 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;[a]
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.
Hope for new creation--at a time like this? I wonder if that’s what the people of Israel might have been thinking as they heard this prophecy from Isaiah. I wonder how they reacted to this grand utopian vision of the restoration of Jerusalem-- a future that must have seemed unimaginable. They had experienced the terror of Babylonian invasion and the destruction of their city and their temple. They had been taken as exiles, forcibly dislocated to Babylon. One of the psalms captures the exiles’ feelings of sorrow and despair and abandonment: “By the rivers of Babylon--there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion...How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” They had experienced the humiliation of exile and war, the trauma of their home being destroyed, and of being removed from all that they had ever known.
And now they have returned from exile, but they are unsure of how to believe that Jerusalem would be restored back to its former glory. They’ve returned, but they haven’t found the future as secure as they had hoped. And then they hear this word from Isaiah--this vision of a world without weeping and crying; a world in which no infants die too early, and every person has the chance to live a long life; a world in which their prayers would be answered before they even spoke them; a world in which all of creation would be at peace. This new age that God will bring is meant to bring hope and consolation, an encouragement to these discouraged and downtrodden refugees, that says--don’t submit to despair, don’t let cynicism win out. Hope is worth fighting for--take courage, and imagine that something like this world can arise out of the ashes. But I wonder if some of the people were thinking, “Really Isaiah? You want us to imagine a bright future, at a time like this?”I wonder what your reaction was, to hearing this prophecy from Isaiah. Were you also thinking, “you want us to imagine a bright future, at a time like this?”
I wonder if hearing this beautiful vision of the future makes you roll your eyes a bit, or maybe makes you a little skeptical. This vision just feels so foreign to the world that we live in. How can we even imagine this vision of restoration at a time like this?
How can we even begin to imagine a world in which no infant will live for only a few days and no lives will end prematurely--When we just heard news of yet another school shooting in Santa Clarita, CA, that claimed the lives of 3 teenagers? When we know of the staggering rates of suicide among transgender youth? When we know children that are born with cancers and diseases that almost guarantee that their lives will be cut short?
How can we even begin to imagine a world in which people will live past 100 years, and everyone will live out a lifetime--When we know that so many people lack access to affordable healthcare--and are faced with the decision to pay rent or pay for life-saving medication? When black folks are getting shot by police officers in their own homes--the one place that’s supposed to be safe?
How can we even begin to imagine a world in which there is economic justice--such that people can live in the homes they build and eat the fruit that they plant, and labor won’t be in vainWhen such a tiny percentage of people own such an enormous percentage of the entire world’s wealth? When the top 10% hold something like 70% of the country’s wealth; and the typical white family has about 10x the wealth of the typical black family.When even with advanced degrees, it’s so incredibly difficult to find a job that pays a living wage and that honors a person’s dignity?
How can we even begin to imagine a world in which all of creation is restored to peace and harmony--where wolves and lambs can coexist peacefully and lions are vegetarian and snakes eat dustWhen this week we learned that Venice is flooding, and massive wildfires are burning in Australia, and plenty of other places are being devastated by our climate crisis, but we don’t hear about them in the news because they aren’t affecting wealthy, white people.
How can we muster up the hope to imagine this new creation...at a time like this? And what do we do in the mean time, when our world seems to be on fire?Now hope, of course, requires that we are willing to look beyond our present realities, to something new that is coming. But we also must be willing to look straight into our present realities--the pain and suffering and injustice that plagues our world and our daily lives. I want to affirm that if you struggle to imagine this new creation at a time like this, you are not alone. Hope is definitely not about denying the challenging realities right in front of us.
So especially in times like these, hope seems a little hard to come by. In a TEDTalk by 16-year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, at the last few minutes of the talk--the moment when people usually end with a little pep-talk about hope and positive ideas, she says-- the pep-talks don’t work, because if they did, emissions would have gone down by now. “Yes,” she says. “we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” So I wonder if maybe--if this vision of new creation feels a little hollow to you, because it’s just so far off from the realities of the world that we find ourselves in...I wonder if our action might need to lead to hope, if we can’t quite figure out how to manage doing it the other way around.
I want to be clear that ultimately, God will be the one to bring the kingdom to earth. It isn’t up to you or me. GOD will fully establish this glorious new creation that Isaiah talks about. And in Christ, we know that this work has already begun. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has already shown us that God’s future has broken into our present reality. Through Christ--the powers of the world are defeated and a new order has been established. Through Christ, the kingdom of God is here--already, but not yet--and we are invited to belong and participate in it. So yes, this is ultimately God’s work. But God has called us to participate in this new creation-- to witness to it with our lives and to participate in it and to usher it in. We get to join in with Isaiah in imagining a different world, and then we get to work in helping to bring it about.
This vision of hope for a better future in which there is peace and harmony and justice--it matters for the present too. The Isaiah text itself shows us that the present world isn’t completely divorced from this future one. This future vision is still very much situated in the here and now: there is a re-created order, but it is not that the people are removed to some higher heavenly, far-off, otherworldly realm. People live out their lifetimes--building, planting, laboring, bearing. It’s not that God takes away the people’s activity in the world--but people are enabled to live their lives more fully...In the new heaven and new earth, “labor will not be in vain.” It’s not there won’t be any labor any more--but it will no longer be mundane and meaningless and soul-crushing. It will be transformed into something beautiful and fruitful, in the new creation. And maybe this shows us that this vision of new creation is meant to empower us to anticipate and usher in God’s kingdom, knowing that somehow--the actions that we take now will last into the future--that living more fully aligned with the kingdom NOW will somehow make a difference for the kingdom LATER.
And I think that sometimes God gives of glimpses of the new creation that is already here but not here yet in its fullest form.
A couple weeks ago, I was studying at Cocoa Cinnamon in Durham, on Chapel Hill Road. I was reading on the patio, which is pretty close to a bus stop. A gentlemen came by and asked if I had 2 quarters to spare. So I dug down to the bottom of my purse and found a couple loose quarters, and smiled as I dropped them into his hand. And the guy took the quarters and walked away. No eye contact, no thank you, no pleasantries whatsoever. And as he walked away, I kind of laughed to myself because I thought...huh. That actually seems about right. That seems like how things should be. He didn’t need to thank me, because I wasn’t doing him a favor. I owed him the quarters because I had them, and he needed them to get where he needed to go.
I of course don’t know exactly how the new creation will work. Maybe we won’t have needs at all and we won’t have to rely on one another. But I kind of like to think that in the new creation...we WILL still have needs, but everyone will be able to give freely and receive freely, without any feelings of guilt or shame, or obligations to pay back. Just seeing needs, and meeting needs, knowing that in God’s kingdom there is more than enough for everyone. We all hold things loosely, knowing that no possession truly belongs to us. Knowing that we all belong to one another, so everyone can be taken care of. And so I wonder if this interaction on the patio at Cocoa Cinnamon was a glimpse of the new creation that Isaiah 65 talks about--a future in which all of our needs will be met by one another, because love will be the only thing that animates us--not greed or fear or shame or scarcity.
What a beautiful thing… that God turns the mundane interactions on a Saturday morning on the sidewalk in Durham--into a picture of what God’s holy mountain will look like; God turns our mundane actions into a glimpse of God’s new creation. And I wonder if in our practice of paying off one another’s debts here at Jubilee, we also find a glimpse of new creation--in which we work to take care of each other, giving generously and without expectation, and receiving freely and without shame. Caring for one another so that we all can flourish----knowing that my well-being is wrapped up in yours, and yours is wrapped in mine. And maybe the news of Rodney Reed’s stay of execution, is another glimpse--albeit a very tiny one, because as the saying goes, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And maybe the strike waves of workers across the US is another glimpse.
Maybe these are glimpses of new creation that can push us forward and give us hope--in the midst of all this despair. And maybe we are called to celebrate these glimpses of new creation, as we work to usher in this vision of peace and justice every day of our lives.
One more thing to note is that sometimes in reading texts like these, it’s a little too easy to identify ourselves in the story as ones longing, waiting, hoping for this new world. But I think we also have to be willing to confront the ways that we are really comfortable with how the world works. If we are honest with ourselves, maybe we would realize that we are comfortable with the current way and maybe feel unsettled with the news that former things are passing away. Because what does that mean for the “former things” like our privilege, that has allowed us to access structures and systems and resources that others never had a chance to benefit from. What does this mean for the “former things” like constructs of whiteness and white supremacy that are destructive and death-dealing, but so difficult and uncomfortable to confront. And what does this mean for the “former things” like our status and power, those things that we want to hold tightly to, because we feel threatened. This vision of new creation is also a warning to those who do have some stake in “the former things”--for those of us who perpetrate violence and harm on others, intentionally or not, through what we do or left undone--through our failures to actively practice true justice and our passive silence about injustice; through our failures to be welcoming and hospitable to all people. And maybe this future vision that Isaiah offers can remind us that ultimately those things that feel like loss--loss of privilege and status and power-- are ultimately what we all need to be free and liberated from all that binds us and keeps us captive to our broken ways of being with one another.
So where do we go from here? We press on, trusting that every act of love and gratitude and generosity and care matters and will ultimately make its way into God’s new creation--that transformed world that God will one day make, but that we get glimpses of and get to participate in every day. In God’s kingdom, nothing is wasted. So as we vote for policies that take our climate crisis seriously; we also use reusable bags and eat locally, and plant herbs in your kitchen window, or if you’re like me, just try to keep that one houseplant alive--trusting that we are participating in God’s new creation. And as we call our representatives and write letters to our congresspeople, we also write beautiful (or terrible) poetry about the joys and sorrows of everyday life--trusting that we are participating in God’s new creation.And as we organize people in our workplaces to fight for fair wages and a chance at some dignity, we also gather people around our tables, extending hospitality and making people welcome and at home--trusting that we are participating in God’s new creation. We seek to be faithful in the big things and small things--persistent in our hope that in all these ways, we are participating in God’s and ushering in the new creation that only God can fully bring. Amen.