Scripture - Isaiah 65:17-25
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 17, 2013
On August 3rd, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was staring out a window in the Foreign Office. A friend stood next to him as they peered out at St. James's Park. As the sun was setting and the street lights below were being lit, he remarked to his friend, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." The following day, Great Britain declared war against Germany and Europe plunged into the darkness of the Great War.
Today, the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria live in similar darkness as the turbulence of terrorism, incessant factional strife and civil war shred the fabric of their countries. While we in North America do not experience such daily devastation, a sense of gloom hangs in the air over our anemic economy, a dysfunctional federal government, and an increasing number of families living below the poverty level. Optimism about the future is nowhere near what it once was.
This morning's passage from the Book of Isaiah comes from a time when the sky was thick with darkness over the ancient Israelites. In last week's sermon we looked at an earlier period in ancient Israel's history, when the people had turned their backs on God's command to care for the weak and neglected. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; expected righteousness, but heard cries from those who suffered. (Isaiah 5:7) The consequence of their ongoing injustice was that their society crumbled and they were defeated by foreign powers. Many were taken captive in Babylon.
Today's passage falls near the end of the Book of Isaiah. The long exile in Babylon has finally ended and the people have returned to their homes. However, they have returned to ravaged communities, vacated homes, vines clinging to the walls and collapsed roofs. Their homes, their infrastructure and their faith community are in tatters. Everything must be rebuilt. The people are demoralized by this daunting task and they are dubious of their future.
To people beaten down by years of oppression and facing bleak prospects for a better day, God speaks a fresh and startling word through Isaiah. "I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 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. 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." (Isaiah 65:17-19)
Isaiah gives the people a glimpse of God's dream for the world. This dream breaks old molds and forges new ground. The painful memories that make each day feel like slogging through a tangled swamp will be forgotten. The harsh experiences that color everything they see will be blotted out. The wounds they have suffered, the hypocrisy they have encountered and the violence they have witnessed will no longer feed their cynicism or distort their demeanor. God will create new heavens and a new earth. It will be a world no longer haunted by the cries of people who are hungry, no longer haunted by the cursing of those whose homes have been snatched from them, no longer haunted by the killing, maiming and suffering caused by war.
It will not be a return to a picturesque past, no matter how much they romanticize a golden era. It will surpass all they have ever known. Even Isaiah has trouble painting the vision because mere words are not up to the task. He can only speak poetically to convey what God has in store. So, he says the wolf and the lamb will romp in the fields together. And the lion? The lion will become a vegetarian! The harmony in creation will be so extensive, that not only will humans live together in peace, but grace and reconciliation will extend even to the animal kingdom.
Isaiah's words describing God's dream for the world have instilled hope in countless generations. When we despair about poverty and violence and suffering, these words inspire us to look beyond the present to a time when the values of God's kingdom begin to take root throughout the earth.
Deep within each human soul is a longing for serenity, security and the absence of conflict. Regrettably, we often allow selfish desires and past suffering to whittle away at this grand, passionate yearning until it becomes a paltry vision of what we believe is achievable and what we believe is good for ourselves regardless of its impact on others. Not a single biblical prophet says, "Enrich thyself." All say, "Enrich the world."
It is also tempting to sit passively on the sidelines and wait for God to engage in the great rebuilding of the world. However, Isaiah's vision makes clear that the mending of the world is not simply a divine construction project. Undoubtedly, God plays the crucial role in rebuilding, but God does not labor alone. In Isaiah's vision the people and God will strive together. Isaiah begins by saying God will "create new heavens and a new earth" but lest we think that God will accomplish this apart from us, he adds, "They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit."
One theologian spelled it out beautifully when he said, "Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not."1 Isaiah's prophecy of an enchanting future is intended to encourage us to work toward the divine dream of a harmonious creation. It challenges us to work to make the divine vision a reality. It will not be a cakewalk. There will be obstacles and others working against it. But we are inspired by the vision and we are strengthened by the promise to work in harmony with God toward the realization of the divine dream.
How does it work? I believe God's Spirit weaves the messages of the Scriptures into our thoughts where they contend with other ideas rattling around in our brains - political views, philosophical notions, parental voices from our past and cultural messages that are currently in vogue. Worship helps us to distinguish God's voice from the other voices vying for a hearing. God whispers in the depths of our souls urging us to take the path that leads to the common good, while other voices attempt to divert us to a different route. When we embrace God's urgings, God has more to work with and can provide increasingly rich opportunities. When we choose to follow voices at odds with the divine path of compassion, justice and peace, we narrow the field of life-enhancing possibilities open to us.
Deciding on which voice to follow is critical because the path we take in life determines the depth of our experience. The path toward God is rich in love, marked by joy and filled with hope. The path away from God veers toward shallowness, cynicism and anxiety. Why would anyone choose such a path? Because it often presents us with glittering images of personal glory, security and instant gratification. But the path that focuses only on personal well-being is ultimately unfulfilling, because personal well-being is always intertwined with the well-being of others.
God wants us to sign a contract - a binding agreement - to work together in transforming the world. Beware of a contrary voice that will counter: "But to what extent can one person make an impact?"
In her new book, Stitches, Anne Lamott shares a story her pastor told of "a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air, sweating a little under its feathery arms. A warhorse walks up to the bird and asks, €˜What on earth are you doing?' The sparrow replies, €˜I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.' The horse laughs a big, loud sneering horse laugh and says, €˜Do you think you're going to hold back the sky with those scrawny little legs?' And the sparrow answers, "One does what one can."2
One does what one can never assured of the ultimate impact it will make, but always with the knowledge that a small seed can become a mighty oak.
Alex "was an interrogator at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detainees she worked with were murderers and rapists. She never forgot for a moment that, given the chance, they would kill you to escape. Some committed crimes so horrific that she lost sleep wondering what would happen if they were set free."
"But this was not the only reason she could not sleep. She had spent 18 months in Iraq before Cuba. First as a soldier, then as a civilian contractor."
She wanted to "make a difference in Guantanamo, but she could not sleep. She was plagued with dreams of explosions and screaming. After being sleepless for more than 48 hours, she began to hallucinate. She thought people were planting bombs outside her house in Guantanamo."
"When she returned to work, she began to meet with her clients, which is what she chose to call the detainees who were assigned to her. She wondered how many of them still heard screaming at night like she did."
"Her job was to obtain information that would help keep U.S. soldiers safe. Alex and her clients would meet and play dominoes. She would bring chocolate and they would talk. There was one detainee, Mustafa, who joked that she was his favorite interrogator in the world, and she joked back that he was her favorite terrorist. He had committed murders and did things they wished he could take back. Then, one day, he suddenly turned serious and said, €˜You know everything about me, but still you do not hate me. Why?'"
"His question stopped her cold. She said, €˜Everyone has done things in their past that they're not proud of. I know I have, but I also know God still expects me to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. That means you.'"
"Mustafa started to cry and said, €˜That's what my God says, too.'
She says, "Accepting Mustafa helped me accept myself again. My clients may never know this, but my year with them helped me to finally heal. My nightmares stopped."3
There is power in God's dream. Embrace it and live it.
God's dream declares that judgment is never the final word. The final word with God is resurrection - the creation of new heavens and a new earth. If we strive for justice, extend compassion and live in hope, God leads us to a better day.
Will you stand at a distance and watch the construction, or will you pick up a hammer and nails and start building?
Prayers of the People
Composer of creation, Generator of galaxies, Author of organisms and Shaper of seas, we confess our failure to produce better results with the ample resources you provide. We build multi-million dollar homes and billion dollar stadiums, but make little progress against the poverty that stalks our planet. We possess the wherewithal to send space probes to Mars and unravel the mysteries of DNA, but we cannot put an end to war or curb the violence snuffing out the lives of thousands of our young.
God, we are worn out with a world that bears little resemblance to your dazzling dream of a place where the hungry are filled, swords are beaten into farm equipment and the wolf and the lamb live together in peace. May we make a determined effort to draw closer to you and to embrace your teachings to replace our anger with understanding, our ridicule with respect, our injustice with generosity and our contempt with compassion. Forgive our failings and bolster our desire to follow the way of Jesus so that we may experience the abundant life you offer.
Loving God, we pause from the rush of our lives to pray for those within our church family who need your touch. May they open their hearts to your life-giving spirit.
We pray for those parents whose children are troubled. Calm their constant distress, ease their sleepless nights, and guide them to the relief that promotes healing throughout their family.
We remember those who are grieving the loss of a most precious loved one. Comfort them with treasured memories, mend their ailing hearts, lead them to still waters and fill them with peace.
We pray for those whose jobs bring much heartburn, but little gratification, and who can find no other alternative to provide for their family. Strengthen their will to carry on their duty and instill in them a sense of satisfaction for their sacrifice.
We beg your blessing on those who are living in a pit that has been drained of all joy. Pierce their darkness with glimmers of light, let love slip into their lungs, and help them to regain eyes that can perceive the beauty that seems buried.
We pray for those wrestling with demons that turn their souls into turbulent seas. Grant them a determined spirit to battle the seductions that seek to snare them and a relentless resolve to overcome the temptations that assail them.
We ask your blessing on those living with dementia and the frustration they experience when expressing simple ideas or losing their train of thought. We pray that their family and friends will be patient with their struggles and sympathetic to their illness.
We pray for those couples who have drifted apart and are hesitant to muster the needed resolve to reignite the flame in their relationship. Transform their thinking, bolster their desire to forge a fresh bond and show them the path that leads to deeper love and renewed commitment.
Gracious God, many in our world fail to see the need for a spiritual life, yet without healing in our souls, an infusion of your values and hope for a brighter tomorrow, we will never scale the heights you urge us to reach. God, grant us the will to draw closer to you so that we may draw closer to your dream for us of harmony, joy and peace. Amen.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only the Prayer Ministry Team receives this information.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only a pastor receives this information.