A Sermon for November 13, 2016 on Isaiah 65:17-25
Our scripture from Isaiah this morning spoke originally to a time when the people of Judah were divided. The future didn’t look bright. Their lives were difficult and the prospects weren’t great. Furthermore, there is division within God’s people. Some have been in exile in Babylon, and they were undoubtedly shaped by life in that foreign land with its foreign religion. Yet many of those who were not taken into exile had let their faith become corrupt by the people around them.
It is into this reality that we see the picture painted in Isaiah 65, which is God’s action to bring new creation:
Through the prophet Isaiah, God says,
I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
The future looks brighter when we hear God’s plan for new heavens and new earth. At the same time, this isn’t about sitting on our backsides and waiting for it to happen. Isaiah’s vision is of people building houses and harvesting crops– it’s about fruitful work.
It’s about God’s action, but it’s also about our action. It’s about heaven and earth. It’s about wonder at what God will do and realism about our role in it.
And so what we get is a vision for the reality that is possible when God’s action combines with human action.
There is a statement about health and well-being.
No more will babies live only a few days,
or the old fail to live out their days.
There is a vision of security.
The houses that you build: you’ll actually get to live in them. The crops that you grow: you’ll actually get to eat the produce.
Work is at the heart of creation, and yet in this hope-filled vision of new creation, the work of others will not be exploited for someone else’s gain.
We get an image of a kingdom at peace, where the conflicts that plague creation are no more:
Wolf and lamb will graze together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but the snake—its food will be dust.
They won’t hurt or destroy
at any place on my holy mountain,
says the LORD.
It’s a vision that is steeped in God’s care, God’s presence, and God’s prevenient grace:
Before they call, I will answer;
while they are still speaking, I will hear.
We have here basic criteria for a flourishing society. First, it begins with health– only when people’s health is cared for are they able to be a productive member of society. Second, there is the ability to have constructive, fruitful work, where people can benefit from their own labors. Third, relationships are reconciled and peaceful. There is no bloodshed in New Jerusalem. And all of this is empowered by the grace and love of God.
This is what it looks like to live well.
This is a vision that is stuck in the middle between God’s action and our action. It’s about God, but it’s also about us. It’s not so distant as to be unimaginable, but it’s far enough away enough that we recognize we can only make steps in the right direction– ultimately it is God that will need to bring this new creation.
So what’s the status of the vision in your life?
First, are you healthy? Of course, we recognize in our health both a component of God’s providence and our own action. We didn’t wake ourselves up this morning. Sure maybe your alarm clock went off, but God knows there were some people whose alarms went off and they didn’t get up! We don’t make our own hearts beat so that blood pumps through our bodies. Nevertheless we make decisions about food and exercise that affect our bodies’ ability to do that. We can decide to listen to our doctor or to do what is more enjoyable and easy. We can embrace the new creation vision for health and well-being in our lives now, or we can reject it by our actions.
Second, are you involved in constructive, fruitful work, where you’re able to benefit from your labors? If not, maybe it’s time to start acting like you have the job that you want. Getting dressed for work in the morning, even if you don’t have to go. Honing skills and knowledge that you need to be productive for yourself one day soon. You can embrace the new creation vision now.
Third, are your relationships reconciled? Are the wolf and the lamb in your life grazing together in peace? Who in your life do you need to apologize to? Who in your life do you need to forgive? Having a reconciled relationship is a two way street. You may not be able to control the other person, but with God’s help, you can control yourself. You can embrace the vision of the new creation here and now.
We hope and pray for God to bring new creation, but we take steps that anticipate and point towards the renewal that God will bring.
This image in Isaiah of new heavens and new earth– an image of new creation– is one that is picked up in the new testament. The most obvious time is in the last two chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21-22:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Then at the end of chapter 21, it says: [N]othing unclean will enter it, … but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Because here’s the reality: apart from the power of God in our lives, we aren’t the type of people that make good citizens of the new Jerusalem. This is a city that is going to have people from “every tribe and language and people and nation.” How are they going to live together forever apart from God’s transformation?
But this is what I find to be so amazing: Even though God’s new creation will come in its fullness in the future, the conviction of the New Testament is that when Jesus rose from the dead, the new creation was begun. As N. T. Wright, one of my favorite scholars of the Bible, says, “with the resurrection… a shock wave has gone through the entire cosmos: the new creation has been born, and must now be implemented.”
God has brought life out of death in Jesus. And God is bringing life of death in others too. The call for each of us who confess Christ is to bring God’s future new creation into the present by our actions. This is what it looks like to live out hope.
As I said a few weeks ago– on a sermon you can listen to later on lansdowneumc.org– we don’t simply hope for the future, but we hope from the future. We bring the reality of God’s peace, justice, and mercy into the present, because the Holy Spirit has brought our future resurrection life into the present. We do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We strive to fulfill the Great Commandment– to love God and to love neighbor. We fulfill the commandments to care for orphans, widows, and immigrants. This is hope lived out.
I love the way that the Common English Bible translates Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 5:17: “if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!”
Being “in Christ,” means that God has remade you from the inside out. You’re no longer “in sin” but you’re now “in Christ.” It means that God has transformed you into a person who is able to participate in the new creation. This is not churchy speak for slowly becoming a better person by trying really hard. This is the new birth that scripture speaks about. It is an act of God’s new creation by which someone is born from above by the power of the Spirit. It’s an act of God that allows us to enter God’s kingdom. We can’t bring it about ourselves, but we can invite God’s transformation by doing the things that transformed people do– living at peace, being reconciled with others…, seeking the welfare of others.
We don’t just care for our own health, but we care for the health of others. We don’t just care about ourselves having work, but we care about others having work too. We don’t just work to reconcile our personal relationships, we work to reconcile all people. After all, there are lots of different types of people in God’s world, and there will be lots of different types of people in God’s new creation.
Alright, you’re probably all wondering if I’m going to talk about the election. Well here it comes. Don’t worry. It’ll be ok…. Maybe. Maybe I’ll get some heat, but God’s new creation has real implications for how we live in our present circumstances. So why not address the elephant in the room, if you will?
Have you been on Facebook this week? If not, congratulations, oh wise one. Teach me your ways! But if so you’ve probably noticed that people seem to have an opinion or two about Donald Trump being elected to be the next President of the United States of America. People also have a range of opinions and convictions, both about America’s choice for President, as well as about the responses of various groups protesting or celebrating.
Because Facebook is so easy to use, it also makes it very easy not to cultivate the scriptural mandate to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” As a result, many people I know have lost sleep, because they had to do something about someone who was wrong on the internet.
But I don’t want to entirely bash political conversations online. One of the blessings of being a pastor in the United Methodist Church is that I get to see a very broad range of opinions, both from my clergy colleagues and from schools and churches that I’ve been a part of.
I’m friends with hard-core Trump supporters and people who wrote in Bernie Sanders on Tuesday. I’m facebook friends– and real friends, I should say– with Catholics and with Pentecostals, with Anglicans and with those who attend non-denominational churches. I’m friends with evangelicals and people who want nothing to do with that label. I’m friends with Methodists who are conservative, liberal, and what I would call “off-the-deep-end” one way or the other. I’m friends with American citizens, immigrants, and foreigners, And these are just the Christians. And boy have they been at each other’s throats.
Indeed, this week has not been a good week for realizing the vision of the new creation. I’m not just talking about the man at the top– that ship has sailed. I’m talking about how we Christians have dealt with one another.
This past week, opinions were all over the map. Opinions were frequently loud and accusatory. But all of these people are all people who at their baptism or their confirmation answered “yes” to something like the following:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
Baptism unifies us and sets us apart as God’s new creation family. I think my facebook friends are diverse– but they pale in comparison to the diversity of the global church. People from “every tribe and language and people and nation.” It should be obvious to us that racism and fear of foreigners are two things that are fundamentally at odds with God’s new creation. God unites all who confess Jesus Christ together in Christ’s body.
Let me get real specific for a second so that no one is confused. Here’s where I’ll probably get in trouble. I understand the hopes that many people have for Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet the reality is that actualizing those hopes will come at a cost– it has come at a cost. Many of our non-white brothers and sisters in Christ are afraid of a resurgence in hate crimes. There are early indications that their fears are not unfounded. They might be called sore losers, or they might be accused of having irrational fears. Nevertheless, they are our brothers and sisters and their fears are real. Christ’s body and God’s new creation is made up of all races and ethnicities, and when one part of the body of Christ hurts, we all hurt.
We cannot control what the KKK does. We cannot control what white nationalists group say and do. But we can control ourselves. We can behave as people who have been brought out of death into life. So let’s choose our words carefully, recognizing that we can’t unsay what we’ve said. Let’s err on the side of loving embrace and not on the side of making sure that others know we’re right. Let’s be people who bring the hope of God’s new creation into the present.
In essence, this is what I’m saying: let’s get about the business of being Christians. Our church, for example, is really good at feeding people. This is not some add-on to our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is us enacting the transformation of the world. It’s living toward God’s new creation, where no one will lack for food.
The good news is that as we await for God’s transformation of society, Christ offers us personal transformation.
I’ve seen it in action– another benefit of being a pastor. People whose hearts have been changed from hate to love. People who have been set free from their fears and their sins. People who have been give the power to overcome addiction. People who have gained the courage to reconcile relationships with long estranged family members or friends. All of this is new creation.
What death in you does God want to raise to new life? What corruption in your nature does God seek to renew and remake in God’s own image?