The Day Will Come . . . A New Creation -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C (Isaiah 65)


Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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;
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.

*****************

                Won’t you envision with me a new heaven and a new earth, where violence and death and suffering are no more? This is the eschatological vision that is revealed here in Isaiah and then again at the end of the Book of Revelation. In that last vision of John the Revelator, we hear the pronouncement:  “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” (Rev. 21:1). That reference to the sea is important, for the sea stands in for chaos. It is the enemy, so its absence is a sign that peace has come upon the land. It might not be a welcome word if you enjoy the ocean (as I do) but remember the context. The people of Israel weren’t a sea-going people. That said, the vision here is one of change, but what is the nature of that change? When the two passages are read together, this vision of a new heaven and new earth sounds rather ominous. That is because it seems to suggest something catastrophic occurring. It would appear that God intervenes in a radical way so that the old creation is done away with and something new replaces it. That vision has its attractions, but is this what the Prophet envisioned? Perhaps not.
We need to hear this vision in its original context. This word in Isaiah 65 was given to exiles who longed to return to their homeland. It’s given to people who are essentially homeless and face food insecurity. They are refugees who don’t have control over their own lives. Into this context comes this promise of abundance and peace. It is a promise of a long life, but not necessarily immortality. In this vision, the wolf and the lamb lie down together. Yes, predator and prey live together in peace. For a small nation, like Judah, this is a promise worthy of embracing, for they are the prey, while the Babylonians and other empires are the predators. It’s a reality that existed millennia in the past and exists today as well. So, it is a vision that resonates.

So, what do we make of this promise of a new heaven and new earth? Must we envision a catastrophic moment in time when this earth passes away and a new one emerges? Or is there another option? Jürgen Moltmann offers this response: 
It is a golden Shalom age in the history of humanity and on this earth that is meant, not a world beyond. But that presupposes that this earth is good, and that in this promised age it will simply have to flower into a new undreamed-of fertility. It will not be annihilated and created anew. The pre-apocalyptic apocalyptic prophets saw a threat to Israel's life and existence, but not to the cosmos. Their visions of the blessed life presuppose a profound trust in the earth. [Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3916-3919). Kindle Edition.]
The Book of Revelation, which is definitely apocalyptic, may envision a radical change to the cosmic realm, but we needn’t take things quite so far. Ultimately, the future is unknown to us, so we don’t know how things will end. All we can do as make some judgments based upon our understanding of who God is. With that said, I for one don’t embrace a vision of God is one who destroys, but I do envision God being one who is actively engaged in drawing us into a future that looks a lot like what Isaiah suggests! 

                To those who heard the prophet’s words, the vision is not of some cosmic reality. It is a vision of restored hope, where the return from exile will lead to stability. The city that was destroyed will be restored. Then the people will dwell in peace. Yes, this is a vision that promises a very different future from what was being experienced at that moment. In that new world envisioned by the prophet, there will be no more weeping. There will be no more war. People will build their homes and live in them, without fear that others will come along and take them. For exiles, that is a very compelling vision. The nation of Judah had watched as the Babylonians invaded their land, destroyed their Temple, and seized their homes, relocating them to another place. But now, with the return from Babylon, though things are still difficult, it’s possible that something new might emerge. Yes, a New Jerusalem could emerge where peace reigns and no injury takes place—the serpent will have to survive on dust (taking us back to Genesis 3).

                For those of living in the 21st century, what word do you hear? What word does this speak to those who are refugees, whether from war or famine or violence? Is there a word here for them? What about those who experience food insecurity or homelessness or who die young either from disease or violence? For those under 30, suicide is among the greatest causes of death. What about them? Then there are those of us who live relatively comfortable lives; those of us who have nice homes and don’t face food insecurity; what word is spoken to us? What word of newness do we hear in this message? We might not have a complete word for the moment. As a colleague shared in her recent sermon, perhaps “The answer is . . . under construction.” Depending on where we find ourselves, we might hear an invitation to join in the work of building a new creation, a new Jerusalem. 

                As we contemplate this message we can take hold of the message found in the fourth verse of Brian Wren’s hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings.”

                In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.

                This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new. 
                                                                                             (Chalice Hymnal, 518).

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