New Everything (Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19)
The Gospel reading contains a story of Jesus and some folks who were looking at the Jerusalem Temple. It reminded me of a group of tourists visiting Washington DC, and commenting about one of the many monuments and memorials, “My isn’t this impressive and lovely.” Jesus responded to them, not that the temple wasn’t these things, but that, as lovely and impressive as it was, that “the days would come when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.” That must have sounded almost irreligious and unpatriotic. It led Jesus to talk about two separate, but similar things. One was the fall of that temple, and one was the coming of the end of the age. Often readers get the two confused. In the Mediterranean culture in which the early church existed, world history was divided into two periods: the Present Age, which was the time from earliest days until the current world came to an end. In that mode of thinking all the people that have ever been or will be live in the Present Age. After the Present Age is the Age to come, which would be the time when God came to earth and ruled directly and peace, justice and fairness would reign. Between the two ages was an event or series of events called the End of the Age that concluded the bad old world and ushered in the good new one. In Christian circles this was associated with Jesus, usually called the Son of Man, coming with clouds of glory. This is a figure of speech coming from the book of Daniel, chapter 7 as reinterpreted in all kinds of literature not found in the Bible between Daniel and the time of Jesus.
Mark was written during what is called the Jewish War of 66-70 CE that climaxed in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70. It would be easy to see how Mark might closely connect the destruction of the centerpiece of Jewish life and the end of the age, and the coming of Jesus to be with people and reigning in peace and justice. Luke was writing 20 years later and recognized that he had to speak to Christians who went through the destruction of the Temple, and that many survived, the world didn’t end, and Jesus didn’t come again. Luke told this story of Jesus differently than Mark did to make the point that the fall of the Temple wasn’t the end of the world. The end of the world was still coming, was still in the hands of God and Jesus, and Jesus would still come to be with his people, but, not now. The end is not in doubt, but the road to that end was longer and more full of stones, hills and curves than we thought. Life will be hard. He encouraged his congregation to use the hard times, not as an excuse to sit still and wait for Jesus, but as an opportunity for mission and service in this world. Expect an uphill struggle and lots of nasty things to happen.
As I read this story over and over in preparation, it occurred to me that it opens up some food for thought in our current situation. We have been through two years of name-calling and lying about those from whom we differ. It has all deeply troubled my soul, and has divided our country in deep ways that I am quite sure will take some time to heal, no matter how many well-meaning people say, “Well, it’s over and we need to put it all behind us.” Things are said that cannot be “un-said.” You cannot “un-ring” a bell. As one with some experience in human relationships, I doubt very much that we will put it all behind us quickly. We were pretty much split 50/50 on what just happened, so the road ahead is stony. But, we need to listen to our Gospel lesson that tells us that such things are not about the end of the world, but about what happens regularly in it. The Bible pretty clearly affirms throughout that God’s in charge of things including where the world will all come out. It also affirms that the road to that place is anything but happy and smooth. If these things are two counter-movements of life, then what can we actually do to get to a place where we can begin to heal what we have done to and against one another? First, and very briefly, none of us can take the high moral ground on this, as if it was only “others” that spread hatred and lies. The honest truth, sadly, is that each of us may discover some corner of our hearts that demonizes “those others.” It is deeply distressing to me that it is true of me, but it is, and we each need to repent of that. In the Bible repentance means turning in the opposite way and getting new minds on this. Evil is defeated by good, not by response in kind. Our mothers knew this and taught it to us. Or mine did. (So did Maxine’s.)
One of the things that we also need to seek is what God would have us do to cure this sickness. The Bible often says that God’s people ought to engage themselves with the things that engage God. We copy what God is doing. Our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 65 has an interesting contribution to make as to what God is doing. A while ago, as I was reading through the Isaiah 65 text in Hebrew and translating this poem that has God as the speaker: “Now behold, I am creating new heavens and a new earth…” That’s clear, I thought. God’s the subject, and the verb is a participle, which is, basically, a verbal adjective with an –ing on the end…”Now behold I am creating…” I was surprised to find that very few published English translations render it that way. Our pew Bible has “I am about to create…” Some have simply “I create” or even (inexplicably, by grammar at least), “I will create.” Obviously, some think that such new creation must either be reserved for the immediate or the far-term future, rather than now. But that’s not the simplest reading of the text, which says that God is creating new heavens and a new earth. It’s in process. It doesn’t say when it began or when it will end, it just says that “I am creating new heavens and a new earth.” It’s ongoing. I think many times our preconceived ideas about the world and God form the way we read texts in the Bible more than the other way round. What might it mean that God is creating new heavens and a new earth both now and was when the passage was written in the 500’s or later BCE? Next, what did the author mean by “new heavens and a new earth”? One way to say “everything” in Hebrew is to choose opposites (like the heavens and the earth) and connect them with an “and.” Here the author was saying that God is creating a new “everything.”
Poetry captures eternal, transcendent matters in images that are both common and cultural. That’s one thing that makes poetry difficult, and wonderful. This poem is no exception. It uses ancient, specific, and cultural images to unpack this wonderful idea that God is creating a new everything. These images make it difficult for us, from a different time and culture, to grasp what’s being said. One example is that the poem centres the new creation on the city of Jerusalem, the hub of the author’s world. We need to give ourselves permission to free ourselves from that cultural image, in order to be faithful to the basic meaning of the image for us. That core meaning is safe community as home, reflected in at least three tangible, socially palpable ways. The new everything that God is always creating is known first by stability and safety that nurtures and guarantees long life (v. 19b-20); second the new everything has economic stability that takes away fear of the loss of work, livelihood, and the good life in general (21-22); and third, God’s new everything includes the safety and well-being of children, the weakest members of society. When the weakest are threatened, the whole society is threatened (v. 23). All this, the text says, is characteristic of the new heavens and earth that God is creating, as God’s current, ongoing engagement in each moment. Just before this poem ends, God also says, that, as a support, this community is guaranteed divine attentiveness, “before you ask…as the words are still in your mouths, I will respond” (v. 24).
Of course, it’s hard to see the new everything, isn’t it? I’m sure it was hard in the days in which the poem was first written, which were days in which the little community of Judah had gathered home from Babylon to Jerusalem and found itself small, poor, and under threat. I’m sure it has been hard to see ever since. I think of the homeless in our community and the hungry that go to WAFER and the Salvation Army who might laugh in your face if you piously delivered the word that God was creating anything new, at least for them. Think of the children of the war in Syria or myriad other warring spots on this planet. Their parents (if they are alive) would probably be hugely surprised had someone said, “Did you know God is, right now, creating a new everything?” Well, it must not be here. And thousands and millions would echo them. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if God were doing it, so maybe that’s the project for “way beyond the blue.” It’s no wonder that some have looked at this text and this world and concluded said, “It can’t be true now, so it must mean that, one day, God will do this, but not now, and it’s just cruel to suggest such otherwise.
Yet there’s that insistent participle that says that God’s work in the world is the ongoing process of creating new heavens and a new earth, a new everything, all the time. Unfortunately, we do not always or often have acute enough spiritual vision to see what God’s up to. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews spoke of faith as a tool that allows us to be convinced of the truth of things that are not seen. And that’s an important insight.
Really, God’s new everything is a real community of shared safety, wholeness, protection of the weak, and an appreciation of God’s abundance. From time to time, when we see little inklings of such things, we see little in-breakings of the new everything that God is creating. Last week I received a call about the Legal Clinic. The caller asked me where we were located. I told her, and after a moment, she said, “Oh, sure, you’re the church by New Horizons, who used to have the Warming Center, and has the Latino folks now. I should have known it would be you. You guys care about this community. There’s a little glimpse of God’s new everything, and I could add many more from our experience together here at FBC. Is it possible that the faith that nurtures such little actions toward warm, inclusive, neighbourly, Christian love enable glimpses of God’s creating a new everything?
But how does this tie to Jesus? I think it does, and I’ll be brief about it. At the very end of the Isaiah poem there is a reprise of the wonderful passage about the peaceable kingdom from Isaiah 11 that we’ll revisit on the Second Sunday of Advent. I’m sure you recognized the words when I read them the first time.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion will eat straw like cattle. (But the serpent’s food is dirt.) They will not do harm or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
There is no doubt in my mind that, as this great symphony called Isaiah is drawn to a close, the author wanted to remind hearers and readers of the earlier vision of safety and harmony from chapter 11, the centre of which is in lines about one who comes to represent God to the people and the people to God. One key line is “and a little child shall lead them.” Scholars mostly agree that such words in Isaiah 11 point to the coming Messiah who is the centrepiece and catalyst of the peaceable kingdom. As I say, there is no doubt in my mind that this verse in Isaiah 65 is a reprise to make readers contemporize that old vision for their now. For Christians, Jesus is that promised Messiah. So, it is Jesus who in his life, death, resurrection and teachings gives us the vision of the new heavens and earth that is the ongoing work of God. And, when we follow him in the daily discipline of discipleship, we are enabled to enact that new everything in our community, just a little, here and there, and so make God’s new creation visible, so that God’s kingdom may come, and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.