Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
Over the past few weeks, many our readings from the Old Testament—from the Hebrew Bible—have placed us within the context of the Exile. There have been Psalms written from Babylon in the midst of anguish and anger, there have been prophets speaking to a nation that was picking of the pieces of their lives after being utterly devastated as they lived as foreigners in a strange land, and even last week’s reading from the Book of Job is thought to be one of their attempts to process and make sense of what happened to their community. Large portions of the people of Judah were forcibly removed from their homeland and forced to live separated from their promised land, the land of their ancestors and of their God, and the impact and trauma of this calamity was felt for centuries.
In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, however, the story has changed. For nearly seventy years, they had dreamed of being able to return to their homeland and to Zion, and they were finally allowed to make the trek back. I can only imagine the relief that they felt; the hope of returning home and seeing the land and city that was so central to them.
And yet, what they returned to was not what they left. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the Temple had been dismantled. Those who were not forced into exile in Babylon were wary of those who were returning. And surely they were tired, worn down, and grappling with why any of this had happened in the first place. The sorrow and despair that they had carried for seventy years did not dissipate; for many, it deepened.
They were, after all, still under Babylonian rule. There was no assurance that what had happened would not happen again. They still weren’t completely free; there was little joy in their homecoming. The peace and abundance that they had envisioned was instead usurped by tension and famine. Things were not easy; things were not calm. This was a traumatized people, living with the fear that everything could be taken away from them once again, living with the anxiety that they might not be able to survive another traumatic event.
Though I would guess that we might not know despair on such a deep level, we still know something about fear and chaos. We know something about our lives being disrupted by tragedy and about that dis-ease that always seems to be lurking right under the surface. We know what it’s like to not want to get too comfortable; to always be on the lookout for trouble.
And whenever we find ourselves confronted by fear in our lives—fears of all types and intensities—it seems that we end up turning inwards and make all of our decisions out of that fear. We become so concerned with making it one more day that we forget what it means to flourish; we distrust our neighbor and isolate ourselves from community; we prepare ourselves so much for conflict that we have no energy left to try to make peace. And when we are acting out of this fear, we feed those things that we are afraid of in the first place. When we become so concerned with simply living, we do not make room for living a free and unencumbered life.
But the trap, it seems, is that in avoiding getting comfortable with peace we in turn get comfortable with fear. The way we live and interact with one another becomes of a pattern of fear and anxiety, which in turn perpetuates this whole cycle. And at some point down the road, we forget how to live well; how to love well.
Every once in a while, however, we find the time and space to take a step back and question why we do what we do. Every once in a while, a therapist or close friend or family member can point out that our reactions or responses to life are not healthy. Every once in a while, we pause just long enough to hear that small voice of God telling us that there is a different way of life that is possible.
And that voice of God is the same voice that shows up in our reading this morning:
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.”
What are those former things for us today? Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism that was necessary at one time but is now counterproductive. Perhaps it’s a way of thinking or reacting that is so deeply engrained within us but that we’re now understanding is harmful. Perhaps it’s the ways in which our families, our schools, our governments, and even our churches have taught us to live that are grounded in fear rather than bold love.
But we have the promise that all things are being made new; and when all things are made new, the old ways of living are unnecessary; indeed, they won’t even come up in our minds because we will see how useless or unhelpful they are. And there will be a day when we find that those former things no longer have a hold on us. There will be a day when chaos does not haunt us and grace instead abides within us; there will be a day when fear does not dominate us and love instead frees us. There will be a day when death does not loom over us and life instead abounds around us. There will be a day when how we learned to live in this fallen world shall not come to mind because it is so far removed from the reality of the new world.
The imagery that Isaiah paints for us is of a walk and a lamb eating beside each other; the lion eating straw rather than flesh. And while this imagery would have been shocking to the original audience, the truth is that we’ve heard it so many times in church that it’s no longer as striking. So let’s do some imaginative work to think about what this day may look like in our frame of reference.
Let’s imagine the day when students can go to school without having to practice active shooter drills because all of the guns have been beaten into plowshares.
Let’s imagine the day when there is not one person who goes hungry because we’ve figured out how to prioritize the lives of others over monetary gain.
Let’s imagine the day when children are not being separated from their parents at our border because our fearful nationalism is cast out by the love of our neighbor.
Let’s imagine the day when our gay, lesbian, queer, and trans siblings are fully embraced exactly as they are because we’ve concluded that the image of God is not conditional.
Let your imagination run wild, because whatever comes on that day will be will be far more wondrous than anything we can imagine. It likely would scandalize us now, for this way may not make sense to us now.
But the good news of this is that God does not wait for us to understand to continue creating. This new creative work is happening now, in this very moment. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus tells us; not fully arrived but something that is actively coming into being around us; not finished but inaugurated on resurrection morning.
This morning, we are offered yet another chance to get on board; to notice our patterns of fear, of hate, and of self-interest and to accept the grace of a new way. We this morning are being offered a chance to join in the work of creating this new heavens and new earth with God.
It’s won’t be easy; if anything, you should know by now that the way of Jesus is never the easy way. Our Gospel lesson tells us that there will be trials; there will be people who despise you for breaking these traditions and patterns of thinking. But Jesus assures us that this is how we gain our souls.
And we’re not going to always get it right. There will be times that we might fall back into our old ways. But there is grace to try again; there is grace for a second, third, fourth chance at living in this holy way.
And as we do so, I think that we’ll see that the old ways will slowly but surely begin to fall away; they’ll begin to lose their power. We will begin to look at this world not out of fear but out of the possibilities that spring from the grace of God. We will see new ways of acting out of love, out of courage, and out of the hope of knowing that God is actively working beside us to make all things new.
This is Christ’s call to us this day: “Come, repent of those old ways, and follow me as I show you a new way.”