by Kate Huey
Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25 with Isaiah 12 or Malachi 4:1-2a with Psalm 98 and2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 andLuke 21:5-19
Focus Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25
Theme: Infinite Possibilities
Message: I look out my office window at one of the poorest cities in America: Cleveland, Ohio, in the so-called “Rust Belt.” The signs and stresses of poverty are on every block where one is approached by a person in need. The news on most nights reports another shooting, usually of a young person, and most often a person of color. Our children are gunned down by random bullets on their way to the store, and a fourteen-year-old suspended from school returns with guns and shoots two teachers before taking his own life. He had been abused as a child. Drugs and high-interest payday loans are readily available, our schools are struggling, and there are empty storefronts on downtown streets.
Still, there are signs of rebirth and renewal, signs of promise, as this city struggles to recover its former glory. We’re still the home of wonderful arts and medical and educational institutions, and city planners are hard at work to bring to life a new vision for the city. One block from our offices, the main street is torn up with construction, and our impatience with the mess is tempered by a slender hope that the time has come for our city to shine once again.
Of course, we’re just one city, and not all that unusual. In addition to the latest shooting, the news tells us that the gap between the rich and poor in this nation resembles the Gilded Age, when robber barons amassed fortunes at the top and the poor struggled far below, without the strong middle class that arose in the last century. As a nation, we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars on war and the cost of the destruction it brings, and then arguing over whether we can afford health insurance for our children. Meanwhile, forest fires threaten communities in the West, the people of New Orleans still live in the midst of destruction, and the oceans yield fewer and fewer fish: it feels as if creation itself is in revolt over the damage we have done.
It really isn’t that difficult, then, to imagine how things must have felt for the people of Jerusalem around 475 B.C.E., two generations after they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their devastated city. They remembered the former glory of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the rebuilt version didn’t quite measure up to the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Imagine the prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city. (The evening news from Afghanistan, Baghdad, or Haiti provides vivid images to help our imaginations.) Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.
Imagine too the first generation that had returned, excited and full of joy about coming home to their own land, their own great city: Jerusalem. And yet, by the time the prophet we call “Third Isaiah” wrote these beautiful words, the people still hungered for a word of hope. In this setting, Isaiah speaks of a vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great thing: “to create new heavens and a new earth. . . .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” (65:17-18).
Commentaries are in surprising agreement on this poetic, hopeful text about God’s transformation of the present circumstance into a new creation. They hear echoes of the Genesis creation story, this time with the “curses” undone. Stephen Breck Reid is especially helpful as he focuses on our hearts that respond to God’s promises, God’s “yeses” that counteract the “noes” we live among: “yeses” that connect us to God and end the “noes” of weeping and wailing from those who suffer, the premature deaths of our children, the injustice of workers not being able to afford to live in the homes they labor over and in…all of this suffering will end because of the caring presence of an attentive, responsive God who will bring transformation not in some apocalyptic sense but in a concrete, this-world experience of all things made right. Creation will be so full of peace that even “natural” predators will live gently, side by side. This world may all sound like a beautiful dream, the dream of God, we might even say, but Reid has an even better word for it: “we are called to start working on this wonderful project of God – building the church and the people of God” (The Lectionary Commentary). God is the One who wills all this, and is bringing it to reality, but we’re called to join in God’s project. What better work is there for us to do, or to give our lives to? However, if the rebuilding of a city and its hope leaves out “the widow, the orphan, and the alien” – its most vulnerable ones, is its foundation a solid one? How might we see “the city” as a joy? The dream is for everyone, including people on the land, because the dream (the project) envisions the earth yielding a harvest shared by all, and everyone’s children enjoying long lives.
Not surprisingly, Walter Brueggemann has written elegant (and abundant) commentary on this Isaiah passage that he calls “perhaps the most sweeping resolve of Yahweh in all of Israel’s testimony” (Theology of the Old Testament). One of Brueggemann’s gifts is illuminating the text in its setting while shining its light on our own situation today. Post-exilic Israel was looking at rubble; so are we. Israel may have felt overwhelmed and threatened by empires and forces they couldn’t influence let alone control; we feel overwhelmed, too. Israel may have worried about its children and lamented their deaths as well as the wasted lives of those who toil in vain; we worry and lament, too. It’s right in the midst of such despair-inducing circumstances that God speaks and moves, however: “Ours is not an empty world of machinery where we get what we have coming to us. No! Caring, healing communication is still possible. Life is not a driven or anxious monologue. The Lord is findable…The vision of shalom is most eloquently expressed in times very much like our own, when resources for faith to endure are hardly available…And that is the song of the promises and the image of the poets, the voices of Moses and of Jesus, that a new world is about to be given, and we can trust ourselves to it and live as though in it” (Peace).
Natural disasters and environmental degradation sound an ominous note over our lives, and we wonder how long creation can or will bear the consequences of our actions. Brueggemann has helpful words for preachers this Sunday: “the creation has within it hope that leans toward God in desperate, urgent expectation that God will indeed liberate the world from its terrible decay and bondage. Such a lyrical affirmation cannot be easy to utter in a technological society. Pastors, however, do not need to explain. They need only supply the textual material out of which folk will do their own text-authorized imagining….The Bible thinks very large, well beyond our privatistic, personalistic faith, in its confidence about the renewal and mending of the world,” and that’s what Isaiah is talking about in this passage (Texts under Negotiation).
Recognizing the connections between injustice and damage to the environment, how might a sermon on this text “think large” about the state of the world and the condition of the earth? Where can you find “lyrics” for affirming creation’s deep hope for renewal and liberation? Life is hard, and sometimes we need our faith to sustain us in our private, personal struggles. How do we preach a message that encompasses the personal and the public? Is there really a split between the two?
Some of this good news may not sound so good, at least for some of us, Brueggemann warns us: “In the coming world of God’s rule there will be no basis for aggressive restlessness. The world can be at trustful rest. In that world there is no cause for anxious greed, for all will be shared and all will have enough. These promises constitute a deep threat to the way we have organized the world” (Finally Comes the Poet). Joining in God’s project may require, however uncomfortably, adjusting “the way we have organized the world.” Brueggemann continues elsewhere: “Exiles inevitably must reflect upon the power of promise, upon the capacity of God to work a newness against all circumstance,” even if we who are privileged “do not in fact want newness, but only an enhancement and guarantee of our preferred present tense…Evangelical faith, however, dares to identify what is (for some) an alienating circumstance as the matrix for God’s newness (for all). Thus evangelical speech functions to locate the hunches and hints and promises that seem impossible to us that God will indeed work in the midst of our frightening bewilderment” (Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles). The way we hear this text will be influenced by our position in life and our level of comfort, just as preaching on it is shaped by the setting in which we proclaim the Good News. One of the characteristics of our United Church of Christ heritage is an “evangelical courage.” Do these words of Brueggemann shed light on what that would mean for us who preach in United Church of Christ congregations today?
In his Theology of the Old Testament, Brueggemann continues to unfold this core truth about Israel’s history as well as our own: “Thus in every season of its life, Israel lived with the uttered promise of Yahweh in its ears. This promise, which defies every logic…assures Israel that its life, and eventually all of the historical process, is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality. It is, rather, an arena in which a powerful intention for well-being is resolutely at work….” What is our role in this process, and this promise? We remember the invitation to join in the project of God: that’s one way of seeing ministry. Ours isn’t some pie-in-the-sky hope, but something as “earthy” as bread for all is quite a project, and again, it will require some adjustments in “the way we have organized the world.” And not just bread, or justice, for all, but peace for all, and peace for all of creation at last.
Prayer: (from Bruce Pewer, Uniting Church in Australia)
Lord of love and loveliness, whenever we come to say our prayers, our thoughts like to run down familiar paths, and reach out to the same familiar list of people and needs.
Today we pray for that same list, seeking your blessing on one and all. Please continue you redeeming work in their lives.
Yet we also want you to stretch our compassion to include many others who either deliberately or unintentionally neglect in our prayers.
We pray for our enemies, whether they be a bully at work or some huckster who tricked us financially, whether they be savage critics of the church or members of terrorist groups like El Quaeda.
God your are always just and merciful, not judging according to what the eye sees nor the ears hear. Look in mercy on our enemies and bless them according to their true needs this day.
We pray for the people who disgust us. Those who wilfully litter our parks and beaches, scrawl graffiti on our buildings, get drunk and smash shop windows or beat up a lone pedestrian.. Those who stir up racist hatred, or lust for cruel retribution rather than just punishment or rehabilitation, and the many who sit watching others suffer without lifting a hand to help them.
Lord in your mercy, bless these unlikeable people, and by your Holy Spirit, work in them, and through others who are not as intolerant as us, enable them to rise above the squalor or brutishness of their ways.
We pray for those who are thin skinned and easily of fended. Those who are embittered characters, always rehearsing real or imagined hurts. Those who gossip mercilessly, or who with wearisome repetition vent their anger or resentments on anyone who will listen.
With your patient and generous love, O God, give them the understanding that we knowingly or unawares fail to give them, and bring them into the well being that is intended for your creatures.
We pray for those people of within this congregation or other churches and denominations, who annoy or frustrate us. Those whose ultra conservative or radically liberal views seem to us to be an attack on the body of Christ. Those fellow parishioners whose attitudes or habits feel to us like an insult to our Lord, and any ministers or priests whose word and deeds may make us want to leave the church in bad grace.
Merciful God, our Saviour and our only Judge, bless all these forgotten people who today we have deliberately brought to mind, and the many more whom we have still forgotten, Continue to surround them with that costly grace of Christ Jesus, which is the only ground on which the rest of us can dare stand before you without fear.
To you who first loved us, long before we ever thought of loving you, be all worship and honour, glory and praise, within this congregation and across all continents, seas and islands, to the far corners of the earth, now and for ever .
Kathryn Matthews Huey is Minister for Stewardship, Scripture, and Discipleship in the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team at the United Church of Christ offices in Cleveland, OH.