Follow me into the world of Isaiah 65. It is around 530 years before the birth of Christ, and the people of God are in turmoil. A generation prior, everything that they held sacred came crashing down around them in an event that we call the Babylonian Exile. The leadership of the Israelites were taken away to Babylon, eviscerating their social and political system. The Temple of the Israelites was destroyed, eviscerating their religious system. Those who were left were at the mercy of surrounding neighbors and open to attack and constant threat, eviscerating their cultural system. All was lost.
But now, it is a generation later. All is no longer lost, but it sure is hard. Rebuilding the nation and structure and faith of the people of God is one of the most difficult challenges in their – in our shared – history as God’s people. The first wave of exiles has been allowed to return and has found themselves in a desperate situation, confused and unsure where to even begin. Everything looks to be physically and culturally and politically in shambles and even God’s people are at each other’s throats unsure of what to say or do next.
Adding to the pain of their present condition is their past shame. God’s prophets’ have made it abundantly clear why they are in the shape that they are in: they have failed to care about justice, about the poor, the widow, the orphan, the broken lives in their midst. Even within their Temple worship, the prophets have preached, there has been a system of hierarchy and exclusion. Those with physical deformities have been excluded. Foreigners have been excluded. Only some people are included, and the rest are told unceremoniously that they do not belong to the promise of God.
For all of these reasons, say the prophets, the community has failed and fallen apart.
But now, there is a new hope. “For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” says Isaiah. Isaiah’s picture here gives the people of God a new way to look at themselves. A broken and defeated people, they needed a shot in the arm. They needed a word of hope. Something to look forward to.
And so, the prophet offers us this beautiful picture of hope in Isaiah 65. About wolves and lambs lying together and serpents only eating dust. A beautiful picture in which violence and death are no more. But what might not be as obvious to a first reading is the code language about the Temple. When Isaiah talks about “God’s Holy Mountain,” everyone reading or hearing this would immediately know that he was talking about the Temple. Which is timely in Isaiah 65, because this first wave of exiles was returning in order to rebuild the Temple.
So, it is important for our ears to understand what is at stake here. Isaiah is not only talking about bricks and mortar when he refers to the Holy Mountain, or Temple of God. I need you to put on your science fiction hats for a minute, because this is going to sound a little like Star Trek. But the ancient Israelites they saw heaven and earth as two separate dimensions that intersect at the Temple. At the Temple, there is a portal, or wormhole, or Stargate that allows us to encounter the reality of heaven on earth. So when God says, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth,” that is precisely what he means. Both. At the same time. And the Temple is the link between them.
So for Isaiah, this is a vision of God’s heaven, spilling over into earth. Which is how we get to this picture of Isaiah in Chapter 65. Look again at how practical and earth-centric this vision is: Women will no longer die in childbirth. Children will not die young, but young women and men will live to a ripe old age. Planters will not have their crops burned or taken away. Homeowners will not have to lose their houses to those with more money or power. This is what God’s vision of their personhood looks like. It is a picture of shalom: the perfect peace and justice of God’s realm. And it is picture of what happens when God’s heaven spills out into our earth.
The prophet speaks to each individual to say that this is who they were meant to be – not a powerless exile, but a participant in the Holy Kingdom of God.
He speaks to every worshipper in the Temple to say that this is what it is meant to be – not a place of hierarchy or exclusion, but of inclusivity and openness.
He speaks to the nation as a whole and says this is who they are meant to be – not a land of injustice but of justice.
Isaiah invites them to see themselves in a new way: not as a defeated, broken, losing people, but as beloved, created children of God.
OK, so now follow me back out of Isaiah 65 and into our world.
I told you last Sunday that this week, I was going to talk about a new way to see ourselves. A new vision for our identity as followers of Christ. The words of Be Thou My Vision are our guide this month, and this week, we are reminded, “Thou my best thought, by day or by night. Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” It is not by anything that we have done, anything that we have thought up, anything that we have earned, but the very presence of God that is our light, our hope, our strength. This is who we are: a people of the light. That was Isaiah’s message, and was going to be ours today.
And then, the election happened, and a lot of people were devastated and a lot were elated. But then, over the course of the week, we began to hear troubling stories:
- The words “Make America White Again” spray painted on a wall in Buffalo, accompanied by a swastika.
- A victory parade by the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina, assured that their vision for America will finally now be realized.
- Women and LGBTQ persons receiving anonymous terror threats that they better stay in line, or face the consequences. It became clear that the war on terror has a violent front here at home.
- Even here in Lawrence, school children taunting each other, white children telling other children that they are going be kicked out of America because they are the wrong faith or their skin is the wrong color.
For many, the election became a victory for a specific vision of personhood. There is a vocal minority who has seen the election as a sign that the exclusion and hatred and racism and sexism that they have always supported is now the law of the land in our country. And they believe that it is open season on anyone who dares believe otherwise.
So now, what is the Church to do? Who are we to be in these days?
First off, I don’t care who you voted for. At this point, it doesn’t matter. But I do care, with every ounce of my being, how you will treat one another now. Every single person within this congregation, and everyone you meet outside these walls.
Because what we have seen, this week, and this election cycle, is a world that largely sees us – sees Christians – as either a) explicitly in support of this racism, sexism, bigotry, violence, and hatred or b) implicitly supportive because of our silence: uncaring what happens to women or people of color or of different faiths in our midst.
You need to understand that it doesn’t matter who you voted for, because more and more of our culture lumps us in with the swastikas and the KKK and the hate. Let me be clear: we are all exiles in an unknown land. Simply because you showed up here this morning.
But people of God in Christ, let me be clear about something else this morning:
this is our chance.
- This is our chance to show them who we really are.
- This is our chance to say “our God is creating a new heavens and a new earth, and those ways are the ways of the old earth, and they have nothing to do with God’s heaven.”
- This is our chance to look in the face of a country that is divided and beaten and bruised and afraid and say, “we worship a God who made you, and loves you, and wants you to know how valuable you are.”
- This is our chance to do the hard work, just like the exiles, of calling a nation to Isaiah’s vision of justice – to work so that everyone has a chance to grow to a ripe old age, so that everyone has a chance to live in their own home, so that everyone has a chance to work and not have the fruits of their labor taken away.
- This is our chance to reject a vision of personhood that creates hierarchy and division and proclaim a vision of personhood of sees every single human as a beloved child of God.
- This is our chance to ask at which Temple do we worship? The old Temple, that rejected those who were physically different, or those who were foreigners? Or the new Temple of God, the one that invites and welcomes and loves and serves?
- This is our chance to be the people who God has called us to be.
“But how?” you ask. How can we stand up for this alternative vision? Be an alternative to the hatred that we see around us, and are often associated with?
- So many of us feel like we are the victims in a world that is constantly giving less attention and respect to Christianity.
- So many of us struggle that the power and privilege that we once had is gone, and we feel like we are left empty handed.
- So many of us, especially white males, find ourselves less influential and less powerful – albeit not much – than we once were. But that little bit feels like a lot, and it feels like our country is changing and we are being left out.
But people of God, the reason why we are worthy has nothing to do with the color of our skin, or our gender, or our nationality. Those are the reasons that the world uses to assign worth, but not our God. Remember what Paul says in Philippians, that Jesus, who was God, did not see equality with God as something to be grasped. He didn’t prop himself up. He didn’t yearn to be great. He didn’t whine or complain that people weren’t giving him the credit he deserved. And he was God Incarnate!
But what did he do instead? He emptied himself. He lowered himself. He gave himself over the authorities and died on a cross. Why? So that God could raise him up. So that God could exalt him. He showed those with power what it meant to choose powerlessness so that God could show them true power. For those today who feel like their power and authority and value has been slipping away, you need to know that that wasn’t what gave you value in the first place!
What makes you worthy, what has always made you worthy, what makes everyone equally worthy is that you were created by God. That is God’s vision of personhood, and that is the vision that we have the right and obligation to share today.
Because, just like the exiles, we reject the idea that we are a helpless people.
Like the exiles, we reject the fallacy that we have no purpose or power.
Like the exiles, we know that we are not a defeated, broken, losing people, but are beloved, created children of God.
The world says we are weak. We say, “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.”
The world says we should be brought low. We say, “We will be raised up.”
The world hits us. We say, “here is our other cheek.”
The world tells us that hatred is normal. We say, “love your enemy.”
The world says how smart it is. We say, “Thou my best thought, by day or by night.”
The world tells us that the whole earth is falling apart. We say, “Behold, God will make a new heavens and a new earth.”
May God open our eyes to God’s vision of heaven come to earth!