Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-9
“There’s a new world coming,” Mama Cass sang back in 1970, “And it’s just around the bend. There’s a new world coming, this one’s coming to an end. There’s a new voice calling, you can hear it if you try, and it’s growing stronger with each day that passes by.”
This week, of course, the idea that a new world is coming might be more a cause for concern than a song of hope. In an early hour of Wednesday morning, I woke up, somewhat prophetically, with a nosebleed and then decided not to go back to sleep but to turn on the television and watch the first woman be elected President of the United States of America. I don’t know if you heard, but things didn’t go that way. Walking to the station as the sun rose, I heard the new President-Elect give his acceptance speech; as the train trundled to Cardiff, I listened to an expert on Radio 4 herald the downfall of Nato and end of the world as we know it; and as the Great Western train diverted around Gloucester, making its delayed journey to London, I received emails from friends from all parts of the globe lamenting what they were witnessing. ‘Pray hard for us’, one friend from California wrote. ‘Welcome to the dark side’, wrote another.
This week, this year, it’s been particularly tempting to look around the world with trepidation, anger or despair as children drown in oceans and strangers are treated with suspicion; as Governments ramp up their war machines and slash support for the most vulnerable, as judges are labelled enemies of the state and elections are won through fear and hate. It’s been tempting to look around the world and simply give up. Well, the same was true for the people of Isaiah’s day. The passage we heard just now was written at a time when it was easy for the people of Israel to look around their world and give up.
After centuries of internal upheaval, the Babylonians were the latest to invade Israel, killing their loved ones, carrying off the brightest and best to live in a foreign country, taking over their land, and destroying their Temple. Eventually, the exiles were allowed to return and we join them a couple of generations from having come home when their expectations for a renewed Jewish existence simply haven’t come to pass. The previous few chapters of Isaiah speak of bloodshed and miscarriages of justice, of a divided people whose leaders are greedy, unjust and drunk on power. There is hardship in the land, cynicism about their future, suspicion about their neighbours. And into this situation, Isaiah brings word from God;
“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
create my people as pure delight.
I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime….so look ahead with joy!”
(Isaiah 65:19-25 – The Message)
I wonder how those words were first greeted. I wonder whether Isaiah was heralded as a visionary or a daydreamer; a prophet from God or a fanciful fool who chose to ignore the harsh realities of life around him. And I wonder how you hear those words this morning. On a day on which we stand in silence and remember those who have suffered through violence and war, are you hopeful when you hear that God is creating new heavens and a new Earth where war and fear and death will be replaced by joy and justice and peace, or does that feel too much like pie in the sky when you die when we all need steak on the plate while we wait. Or nutroast, for the vegetarians among us?!
Do you find comfort in those promises of the future or frustration that they are yet to come to pass? Perhaps, of course, we are supposed to feel both. After all, Isaiah’s words of wonder were not given in isolation but came as part of his message that things need to change…and that ultimately, they will, in a way that will turn all of creation upside down.
So what might all this flowery language and poetic imagery mean for us today?
Well, firstly, let me suggest that Isaiah’s vision of the new heavens and a new Earth might encourage us to have thanks on our lips. There are elements of Isaiah’s vision which hint at changes in the very fabric of nature –lions turning vegetarian, wolves and lambs sharing a buffet, new heavens, new Earth, new cosmic order…but other parts of Isaiah’s vision are far more everyday, mundane even. There are houses to live in and vineyards which bear fruit; women and men who live to an old age, find joy in their work and do not worry about invaders stealing their produce, home or property. Much of Isaiah’s vision of the future, of God’s world of tomorrow, we experience in our today. This is not to say that there’s not hardship or poverty in our society – anyone who questions this should go see the brutal but brilliant ‘I Daniel Blake’ for evidence of this – but at the same time, we must not forget that millions of women, men and children around the world dream of having the lives we live and opportunities we’ve got. They dream of a day when their children will have clean water to drink and regular food in their bellies, where they will sleep safely in warm beds without the sound of bombs exploding nearby or drones whirring overhead to wake them, where girls are not sold into slavery and boys not forced into the local militia. We may not live in paradise but neither is this a barren land. There is so much good, joy, kindness, beauty, in our lives if only we look for it. Today, especially, as we remember the horrors of the past, we should give God thanks for the gifts of the present. To do otherwise would be ungrateful both to God and to those who have gone before us and knew little of the peace we largely experience on these shores. So this week, I encourage you to look out for the good, instead of grumbling about the bad. To give someone a word of encouragement rather than offer a complaint. To pause and give thanks for the vibrancy of the autumn leaves, the taste of a good cup of tea, a laugh with a friend, warmth of a fire, joy of an evening on the couch or any one of the other myriad of blessings that we experience on a daily basis.
And as well as thanks on our lips, we must have hope in our hearts for Isaiah’s words remind us that God isn’t finished with creation just yet. If you’ve ever looked at the headlines, listened to stories of suffering or rumours of war and thought ‘is this it?’, God’s answer in Isaiah is ‘You’ve not seen the half of it yet for I am creating new heavens and a new Earth…and its people will be a delight’. Isaiah gives us a vision to cling to, a dream to dream and an image of a world in which the sound of weeping will be heard no more. Scriptural passages such as this offer us hope that our times of hardship will come to an end, that corrupt leaders and oppressive powers will fade away – that conflicts will cease, love will trump hate and death shall be no more. Governments built on division and fear and hatred will fall; Temples which celebrate exclusion and power and the restricting of God’s love to a holy huddle will crumble for God’s spirit is at work throughout creation for the good. God won’t Make America Great Again. God will transform all creation into a realm of justice and joy and, what’s more, we’re invited to join in!
One commentator put it like this, “Passages like the one from Isaiah are not merely poetic — they are purposeful, and God’s purpose is not for us to fly away from this broken planet but to participate in its rebirth. We are to live into the new reality of a world where infant mortality is a thing of the past, where everyone has meaningful work, where an elite few no longer get to live comfortably off the hard work of the poor. In God’s new earth, “survival of the fittest” is replaced by a community of compassion and plenty for animals and humans alike.”[i]
This is the community that Jesus invites us into. A realm in which those who mourn are comforted, peacemakers are called God’s children and the meek inherit the Earth; a movement in which teachers and tax collectors, Presidents and plumbers, wolves and lambs can all eat together and love one another; a people who are called to join in with God’s mission of love to the world. And if the world seems darker to you, then shine brighter. If the world seems more selfish, be more generous. If the world seems more fearful then hope more recklessly than ever. For if we don’t believe that we have good news to share, good news that a hurting world so desperately needs to hear, then what are we even doing here?!
Today, whether we are wearing red poppies or white poppies, sparkly, purple or yellow poppies, many of us are demonstrating the power of a symbol – of a visible, physical emblem of a greater story and message. Well, what if, this morning, we committed ourselves to be such symbols in our world. What if we were to be symbols of God’s good news in a world which has had its fill of bad? If we pledged to try to be a visible symbol of hope in our homes and on our streets, in our actions and words and prayers so that people could point to us and see hope incarnated in a way that might become subversive and contagious and transformational?!
Today then, as we reflect on the sacrifices and suffering of the past, we must seek to live out God’s love in the present, and be symbols of hope for the future – for the day when the lion and the ox will share straw and the Republican and the Democrat will hug; when church and chapel will worship together and the fact that you are black or white, gay or straight, Sunni or Shia, male, female or transgender, will be an item of interest not excuse for exclusion; a day when enemies will embrace, walls will be torn down and all of God’s creation will live in peace[ii].
“There’s a new world coming,” sang Mama Cass. “And it’s coming in joy. It’s coming in peace. It’s coming in love.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Revd Mark Harper, Picture This: A Sermon Based on Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19
[ii] See the excellent ‘One Day’ © Andrew Graystone for words of inspiration http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/One-Day.pdf