The New Earth
Our passage from Isaiah is a beautiful and hopeful vision for the future. It is part of what is called Third Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is actually three books. They were written at different stages from the time the Jews were deported to Babylon to after the time they were allowed to return. Third Isaiah reflects on the condition of Jerusalem after the Jews had returned and when it was still part of the Persian Empire. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra describe these stages.
Remember our reflection on Jeremiah? He lived during the period of the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon. Afterwards there were a series of deportations by the Babylonians forcing the Jews into exile in Babylon. A few including Jeremiah went to Egypt. Subsequently Persia under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. (By the by, to place these empires, Babylon is Iraq and Persia is Iran.)
Cyrus was more broadminded than the Babylonians and agreed to let the Jews return to Jerusalem. This was only partial freedom. They were allowed to practice their religion and culture, but they were still part of the Persian Empire. So they returned and began to rebuild. But they didnít finish the job for a variety of economic and political reasons. The people fell into poverty and fighting among themselves. Their lives soon became desperate and hopeless.
When I read this background material, what came to my mind was the War on Poverty. Do you remember that? LBJ had a vision to end poverty in the United States. Itís been almost 50 years now and we still have poverty in the U.S.A. Like Jerusalem, the War on Poverty is a task left undone for a variety of economic and political reasons. Indeed, poverty is on the rise. Today poverty stalks Newark, Elizabeth, Camden and can be found in most towns.
Further, many of us in that period had hoped that lessons learned from the Vietnam War would finally end war making. But here we are embroiled in two wars. And the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorerÖ just like in Ezraís and Nehemiahís time.
So itís not too hard to see how the Jews of Ezraís time despaired for their future.
But God offered sustenance to the people in this latter period when they had fallen into despair. They had all but given up making a better life for themselves. So God presented to them this beautiful vision:
God is going to make a new world shed of all the problems they were facing. Life will be joyous and not a grinding struggle for survival. Babies will be cared for. Everyone will have enough to eat. People will live long and fruitful lives. People will own their own homes and farms. Their work will be meaningful and their children will have good childhoods and a bright future. God will always be there for them through all the generations to come. War will cease and justice will prevail.
But is this just a pretty poem that uplifts us for a few short moments before we go back to the reality of our lives?†† Can we really hope for a prosperous future when wars will cease, no one will go hungry, children and everyone will get the health care they need and people will be civil and supportive of each other?
We can say no, there will not be such a future Ö we can be pragmatists and realists and accept that this present time is the way itís going to be. Our past prosperity was a short wave riding on a tide of greed. Real life demands us to trim back on what we can do. Havenít we heard from our leaders that we, the people, must start sacrificing our benefits because we canít afford them anymore? Havenít we heard that we are being besieged by terrorists who want to destroy us and we must fortify our lives against them? Havenít we heard that everyone should fend for themselves and the government, i.e., the community, shouldnít be so involved?† What a dark and foreboding world we live in. Only a visionary disconnected from reality, would think that the future is bright and hopeful. Only a Polyanna in deep denial of reality would buy into Godís vision of the lamb and lion lying together.
This dismal view is realistic, except Ö it discounts God and the movement of the Holy Spirit. In faith and in holding to faith, we know that God does offer us a better world Ö if only we will embrace it.
God has made the creation to by dynamic, not static. Nothing stays the same. Everything undergoes change. Thatís the risk of living. The future is unpredictable and unknowable. But the promise of God is that the Holy Spirit is working in that unknown and if we have faith to walk with her, the world can be a better place.
History shows that on reflection historic forces and events from time to time converge. We donít realize the covergence at the moment. But when we look back, we can see that indeed historic forces joined to present an opportunity for significant change.
While reflecting on the 60s and the War on Poverty, I remembered living through the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was one such nexus of opportunity. We could turn to devastating war or take the route to peace.
At the height of the crisis, Robert Kennedy devised a plan to diffuse what was moving quickly towards a nuclear war. On October 26th Khrushchev had sent a message stating that Russia would remove the missiles from Cuba if the US promised not to invade Cuba. The next day, the 27th the Russians sent a different message demanding the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey as a requirement for removing their missiles. This latter message was unacceptable to the American military. Bob Kennedy who desperately wanted to resolve the crisis peacefully was caught between his own folks and the Russians. From all appearances they both couldnít be satisfied. But Bob Kennedy decided to take a chance and ignore the second letter and accept the first Russian letter. Our side agreed. The Russians did too. It turned out the Russians were just as afraid of a war as we were. And the crisis dissipatedÖ and at least for a moment, we had peace.
I bring this up, because I believe that Bob Kennedyís actions were one of these changing, random moments that could have gone either way. He could have taken the second message to heart and refused to treat with the Russians. But he didnít. Bob Kennedy was a very faithful and committed Catholic. I think he was listening very closely to the Holy Spirit.
And thatís all it takes sometimes: one person in the right place at the right time when the forces of history happen to converge making the right decision and the whole world is changed for the better. Nothing is static. Hope is always present if only we reach out to it.
History also says that movements make a difference, like a breeze that grows stronger and stronger until a mighty wind blows through the land. Common, ordinary people who say that today they will hope and do something hopeful come together to work together. And little by little, positive, hopeful change happens.
Yesterday I read an editorial in the December 2010 edition of Sojourners magazine. Jim Wallis reported a wonderful point of hope at the Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee. A year and half ago, Heartsongís pastor learned that the Memphis Islamic Center had bought land next door to his church. Rather than demanding that they not build on the property, he put up a large sign outside that read, ďHeartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood.Ē This was a startling surprise to the Moslems who had hoped just to be ignored. They certainly didnít expect to be welcomed. Now, today the Islamic center is still being built. So its members were invited to use Heartsong Church for their Ramadan prayers. The two communities are now working together. Heartsong serves halal (Moslem kosher) meat at its community barbecues so the centerís members could attend. The two communities are planning to work together to tutor children and help the homeless. But it went beyond that. What Heartsongís pastor did was broadcasted on CNN. A Mosque in Kashmir picked up the story from CNN. From it they realized that Americans will reach out to Moslems. So they in turn reached out to the small Christian church in their neighborhood. These communities are points where Godís spirit is moving among us.
And locally there are many groups actively working to improve the lives of the least among us. Iíve mentioned the Elizabeth Coalition before that works very hard for the homeless. There is Bridges in Newark and New York that work with the homeless. And this list goes on and on.
So we can have hope. There is much hopeful work going on Ö so we have real reasons to be hopeful. But it cannot stop with just thanking God that we know there are people doing good stuff.
Our hope must have wings. We must act on our hope. We must participate in hope. We must be part of the hopeful vision. For example, donated bone marrow can be a life saver for children with leukemia. You can register to be a donor and give hope to all those suffering from leukemia.
But Jesus warns us in our passage today, that following Godís vision of hope wonít be a cakewalk. It can put us in a threatening position. Think about the Heartsong church and the Moslem center next door. I can imagine that both receive criticism within their own faith communities by working together.† Indeed, given the volatile feelings among many about one faith or the other, it can easily escalate beyond criticism to deep anger and even threats. Yet they go on and continue to set an example of true peace and justice. And God promises, as Jesus tells us, that if we keep the faith that hope will prevail, the beautiful vision of Isaiah will come to pass.
So think about it. Consider getting up each morning and reminding yourself to be alert to those occasions of change that might offer hope and that you can participate in. Someone has a friend who has a friend who has friend in need of a bone marrow transplant. Your new neighbor invites you to a wedding in a mosque. You see a homeless woman and go to a shelter to help her Ö and keep coming back to help. Maybe you even find one of them a job.
Or you go to help serve hungry people Ö and it turns out they arenít very friendly. After all they are angry at the world and our fighting to maintain what little dignity they have left. So you go home saying I donít need this Ö if they are so mean about it. But then you go back again and again Ö and despite themselves they find hope in your presence.
Who knows where the Spirit will lead. But you have to follow and take a risk on hope Ö
Godís grace and love be with you Ö