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Isaiah 12 & Isaiah 65:17-25
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…your kin-dom come, your will be done…
on earth as it is in heaven. We say these words every single Sunday here, and many other churches, if not most of them, say them, too. Like Isaiah’s words of comfort and challenge from thousands of years ago, these are words of tension, prayers of what is not visible or known, but what could be.
What could be would fill up an entire Bible…and more.
On Thursday Scott and I closed up the office, drove up to the Dream Center and delivered the boxes and boxes of hygiene items that you all brought specifically to help those released from prison in this long overdue effort to reform our so-called “justice” system. At least some of those freed will come back to Tulsa, and we know that while their sentences have been commuted, the impact of years in prison, the fines and fees they’re still saddled with and the weight of a felony conviction will still hang on their necks like a millstone. So, it’s a small gesture to give them some of the supplies they might need, a sense of connection and community. It’s a vision of what could be, even as we wrestle with what is.
That’s what the church does, at least at its best. We address the “what is” and imagine the “what could be” as we learn together a biblical tradition and a gospel story that bears no illusions about the things that make us feel fearful and anxious all the time, while emphatically stating, over and over again, “do not fear.” Part of our task as the church is to bear forth this imagery, language and theology for a God who we cannot see and bring that stuff to life through people, who we can see. It is to dream, to dream BIG, and then to live that dream, even when we cannot see it at all. We call that faith.
These two sections of Isaiah represent a broad section of Jewish history. Isaiah, you see, is pieced together from a long tradition, rather than written all at once. Chapter 12, what scholars call “Second Isaiah,” was written down somewhere around 750 years before Jesus, and is mostly contained in Isaiah chapters 40-55, but also present here in 12. “Trito” or “Third Isaiah,” located in chapter 65, amongst other places, was written some 200 years later around 530 BCE. They represent an entire collection of writings from this prophet, or people speaking in his name, and they offer these words of comfort and affliction to generations. It is a time of hope, to be sure, but, Isaiah reminds them, in words that echo through the centuries, it is also a time to hold deep awareness of how things can go bad in a hurry. The imagery of wolves lying down with lambs, of plentiful crops and easy work…these are dreams born of knowing the inverse, dreams that you have when you are scraping by, when there’s nothing to eat and the wolves are at your door.
Hard times, Isaiah laments. These are hard times. But the hard times are coming to an end, and the world will be better – justice will be present, hope will be abundant and suffering will be no more. All of this is coming, though it’s not here yet, and it still isn’t.
In fact, this might be one of the most challenging parts of faith, for while it’s good to read these ancient writings and understand that “hard times” are ubiquitous with being human, it may also make us feel like we are being asked in each and every generation to live for what isn’t here yet. And like waiting on a bus in the rain or for that clock to indicate quitting time, we could understandably ask ourselves – when does it get here?
What Isaiah reminds us is that faith is something more than the realization. It is made, it is forged in the waiting. As we sing those dreams out loud, the other part of faithful living is that we should live like it isalready here, like justice ought to be expected, hope commonplace and suffering intolerable. Because living like that isn’t pollyanna positive thinking, it is a strategy…one that changes the world around us, by first shaping our hearts and then framing the way that we live. It’s what’s called a corollary argument – the second part of the statement is affirmed by the first. If the stressful times are coming to an end, and we can feel relief and comfort because of that, then the stressful times are already beginning to go away.
Isaiah’s words were so powerful, so effective in their evocation of this glorious time to come, that they were picked up again during another round of hard times, reinterpreted by the followers of Jesus and the early church, so much so that many Christians today think they were written to predict Christ, when they were actually written to predict hope in the time they originally served. Like good literature those words echo across time and space allow us to return to them. We can re-imagine, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” or even “Mr and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”, for they are words that let us feel that hope again. And whether it’s Zora Neal Hurston, Dickens, J.K. Rowling’s long and troublesome adventures of a certain Mr. Potter, or the story of Jesus for that matter, such hope rekindles in us each time because we need it to.
We could certainly view the news of the past week…the last month…the last year…maybe even the whole of our lives as chaotic and anxiety producing. We can absorb data on gun deaths, domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, racism, human trafficking, on and on and on…and sink into a deeper and deeper hole. We could accept the assertion that this is just “how it is” and settle into protecting ourselves, isolating into a world of individualism. We could accept, to use the metaphor of Isaiah, that the temple is being rebuilt just for us and we can retreat behind its walls, shutting out those who scare or offend us and then we’ll find, just as Isaiah is warning, that we’ll have recreated the situation that tore down the first temple. Instead we have to step out in trust, and rely on the tools that have been given to us – love your neighbor, pray for those who persecute you, accept that the kin-dom of God is all around us right now.
So, we sing songs like, “Christ Will Come Again,” we lift up an age to come that will be different than now and our liturgy imagines a time of peace and justice. And, I think I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it too – that’s a lovely sentiment, but did you see the news? Another school shooting, Venice underwater, Australia on fire (just after California got put out), Hong Kong under virtual martial law, the horrific realization of how deeply cruel this administration’s policy on immigration has been, and an impeachment trial that reveals how deeply separated we are in our country. And death has held a particularly hard grip on this community lately – many in the circles close to us passing on, with the concurrent weight that we feel when death takes its toll. The kin-dom is all around us, pastor? Where, exactly?
Soon we will begin the Advent season, working our way towards Christmas, always celebrated with singing and celebration! And before that, we will have Thanksgiving. So, gratitude and praise will fill the next few weeks, which could seem quite in opposition to the general malaise I just described. Towards the end of the passage from the 12th chapter of Isaiah, our first reading today, there’s suddenly a psalm. Not all of the psalms are contained in the book of Psalms, you know. It says:
Sing praises to God, for God has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Apparently, Second Isaiah added these passages of good news to the existing canon of Isaiah so that the exiled in Babylon could fan the embers of their dormant faith into flame, if there were even embers. For most of those exiled for generations in a foreign land, the fire of faith had gone completely out. So, the prophet’s task was to preach something so clear – to blast a note so loud – that faith could be actually re-ignited, reborn in the hearts of a people whose faith had died.
As we witness the things that we are witnessing in the world around us, and contend with the tension and anxiety they bring, it can be quite easy to lose faith. Frankly, I sometimes have little left to argue for it, and find myself more often agreeing with those who are abandoning their hope and seeking to find some other means of coping. It’s completely understandable and, for me at least, also completely insufficient. None of those other coping mechanisms help me as well. I can’t find something other than faith to really carry me the way I need to be carried. I keep coming back to it because nothing seems as real to me as the mysterious, unknowable, unseen thing that we call God.
This is what binds us together as church, the living out of our faith. It’s why it’s hard to be a follower of Jesus in isolation, we need each other so that when some of us have faith as dim as a dying ember, others can fan the flame…when some of us have nothing but tears, others can be a shoulder to lean on, an ear to hear, a voice to offer sympathy…and when some of us can only hum the hymn softly, with little song left in our hearts, others can sing boldly.
The truth is, I cannot tell you how we will contend with the many issues we face as human beings on this planet – most of them self-inflicted. I cannot convey to you how the wounds will be healed, the pain will stop, the seemingly irreparable will be repaired. I can’t point out the kin-dom to you, at least not in doses big enough to matter in this sea of struggle. But I trust it’s there, all around us…and we are here to remind each other of God’s Love in that chaos…we are to prompt one another – do not fear, God is our salvation – not the next election cycle – and we should not fear, not the overdue bill, not the anxiety of what might happen, not even the death of someone we love deeply. Christ will come again we sing, and I believe that. I trust in it. I also expect it won’t be in the way we expect. It will come in the re-imagining of story, the re-purposing of hope, the re-living of a life of faith. God IS our salvation…our strength and our might…and with joy we will draw water from that well once more. The well that never runs dry.
Thanks be to God.