What a week!
Some of you are coming into this space feeling wonderful and triumphant this week. Some feel like you have been kicked in the gut. Some may just be plain relieved the election is over.
However you are feeling today, I think today you will find some hope in our words from Isaiah. They are beautiful, lofty words about God creating a new heaven and a new earth. God makes these incredible promises to his people, but today I want to remind us that the context in which these words were written was an incredibly difficult time in the life of Jewish people.
Remember with me, if you will, some of the history here. In 605 BC, the Babylonians invade Judah, which included Jerusalem, the holiest Jewish city. Instead of just taking over the region, the Babylonians forced Jewish people out of Judah and scattered them around the Babylonian empire. The Jewish people were allowed to work and have families, but they were not allowed to return home.
The book of Isaiah is divided into three parts, and our reading is from what is called Third Isaiah. Now Third Isaiah had to be written because God made all these promises in Second Isaiah about the Jewish people being allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would flourish, but the prophecies only came sort of true. King Cyrus of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and to even start to rebuild the temple. But once they got there, the Jewish people experienced great poverty, drought, failed crops. They truly suffered. They had hoped in this one idea of the future, but the reality was incredibly painful. They gave up on building the Temple.
They were suffering and they were mad at God. How could God do this to them? After all the disorienting dislocation they had experienced, after the warfare and violence, how could things have turned out this way?
And of course what happens in this kind of suffering is that people turn against each other. The earlier parts of Third Isaiah describe factions and leaders within the Jewish community at each other’s throats. Leaders tried to make themselves rich, and the court system was filled with corruption.
Our generation did not invent brutal politics.
So, then what is this hopeful text we have from Isaiah 65 this morning? Is it pointing to some kind of idyllic afterlife? Do we have to drop dead before we can experience the lovely joy and peace that it promises? Are we too corrupt to be that aligned with God here and now?
Paul Hanson, an Old Testament scholar, believes there are two ways to understand shalom–this kind of idealized peace described in Isaiah 65. He writes,
It is terribly important that in answering this question one draw a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination. One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life. . .with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf o God’s order of justice. The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.
So, we can see this image of a new creation as something that will only happen after we die, which causes us to throw up our hands. Or, we can see this image of a new creation of the way God can work through us, no matter our circumstances.
Before God gives Isaiah this vision, first Isaiah does a lot of yelling . He reminds Judah that blaming God for bad circumstances is a way of throwing up our hands and releasing ourselves from any responsibility for our situation. God wants his people to take responsibility for making this idealized peace into a reality. Isaiah tells Judah they need to keep the Sabbath, clean out the corruption from their justice system, offer food to the hungry, and rebuild his Temple.
That’s how justice looked in the 6th century BCE. How does justice look now? As long as there have been Democrat and Republican parties, they have had different ideas about how to enact justice. And when our country is in a healthy-ish place, our politics looks like hearty arguments and deal making and compromises as we hash out how to make justice happen for our citizens.
What concerns me about where we seem to be headed, in such a highly polarized time, is a situation where we do not give our politicians permission to have those arguments and make those compromises. On a recent broadcast of the NPR show On Being, Eboo Patel expressed these concerns beautifully:
My quick take on that is healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. And in my mind, the most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing …I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them.
How do we live out faithful citizenship and have passionate beliefs, without wanting to scalp each other? I think this week—in which we had both Election Day and Veterans day—is as good a time as any to consider these questions.
At another point in the interview Patel said that when he was in college and was a fire-breathing political activist, he read a column by William Raspberry of The Washington Post in which he wrote “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” This helped reframe Patel’s understanding of what it means to position himself in the world. Winning the argument is not always the most important thing you can do in a conversation. Listening and trying to understand how other people understand the world can be transformative.
It may be too soon after an incredibly divisive election cycle to start engaging in this way. We may need more time to cool off. But eventually, it would be powerful if we could really listen to each other, try to hear each other’s concerns, and see if we can come to any common ground. I think church is one of the few places in our lives we actually interact in person with people who think differently from us, so if we are very brave maybe we can practice having those conversations with each other. Even if that is SO not the polite thing to do! These conversations do not mean we are abandoning our ideas of justice.
No matter our political affiliation, there are fundamental acts of justice we are supposed to do as God’s followers. We are supposed to feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan, take care of refugees. They are summed up pretty beautifully in our baptismal covenant. We even have some copies of the covenant on the back table if you want one for your fridge. And even if our political systems completely abandon these tasks of justice, they are still ours. We are the light of the world. We can live out faithful citizenship outside of official structures.
No one can take away God’s image of a new Creation from us. We can stand up for those experiencing racism. We can feed the poor and house the homeless. We can treat each person we meet with respect. We have the power to participate in God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth right now. And it may take awhile before the wolf and the lamb—or the pantsuit and the red cap—can hang out together peacefully and productively, but we hang on to an image of shalom where they can.
We have our annual ingathering this Sunday, but it’s not an ordinary ingathering. I hope as we offer our financial gifts to this place, we are also offering again the promises we made at baptism to God and to the world. The world needs Christians that are filled with the light of Christ’s love. Your relationship with God is more than just walking through these doors once a week. God chooses you to be his representative in the world and to help make this new heaven and a new earth. You are the light of the world.
 Patel, Eboo, “How to live beyond this election” On Being aired October 27, 2016