Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25
I was having lunch with a friend the other day. And it was great. Until I started eating. First my sandwich fell apart, many crumbs falling to the floor. Then some oil from the sandwich fell on my pants. I got a cloth and tried to clean it, but I couldn’t get the stain out. Plus I’d lost half the sandwich. It just seemed to go from bad to worse. And God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). Couldn’t come soon enough.
And that’s just the tiniest of first world problems. Really not even worth mentioning, except that some chunk of each day, for many of us, is often spent in dealing with just such nagging frustrations. We’re in a rush, and the driver in front of us seems allergic to the accelerator. The shelf in the refrigerator collapses, leaving milk and vegetables all over the floor. A snow day is called when we have no backup for childcare. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says God. Couldn’t come soon enough.
Not to mention the problems with real weight and heft, the ones that keep you up at night, the ones that send you into a cold sweat. The depression starts, and no amount of will-power will put you in a good mood. The welcome relief from the pain medication slowly grasps you with a tenacious addiction. Your spouse or partner or parent withdraws into a deeper and deeper dementia. You’ve lost someone you treasured. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says God. Couldn’t come soon enough.
Not to mention the broad-based social and political issues that roil our common life. Impeachment hearings. Tension between the U.S. and Russia and China and Turkey and North Korea and Iran. Another fatal school shooting this week in Santa Clarita, California. An ugly and disheartening brawl between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The divisions, and the passions over those divisions, so often seem intractable. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says God. Could not possibly come soon enough.
The bald fact of the matter is that life is so often not what we hope it will be. It’s stained by fear and hatred and disease, by hopelessness and joylessness and lovelessness. You don’t have to look far to see the scourge and nastiness of a world that’s all-too-often weary and broken.
Isaiah is acutely aware of these destructive forces. When the prophet records these divine promises, he knows that the past has been grim for the people. Having lived in captivity for fifty or sixty years, they have returned to their holy city, only to discover that nothing is as gleaming as they had hoped it would be. The Temple, which had been destroyed just before the Babylonian exile, has indeed been rebuilt, but as little more than a shadow of its former self. Strife and injustice and disregard of those who are poor are way too prevalent. Discouragement reigns.
Isaiah is far from naïve about the people’s pain. And yet he still says to them, “All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten” (65:17, The Message). And maybe we think, ‘Is it really a good thing not to remember? I mean, A) it’s really hard not to remember life’s formative events; and B) isn’t there a problem when we don’t remember—aren’t we doomed to repeat the mistakes we forget?’
Sometimes, though, forgetting is a good thing, isn’t it. If we’ve suffered a lot, it may be a gift not to remember all the details of that pain. If we’ve carried lots of resentment toward someone, or if we tend to keep careful track of another person’s wrongs and maintain a kind of mental score pad about all the wounds we think they’ve inflicted, maybe it’s good to let go of that.
I suspect Isaiah isn’t literally commanding us to forget. My hunch is he’s encouraging us to put another reality alongside all the pain and evil, and to say, ‘There’s something that’s more important, more real, more lasting that all that pain. And that is that God is always doing something new in your life, and in our life together. Yes, you hurt. But you are also treasured. Yes, you break, but you are also being remade. Yes, you fail, but at every moment you have the privilege of being able to start anew.’
Sometimes the way to counter the agony and the questions and the melancholy is to shift your gaze, and to turn it toward something healing. I have two friends who suffer from tinnitus, a constant and sometimes wearying ringing in the ear. Tinnitus is not really treatable medically. But both of these friends say their doctor tells them the way to deal with it is to focus on something else. You can train yourself, in other words, to be far less aware of that ringing and to pay attention to other things, so that the tinnitus gets relegated to the edge of consciousness.
So maybe a good part of the challenge for us spiritually, when we’re overwhelmed with struggles, is to note the ways God is moving in our lives right now. When Isaiah speaks to the people, the holy word he’s conveying is that God is in the process of making things new. This is not an apocalyptic prediction, as the earlier passage from Revelation was. This is Isaiah’s way of saying that God will be doing these things, not at the end of time, when the culmination of history comes, but here on this earth, and that this newness is already happening. This is an imaginative—not imaginary—beckoning toward a new and very real future, a future here on this earth. It may sound like a dream, like an impossible utopia that’s being set up. But Isaiah is convinced that this new heavenly earth is not only possible, it is in the works as we speak. God is making it happen even now.
So here’s the work of faith: we are to live and act as though that future is present now, as though that future is already here. If you believe that God is healing the rift in your marriage, for example, how might you act differently? Maybe instead of cowering in fearful silence, you will claim the deserving voice God has given you. Maybe instead of leaping to judgment at every perceived provocation, you will see yourself as an agent of forgiveness. Maybe instead of always avoiding your partner, you’ll build in times of laughter and fun. Maybe, instead of constantly rehearsing and reliving your trials, you’ll make time to give thanks for some blessings of your spouse and your marriage. How might you see God as making your marriage new?
Church, too, can be a place to refine our focus. Maybe when you come here, you feel a certain uneasiness. Maybe you’re lonely. Maybe you feel uninvolved. Maybe you have some low-level, or even high-level, resentment toward someone who has a different set of priorities than you do, or who stands for something different than you do. If you’re lonely, maybe this is your opportunity to approach a friendly face and to talk or to go to lunch. If you’re feeling uninvolved, maybe it’s time to find a ministry team that lets you exert your God-given ability to connect and serve. If you’re grinding on a resentment, maybe this is an invitation to turn your gaze away from the speck in someone else’s eye, to look at the log that may be in your own, and to look for the gift in your apparent tormentor. Maybe it’s an opportunity to try to understand somebody different from you, to invite a perceived opponent to tell you what really matters to them, and to connect over things that are deeper than our divides. God is about to do a new thing. Let’s focus on that new thing. Let’s act as though it’s in the works. Let’s act as though we’re part of bringing that new thing—the new heavens and new earth—to life.
Faith is, in a sense, an engaged experience of shifting our gaze—of seeing with new eyes and building with new heart. It’s a process, first, of retraining our attention—of looking at the same old world afresh, and seeing a gift beneath the veneer of suffering and struggle and distrust and vitriol. And faith is, at the same time, the very act of building, with God, the new heavens and new earth she envisions.
When we really see, we take in the fullness and uniqueness of each person. We don’t insist that they be what we think they should be. We don’t gloss over their distinctiveness. Mary and I love the TV show “This Is Us.” Several weeks ago, the white father on the show, Jack Pearson, is having a conversation with his adoptive teenage African American son, Randall. Randall has been inspired and excited by an African American teacher of his, somebody with whom he connects really deeply. And he talks about this teacher incessantly, in glowing terms. The father, Jack, is trying to understand why this teacher is so important to Randall. Randall mentions the racial connection, and father Jack, who adores his son, struggles to understand why this matters so much to Randall. And he finally says to Randall something like, “When I look at you, I don’t see race.” And Randall looks at his father and, after a slight pause, says, “Then you don’t see me.”
Randall knows that his race is integral to who he is. And he makes it clear that well-meaning white people who say things like, “When I look at people, I don’t see color” have missed something of his essence. We are, all of us, the collection of individual characteristics that make us up. I am a straight, white, married, father, older than average, New Englander become mid-westerner. And all those characteristics, and many more, matter in knowing who I am. It’s not helpful to try to blur those particular features out in hopes of finding some universal person beneath the particularities. I am the unique conglomeration of countless individual and particular characteristics that make me the person you see in front of you. Seeing a new heaven and new earth is, at least in part, to see and accept each other as we are. As we come to the fifth anniversary of the killing of Tamir Rice here in Cleveland, that sort of seeing will be a key element in dismantling the racism that is still so tenacious in this society.
Not only are we to see differently, of course, but we’re to act differently, as well. We’re to act as though a new world of God is always coming into being. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, once said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” There is something much more important than our different opinions and lifestyles and habits. And that is that we love each other, that even in the midst of life’s turmoil and fractiousness, we will care for each other and hold each other close.
This is especially true when a church is deliberating about matters as serious as what to do with our facilities and how to live most faithfully and joyfully into the next 100 years. We are going to disagree with each other. Let’s get that through our hearts and minds. We are never going to share every thought and belief and opinion. But our work is to pay attention to something deeper, something truer, something more beautiful. God is working through us to create new heavens and a new earth. Our work is to see that new heavens and earth, and to bring it into being.
A pastor named Lyz Lenz has written a book about her life and her ministry. She writes at one point about a scene that happens “just after [she] files for divorce and moves out of her house. A friend’s father offers to bring her a secondhand chair, and she’s surprised when he shows up with a new leather chair instead. They both know that he’s more politically conservative than she is, and he awkwardly jokes about the ‘resist’ sign she’s put up on the wall. When he leaves, she gives him a box of Girl Scout cookies.
“The next day he sends her a picture of the cookies shaped into the letters R-E-S-I-S-T. Lenz finds herself weeping over ‘the hilarity and kindness’ of this gesture. She explains: ‘This feels like the most Christian thing anyone has done for me in a long while. He is a stranger who, because of the nature of the Midwest, knows me, knows all about my mistakes and my mess, who might even fundamentally disagree with my politics, but here he is, generous and kind, reassuring and self-effacing’” (https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/why-did-lyz-lenz-s-church-fail-why-do-so-many-others).
This is what it is to live into the new heaven and new earth God is bringing into being. We see each other with fresh eyes, kind eyes, eyes that know in every other human being a sister or brother, a kindred spirit who is grace incarnate. And not only do we see differently, but we act differently, as well. I tend to you and pay attention to you and feed you when you’re hungry. And you tend to me and pay attention to me and feed me when I’m hungry. “Pay close attention now: [God is] creating new heavens and a new earth” (65:17, The Message). Look. Jump in. By the grace of God, it’s happening.