A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 14, 2010.
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who ides at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
The challenges, frustrations, anxieties, and other stuff we experience often make it hard to believe in anything better. We seem beset by so many catastrophes, calamities, heartbreaks, tragedies, scandals, and other problems that it’s hard to hope for daylight in the face of so much darkness.
So the passage from Isaiah 65 seems outrageous. Even before we get to the part about the wolf and lamb feeding together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the serpent having dust for its food, it’s hard not to dismiss what we are reading as fanciful thinking by someone with no clue about how tough life really is.
And then we read the last three words—”says the LORD.” Wait a minute! God is speaking in this passage. God’s vision for us is drastically different from the mess we’re going through. God’s promised reality is very different from our experience. Surely God must know how tough living is for us. Surely God understands that this notion of reality is radically different from anything we know.
In our reality wolves are predators and lambs are prey. In our world, lions don’t eat straw like oxen because they are carnivores—meat eaters. In our world, snakes consume other creatures after using venom to kill them or by crushing them to death. It’s hard to see life being any different from this because there is so much violence, oppression, and sinister stuff happening. If God isn’t crazy and hasn’t been misrepresented in this passage, then we must somehow reconcile God’s fantastic notion of reality with living as we know it.
When this passage was written the Hebrew people had seen their lives and outlook clouded by war, economic hardship, agricultural failures, and moral lapses. They knew about disappointment, frustration, and anxiety. And God knew about it, because God speaks of the sound of weeping, the cry of distress, children dying in infancy, and adults not living to the full extent of their days. In this passage, God claims to know about the pain that comes when one works to build something only to lose it for someone else to inhabit, or when one plants only to be unable to harvest what has been sown. So what are we to learn?
God understands what we’re going through! God knows how we hurt. God understands what frightens us, distresses us, and saddens us. God knows how the strong overpower the weak (wolves and lambs). God knows there are ravenous and violent forces in our world (lions versus oxen). And God knows there are snakes—not just the reptiles that slide out of the ground but also the low-living, low-thinking, and lowdown humans that scheme and lurk and strike fear, hate, hardship, suffering, and death into our efforts, dreams, hopes, and relationships. God is not a lunatic or a fool. God knows what we’re going through.
God has something better for us! We’ve been chased and beaten by so many wolves, exposed to so many lions, bitten and crushed by so many snakes, and witnessed so much suffering, disappointment, frustration, and pain that it’s easier to despair than to believe life can be better. Just when we might think it’s safe to hope [remember the hope following the 2008 presidential election] somehow new wolves, lions, snakes, and problems crop up to afflict us [Tea Party and all] and dash whatever hopefulness we have for a better world.
But God’s not asking us to hope humans will produce a better world. When we read about the wonderful reality God envisions, notice that it’s God’s creation, not a human production. I am about to create new heavens and a new earth [says the LORD] (Is. 65:17). …[B]e glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…for I am about to create (Is. 65:18). In the Hebrew Testament, the verb that we translate “create” in verses 17 and 18 only refers to God. God is always the subject, the actor, the force that makes the new reality—not humanity (not the politicians, bankers, warriors, or else).
The better world that God envisions doesn’t result because humans will it or deliver it on our own, but because God will do it. The better reality God presents is based on what God can and promises God will do, not what God says humans can and will do on our own.
· God promises a new reality that is healthy, not sickly.
· God promises a new reality that is joyful, not grievous.
· God promises a new reality that is safe, not dangerous.
· God promises a new reality for that is fruitful, not frustrating and futile.
· God promises a new reality that is harmonious. In God’s promised new world former predators no longer threaten their former prey, violence no longer threatens the creation, and sinister forces pose no risks to peaceful living. God promises to create a new reality in the world. The old will be transformed into God’s new by the power of God and the people of God will experience it!
God’s promised reality is so radically different from our experience that it seems unnatural. But the problem is that we’ve defined what is “natural.” God’s natural is our notion of fantastic because our “natural” is not God’s normal. God’s promised reality is the divine “normal.” The problem is that we’ve come to define “natural” as wolves eating lambs, not eating with them. We’ve come to define the lion’s violent nature as “natural.” We’ve come to define what God terms dysfunctional as “natural” so long that we’re surprised to learn that our “natural” is not God’s normal. God promises to transform our “natural.”
God calls us to live trusting what God has promised. One temptation is to dismiss God’s vision of a new reality as lunacy or fraud. But we’re also tempted to adopt a “sit around and wait” approach by either living as moochers or busybodies.
We see moochers when we encounter people who are more interested in hustling the world than transforming it. And we customarily think of “moochers” as the people who ask us for money when we think they should be working. But that’s our prejudice working. Moochers also include the people who work at hustling other workers. The folks on Wall Street who took the U.S. and world economy into a tailspin were busy hustling investments they knew were worthless. They pushed worthless investments onto people knowing they’d eventually while managing to avoid suffering harm themselves. We should include such people when we think of “moochers.”
Then there are the moochers who sit around like sponges soaking up whatever God provides but who don’t want to commit themselves to God’s ongoing work of transforming existing inequities into the wonderful future God envisions. Moochers are “sit around and wait” people—they’re sitting around waiting for the rapture, their lottery number, or something else.
Religious busybodies are also “sit around and wait” people. Judging from what Paul wrote at 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, some followers of Jesus were just sitting around waiting for Jesus to return. They weren’t partners with God’s creative work of transforming reality. They were just religious spectators. Paul had this to say about those religious busybodies. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thess. 3:11-13).
You and I aren’t to sit around and wait on God to transform the present into God’s future. We’re part of what God is doing! We’re co-workers with God in transforming the world that is into the wonderful world God has promised. If we trust God then we must live now for the future God has promised.
This is living that turns the world upside down because God is working to transform all that is into all God wants the world to be. This is living that loves, hopes, forgives, serves, sacrifices, heals, and transforms. We can’t ignore suffering, oppression, sickness, violence, and sinister systems and people because God calls us to see the harsh realities of this age. Yet God also calls us to see God’s wonderful vision for a transformed world of joy, peace, justice, and harmony and become active servants of that joy, peace, justice, and harmony now.
My childhood elders always lived in a world where black people weren’t respected. But they believed God would transform that world. They didn’t know how or when God would do it. They just made us learn all we could, conduct ourselves with as much dignity as we could, and love ourselves and others despite segregation. They trusted God’s truth despite the lies of racism. They affirmed God’s love even when hateful forces kept showing up. They nurtured us to live, hope, love, and prepare for a better world so we’d be ready when God delivered it. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, we were ready because we had been living by faith.
Beloved, God has a better world for us. God calls us to believe in that better world. And God calls us to live in loving hopefulness so we’ll be ready when God transforms the world we see into a far better world.
Are we living for the world God is creating?
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.