copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder
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.
The title for this sermon comes from a song by the band called the Eagles from a few decades back,1) about 3½ decades now, to be more precise. Some of you may remember it. The song’s title line was set to a rather persistent melody and tended to stay in your head, which is probably why it has stayed in mine for all these years. If you are not familiar with the song, just take my word for it, no need to rush out and buy it. The refrain declares, over and over again:
“Welcome to the Hotel California.”
And then in the final line from the song, a line that tends to stay with you:
“...you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
This song came to my mind when I began thinking about the context of the first recipients of the hope-filled message of Isaiah in the reading we shared today. In the beginning of the chapter from which we read, God declared,
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
Apparently, the folks in Israel had become accustomed to God’s absence. At least they had become accustomed to thinking of God as absent. I recall playing hide and seek when I was a child, the sort of memory that many of you will likely share. There was always the danger of hiding yourself away too well, of being ready to be sought out by those who do not seek, of finally needing to cry out, “Here I am!” to those who had either accidentally or purposefully overlooked you. Perhaps that is the way God felt about his chosen people.
The end of Isaiah’s prophecy addresses a people in the thrall of futility and depression. They had been to Babylon in its heyday. They knew what a major empire looked like. Now they were home again from their exile, and their capital city looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than a seat of empire.
Yet like a losing coach on the sideline, who alone among the downcast figures on the field knows that there will be a better day in the future, Isaiah’s prophecy declared that it is precisely in the midst of spiritual depression and futility that people of faith must remain faithful. Judah had been characterized as a people who followed “their own devices,” serving as a law unto themselves. This sounds familiar to anyone in our own time who tries to establish community norms for behavior while the popular ethic of the day declares that individualism is the highest philosophical good and that no one can tell us what to do.
In 587 B.C., the people had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and removed from Judah into Babylon, what is now Iraq. There they remained for 49 years, an entire generation, the best and brightest of the chosen people walking the narrow byways of a Jewish ghetto in Babylon until, in 538 B.C., the Persians became the dominant empire in the Fertile Crescent and by edict of the Emperor Cyrus,2) exiled peoples were all returned to their original homelands. For those 49 years in captivity, it must have seemed as if they had checked into the “Hotel California,” where you could “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
And though they had been eager to get back to the homeland their parents and grandparents had told them so much about, things didn’t change all that much from their Spartan living conditions in Babylon. They arrived back in the homeland their forebears had left 40 years before – having heard all those stories around the hearth of a beautiful land, a fertile land, a glorious Temple – only to find the land a shambles, the Temple reduced to little more than a pile of stones, fertile fields sown with salt, ruin everywhere they looked. A new Temple was slapped together, but it was apparently a shabby structure when compared with the Temple of Solomon. Where were the cedar timbers? Where were the gold fittings? Gone. All gone. Then, after almost 50 years of struggle to make a new life in the old ruined homeland, it must have seemed as if they had come again to a place where you could “check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.”
So, you have people trapped in an existence which is grueling at best, a future that looked like nothing but more of the same, a past which, as long as anyone alive could remember, was pretty much like the present they now knew. All that remained of the glory of God’s chosen people now were stories from their great grandparents, stories of other times when Israel was great. Their remembered stories of the beauties of Mount Zion, now seen with their own eyes, seemed little more than a fairy tale.
Then came Isaiah, with his lofty and extravagant vision of a whole creation made new, an end to tears, a new beginning. Did they think he was crazy? Apparently they did not, at least not ultimately, as they preserved and handed down his words so that we can share them today. It is seers like Isaiah who provide humanity with a view of what can be when humanity’s vision has become limited and earth-bound. When we are overwhelmed with the feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be, Isaiah tells us of the way things will be in the kingdom of a God who never forgets his love for his people.
How would that look in our present world? One writer said that if we tried on as fantastic a vision for our times as Isaiah presented to his we would find that nations and races in this brave new world would treasure differences in other nations and races as attractive, important, complementary. Government officials would still take office, but, to nobody’s surprise, they would tell the truth and freely praise the virtues of other public officials. Public spaces like parks and playgrounds would be left intact. Highway overpasses would be graffiti-free. Motorists would be serene and polite to one another on city streets, secure in the knowledge that, with former gang members all now enrolled in law school, they need not fear to venture out. Business associates would rejoice in each others’ promotions. Newspapers and internet sites would be filled with well-written accounts of acts of great moral beauty.3)
If any of this makes us smile knowingly, recognizing as we do that this is the stuff of dreams, not reality, then we are likely in company with those who first received this prophecy from Isaiah.
But how is it that we know when things are wrong in our world? How do we know for sure that it is not right to abuse one another, to live for self only, to pocket the public’s money? We only know these things to be wrong not because there is a perfect nation or state somewhere to which we compare our own faulty one, but because, together, we know an ideal, a vision of the way things are supposed to be. No matter how the world actually is, all of us carry inside our heads a dream or a picture of the way things should be. We may like to play the cynic sometimes, but we only know ourselves to be cynical in those moments because we have a feel for the truth of the world that God intended to bring into being. Meanwhile, however, we’re stuck with this one.
As I look at Isaiah’s vision for the world I recognize that I am struck by the total newness of it. It opens with God’s declaration, “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth...” and concludes with a line about “the serpent – its food shall be dust.”4) To speak of a new heaven and earth is to speak of a new creation and the suffering that followed upon the very first act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. It is to peel back the history of humanity’s suffering through its sins, beyond the wrong-doing of the present generation, or even Isaiah’s generation, back to “the original point of rupture between God and God’s people.”5) For the former things to be put away for good, God must begin again. As another song of the late 70’s put it, “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Problem is, we can’t get back there ourselves. To do that, we need an act of God.
We dedicate our pledges of support to the church today, and in doing so we offer a communal vision of the world as it should be. By our very act of pledging from our livelihoods to the work of this congregation we make a statement of belief about the way God intended things to be in this world, and commit ourselves to stand with God and one another to bring such a world to pass. Don’t let go of that vision because it is God’s business to bring it about instead of ours. Cherish it. It is not false or wrong simply because everything good thing has not yet come fully to fruition, any more than the inventions yet to come in this 21st century are false or wrong because we have not invented them yet. They are out there. They will be discovered.
Remember the verse from the beginning of Isaiah with which we began this morning?
I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
In light of that, one promise in Isaiah’s vision stands out more than all the rest:
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
This is the gift that a community of faith has to offer the world. The gift of hope, hope grounded in a God who is bigger than our most profound perceptions of him yet who is so ready to respond to us that his answer already awaits our asking. The community of faith – as it celebrates its baptism into the kingdom of God – gives to the world a vision of God’s coming purpose for creation in which wolves and lambs will feed together, where harm and destruction will no longer characterize our existence. That such a day is coming is our confession, and the vision of it rules our actions and our lives in the time in between that day and this.
1) 1976, in an album by the same name.
2) Whom the Lord names as “my anointed” in Isaiah 45:1.
3) Thanks to Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “Not the Way It’s S’pposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” Theology Today, July, 1993, p. 183 for central ideas in this paragraph.
4) Genesis 3:14.
5) New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI, Abingdon, 2001, p. 544.