Read Isaiah 65:17-25
Note: Reference is made to a baptism celebrated prior to the sermon.
This is the time in the church year when the set Bible readings focus on the time of fulfilment, culmination; the realisation of the Kingdom of God, and the Old Testament reading today is one such. Isaiah offers a vision that reminds us of the ideals for which we hope, and for which we believe God would have us strive. The ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to the transforming power of the Spirit within each of us.
New heavens. New earth. Wow! New possibilities for human society, now. In fact, the baptism we celebrated to day is a ritual expression of this concept, for it symbolises the old life giving way to the new life in Christ; the ‘new being’ St. Paul describes. Baptism is where the new earth starts.
We will soon be hearing again the Christmas stories of the gospels announce the culmination of hopes and yearnings of the sort that gave rise to our passage from Isaiah. One of the functions of these stories, according to the authors of The First Christmas, is subversion. Like the parables of Jesus, they were meant to undermine the existing paradigm or mind-set by which people understood reality at the time, and give them a new way of seeing. A new way of seeing, a fresh perspective, is the first step to a new way of being and doing.
It has troubled me for a long time that this time of the church year has lost its punch. The end of the church year on Christ the King Sunday (which is next week) speaks of fulfilment, often in terms of a second coming in some unannounced future. Then Advent/Christmas (which starts the week after next week) announces the first coming in millennia past. While both are on about something new, past and future, little change, in fact, ever comes into the present. So if the intent was to subvert the existing order, the Christmas stories have failed. They have lost their punch.
The point of our reading from Isaiah is that the Lord will refashion a creation for the faithful in which all things—absolutely everything—will be made new. No longer will the ruling class elite own the majority of the world’s wealth. No longer will the genius of the masses become the capital of a rich minority. No longer will the poor be those who work, and the rich those who enslave others to do their work.
Isaiah was written 2500 years ago, but I’m still waiting. Now to be fair to the message of Advent, it must be said that one of the functions of faith is to allow us to wait patiently. Inevitably church-goers will hear at least one sermon each Advent season that encourages patience while waiting; however, Advent encourages a special kind of waiting: waiting with anticipation and expectation based upon the hope that faith instills. To wait in expectant anticipation for the Kingdom of God is not to twiddle one’s thumbs in a state of pacified contentment, but to act in anticipation; that is, to make our moment-to-moment choices as if the Kingdom is coming tomorrow, instead of living according to old habits formed by living in the kingdoms of this world. And so we start off the new church year patiently, yes, but with certain expectations, based upon what we believe about God and God’s kingdom, particularly as defined by the life of Jesus, whose birth is the first event in our Advent waiting.
At this end of the church year, after Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, we have had almost a year of waiting, and if we have been faithful Jesus-people, a year of acting according to our expectations of the Kingdom. One might expect that with all Christians acting out life in the Kingdom, life in this world will have changed for the better. Hmmm! I don’t know about you, but I am still waiting.
Perhaps we still wait because we expect that someone else will do the work; that a Messiah will come with divine power to magically change things. This is what some Jews believed at the time of Jesus, and when Jesus didn’t change anything, the early church came up with the idea that he would come again soon and finish the job. These days there are some who cling to this belief even still. One thing history has taught me is, as long as people expect someone else to change something for them, the status quo will prevail; because whoever has the power and wealth in the status quo, will strive to maintain power and wealth.
Listen to this passage about the expected Messiah from a Dead Sea Scroll found at Qumran:
He will be called Son of God, and they will call him Son of the Most High. Like sparks of a vision, so will their kingdoms be; they will rule several years over the earth and crush everything; a people will crush another people, and city another city, until the people of God arise and make everyone rest from the sword. (repeat italics)
In other words, the Messiah will come bringing vision, promise, hope, sowing the seeds for a new day, but the world’s kingdoms will continue to rage, as they still do today, until the people of God arise and make the vision a reality.
The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with the Divine Presence.
The Book of Genesis tells us that on the seventh say of creation when God rested from the divine project of creating everything, God sat back and said, “By golly, that’s damn good!” or something like that. It was – it is – very good in God’s opinion.
Now perhaps God was a bit biased when he passed judgment on the handiwork of creation. Few, if any, people today would say that everything about the world was hunky-dory, what with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, disease, not to mention the pain that is self-inflicted by the chosen species that was made in God’s likeness. After all, Isaiah hardly would have had to pen those poetic words that we heard this morning if everything was as “very good” as God said it was.
But I want to affirm, in faith, that it is. God’s creation is indeed very good. All that prevents creation from being what God intended are the barriers that people like you and I erect, and all that is required for God’s kingdom to be manifest is for the same people to tear those barriers down. The disasters we see in the world about us every day are not what will determine the future of God’s creation. People like you and I are. Neither terrorist activity nor the exercise of military power will hold sway in God’s order of things, unless we fail to act to create a just society. Political deception will have no place, nor will abuse within the family or workplace unless we allow it. The selfish exploitation and neglect of nature only happens with our permission.
“The good news (i.e. the Gospel) is an eschatological proclamation, i.e. it declares that that which was expected to happen at the end time has here and now begun to take effect through Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, through the future that it proclaims, the gospel denies that which is operative in the present. In this sense, “gospel” and “revolution” are analogous, for revolution is a transforming movement from what is to what ought to be; it actively seeks to make an is out of an ought. Therefore a Christian is a maker of revolution, not just a talker about it.”
Davies seems to be saying that you cannot rightly wear the badge, “Christian,” if you do not also wear the label, “revolutionary.” Rose and Tom, I bet you didn’t realise that in asking to have Georgia, and Jasmine before her, baptised, you were enlisting your daughters in the largest, most radical revolutionary movement in history.
David Buttrick tells the story of an impoverished black woman deep in bayous of Louisiana, who had raised over a dozen children, most of them adopted and foster children. When a journalist asked her why she had done this, she replied, “‘Cause I seen a new world a ‘comin’.” Now she was a revolutionary.
This is what the writer of Isaiah 65 looks toward. He looks not so much to the making new of the physical world, as to the renewing of the relationships and interconnections within the world which maintain life in its physical, spiritual, social and other dimensions. This is the Christian hope, and it is the Christmas gift that we, the church, give to God’s world. And believe me, this is a gift that packs a punch.