11/13/16: Visions of the Kingdom, Isaiah 65:17-23
Visions of the Kingdom
First Lesson: Isaiah 12:1-6
Second Lesson: Isaiah 65:17-25
Rev. Scott Dickison
I’ll confess that following the election on Tuesday, when I began to plan for today, in between surgeries and pain medications, one of the first things I thought about was how even as we gathered in this common space this morning, many of us were going to be in very different places.
I thought about those within our congregation who would meet the results this week with satisfaction. Who may not approve of everything Mr. Trump says or does, in fact, often times they don’t, but who nonetheless think his approach is what our country needs at the moment—perhaps especially given the alternative.
And I thought about those among us on the other side of things, who would greet these results with shock, disappointment, and even great sadness. Who thought Secretary Clinton’s experience and temperament would better serve us, perhaps especially given the alternative.
And I thought too of others who refused to choose between “two evil” as we’ve heard it put, and made their own way. When I first imagined how it would feel when we gathered this morning, I’ll confess I started with this assumption that even as we gathered, we’d be in different places.
But as the week went on, I realized that this was wrong.
Not that I was wrong about our congregation having a range of views on these things, and casting different ballots this past Tuesday or before—that is certainly true— but wrong to focus first on what would separate us. Because even though we may be in different places as we gather this morning, the fact remains that we have nonetheless gathered here together, amen?
You see, one of the things about our congregation that I’m most grateful for, and that I know is special to many of you, is the fact that within these pews each and every Sunday you’ll find folks representing so many different positions: political, social, economic, theological and otherwise. I believe this is one of the things that makes our congregation so unique, and so important. Rarely do folks of different opinions gather as we do each week, which is one of the reasons our nation is so torn. I believe the fact that we do is important, and even think of it as a small gift we can offer our community. It’s something I cherish, but let’s not pretend that it’s not also a challenge, and we don’t always do it as well as we could.
We come from different places and points of view and sides of the political spectrum, but we’ve nonetheless gathered here this morning, as we do each and every Sunday, most Wednesdays, and other days in between, because despite all those other identities we carry, we all claim to be followers of Jesus Christ first. Before we’re Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians or whatever other party we could choose. Before we’re Georgians or Americans or male or female, black, white or brown, before we’re old or young, straight or gay, or any other identity we would claim, we claim to be followers of Christ first. We gather because despite our differences, which are real, and the divisions that would be imposed upon us and that we confess we too often choose, we take seriously our calling to be one body, beautiful and broken as we are.
We don’t all vote the same, and we respect that people vote for a variety of motives—we can’t be so arrogant as to assume we’ve got everyone figured out and labeled so we can write them off, let’s not fall in that trap. We know that there is much upon which we disagree as people and citizens of this country, but as citizens of a different Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, which we claim is breaking into the world even now, there are many things upon which we do agree—and this is why we’ve gathered here this morning, this common vision. And it’s why I’ve found hope in these words from the prophet Isaiah assigned to us this week.
This passage comes from the very end of the book of Isaiah, which isn’t the work of one prophet but is a collection of prophetic commentary that covers some 250 years of history: empires rising and falling, the forging of political alliances and their failing, wars and rumors of war, and finally the Israelites being sent away into exile into Babylon. And now some generations later, coming home. And at the end of all of this, not just that moment in their history, but looking back over these generations and generations of history, and perhaps even looking ahead to future generations and even us, God gives the prophet this vision that calls them and us to something greater: the Kingdom of God that we all gather here to seek, and covenant to work toward as best we can in the time we’re given.
And what makes this vision so powerful and beautiful is that it’s utterly grounded in this world. The church has tended to over-spiritualize the good news and make it all about what happens after we die, but this vision that God imagines through the prophet Isaiah is much more concerned with what kind of life we’ll lead and make for each other in the time we have together here on earth. Listen carefully to what he imagines:
For I’m about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind…
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 dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
In this world that God imagines, no more babies will die. How simple, but how powerful. People will live long, full lives. This vision is defined by life and health for all people, old and young. It goes on:
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat; … my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
Do you hear this? In this Kingdom God imagines through the prophet people will have work to do—good, honest work that they and their families can be proud of. Did you ever think of heaven as having good work to do, something to do with your life? But isn’t it? Isaiah knows that true fulfillment comes from self-worth, and self-worth comes from having an opportunity to put one’s gifts to good use. To feel productive and needed; to feel valued.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
This vision of life and prosperity can only end in peace. A restoring of the harmony of nature and all things. God has longed for all along. This is the vision of the coming Kingdom that God imagines through the prophet: a world of life, of fulfillment in the work of our hands, and of peace. A world where everyone has a place.
And it’s this vision that Jesus has in mind when he says that if you want to make it so, begin with loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as yourself. Show love to the least of these, Jesus says, and you will bring something of this Kingdom into view. Work for peace and justice, act in love, live in hope of these things, and the Kingdom is here.
And this is what binds us together. Whatever differences we have in how best to work for this vision, we can’t lose sight of this vision of the Kingdom, this commitment to doing our best to live in gospel light, that keeps us close. And none of this changed with the election, amen? This vision of the Kingdom and our calling as God’s people didn’t change with this outcome, and wouldn’t have changed with any other outcome. Which isn’t to say there aren’t real consequences to elections—there always are. But our calling as Christians remains the same regardless of who’s elected, which is to work for this Kingdom. To be signs of it.
Which is why it’s my great hope in this season ahead of us that we’ll see people of faith from across the political divide come together to recommit themselves to work for this vision and seek these things for all people. And when necessary, stand up in opposition to those who would call us to the lesser things of fear, violence, hatred and further separation. We can’t be so divided that we can’t condemn evil together when we see it. One of the gifts of elections is that they offer us a time to reflect, regroup, and recommit ourselves to the common good. If we’re to do this as a nation, I believe it must begin with the people of God. This is what we must believe in the church. It cannot end here, but it must begin with us.
And finally, I was reminded this week of a story I’ve heard in different forms, but remember best as told by John Claypool, the Baptist-turned Episcopalian who was friend and mentor to many in on congregation. (1)
As the story goes, an old Chinese peasant farmer owned a single horse on which he depended for almost everything. One afternoon out in the fields, a bee stung the horse on its neck and, in panic, the animal ran away into the hills behind the farmer’s house. The old man tried to head him off, but couldn’t keep up, so as the sun set that night, he had to go home and tell his wife that his beloved horse had run away.
Wherever the old farmer went during the next week, his neighbors would shake their heads and say, “Sure sorry to hear about your misfortune, losing your horse,” and the old farmer would shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, we’ll see.” A week later, to his amazement, his beloved horse reappeared, accompanied by six wild horses he had met high on the sloped, and the farmer was able to corral all of them. Now, everywhere he went his neighbors would say, “So glad to hear about your good fortune in getting all those horses,” and he would shrug and reply, “Well, we’ll see.”
His son was eager to try and break in these wild horses, however he had never done this kind of work before, and was thrown from one of them and broke bis leg in three places—a terrible injury. Word spread throughout the community again, and everywhere the old farmer went for the next week, his neighbors would say, “So sorry to hear about your misfortune, your boy getting hurt,” and again, the old man would shrug and reply, “Well, we’ll see.”
Two weeks later, a war broke out between the city-states of interior China, and the army conscripted every able-bodied young man to go and fight. Of course, the farmer’s son would have been conscripted too if not for his injury, but was allowed to stay behind. As it happened, every other villager who was conscripted was up killed in battle. When word spread of these events, the farmer’s neighbors all said, “So glad to hear of your good fortune, your boy being spared,” and the old man once again replied, “Well, we’ll see.”
I don’t take this story to suggest that there’s nothing at stake at the crucial junctures of our lives. I take it as a reminder that it really is how Paul says and that “we see in a mirror dimly lit.” God is always at work in our lives and in the world in ways we can’t fully understand or explain. Which should guard us against any kind of shortsighted triumphalism, but also against any kind of despair, which is just presumptuous. As Claypool says, despair is always presumptuous.
There’s always more going on around us that we’re aware. God always has more in store for us than what we perceive in the moment. The Kingdom of God is at hand! it reaches out for us, and reaches out for our neighbor. The question is and has always been if and how we will reach out to it; if and how we will reach out to them. Amen.
(1) As told by John Claypool in The Hopeful Heart, 20-23