This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on November 13th, 2016.
The prophets often provide a good amount of challenging statements. Moments of despair and mourning fill the pages. But, also interspersed in the texts, are moments of hope. The prophets teach us that life is often an intermingling of despair and hope. Yet, in this selection from Isaiah a vision of hope prevails for the nation of Israel. Hope wins out in the end after so much despair.
The passage begins with God offering to build “a new heaven and a new earth.” The idea of ‘newness’ is a powerful one. Often we have read newness as a way of escape. We can leave behind this old-world to go on to a new place. Aided by our disposable culture, we feel that the old world will just be discarded. Yet newness can be read in a different way in this text. The old creation does not cease mattering. After all, just as we are part of that old creation, we will also be a part of the new. Likewise, this account is filled with references to the current creation. Jerusalem, vineyards, and animals are mentioned. This new creation seems to have elements of recreation and reimagining to it. The old creation will not so much be discarded as healed and remade.
Our world can seem broken beyond repair. At times we can feel overwhelmed by the mess of it all. Some scholars point out that this section of Isaiah was written to former exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Whether they were still in exile or had returned back to a world not quite like they pictured it, one can imagine that these words of hope helped to sustain them. So what do we do with the world we have been given? How do we move forward with hope when the world around us seems so broken? The answer seems to rest in the image that Isaiah wants to bring. This image calls us to reimagine the world around us in new ways.
The beginning of the text starts off with the large idea of God creating “Jerusalem as a joy.” The new creation will be one of rejoicing and delighting. From this larger image, the passage moves to wonderfully specific pictures of what this new creation will look like. Infants will not die. The old will live long lives. The people’s houses and food will not be taken from them. The author takes every day all too real misfortune and subverts the image. Many of these pictures resonate today. Some, like having a vineyard, might not hold up as well, but even so, the importance behind the images remains. The author of the texts wants the reader to imagine a world beyond the usual restraints that everyday life provides. The responses to the world around our churches can easily fall into a resignation that things ‘are how they are’. The picture of this “holy mountain” tells how things should be within God’s reign.
The call to reimagine is a bold one. Admittedly, these images of hope can be as challenging as they are encouraging. One can be deeply moved by a picture of a lion eating straw with an ox. This embodiment of peace really cuts across time. Yet, the fact remains that the world around the church is still one of violence. Preaching from this text involves the tricky step of expressing the ‘not yet’ nature of this image. Like the original audience, our world is very much not yet the picture of this mountain. The preacher of Isaiah 65 has to bridge these pictures into the world today. How one creates this bridge is anchored in the ideas of hope and imagination.
When we talk about hope, it often takes the form of wishful thought on a desired outcome. While an appropriate use of the word in everyday exchange, this definition of hope does not apply to well to the text at hand. Hope in this text is more a confident belief in outcome despite present circumstances. The hope of the people of Israel becomes the belief that God will one day set up things to be the way they should be. Hope for our present day can be the same. The creation of this hope is where imagination becomes so important. Rather than just thinking unrealistic thoughts, imagination lets us picture what could be. It gives us something to hope for in the midst of the everyday.
The question of application still remains with this text. One should not understate the importance of imagination and hope, but we should also take the conversation one step further and ask, “what can one do concretely?” When approaching a text from the Old Testament, there should always be caution to let it exist first in its own framework. Still, the connections with the picture of the Kingdom of God found the New Testament might be helpful. The hope for this kingdom is often expressed in a willingness to help make the world look more like Jesus describes. In a similar way, the picture of Isaiah can call the hearer towards helping to make the world more like the picture of the mountain. Only God can bring about this new creation, but we can participate in creating glimpses of it until he does. Imagine what those glimpses might be.
Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Virginia
Tags: hope, imagination, prophetic literature, vision, peace