We finished the season of creation a couple of weeks ago at Bethany with a beautiful text from Isaiah. Isaiah describes God’s vision for us, and sets it all on a mountain. Out here in the northwest, we know about mountains.
Thoughts on Isaiah’s words after the jump.
Wow, that’s beautiful. With just a couple hundred words, this prophet we call Isaiah has sketched the shape of the world as God intends it to be. There will no longer be weeping or mourning. Our days will be like the days of the trees—long, stable, well watered. No one will labor in vain. Before we call, God will answer. God’s peace will extend even to the animals. This is how it will be on my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Deep in our bones we long for this. We long for a world where no one is taken before their time, where our work has meaning and durability, where God comes close, and all is right.
And yet, how can it possibly be? It is tempting to assume this is about somewhere else—the new heaven, the new earth, an alternate universe. But the prophet is insistent, this newness that God is bringing about is not just cosmic, but also specific and tied to the real world. Jerusalem is at the center of it, as it always is in the biblical imagination. Jerusalem will be a joy, and her people a source of gladness.
That’s as unlikely as anything else in this passage. Can we even imagine? Jerusalem? War-torn, fought over, check-point-studded, wall-divided Jerusalem—a joy? How could that be?
I wonder if the idea was just as unlikely to the first people to hear this stunning prophecy. Their home would have been Jerusalem, but they would have been far from home. They were in exile, refugees and captives in Babylon. They had built homes and watched them be destroyed. They had seen the work of their hands cast to the winds. They had born many babies into a world of horrors, and watched brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends be cut down before their time. How could Jerusalem be a joy? I wonder if they despaired of even seeing Jerusalem again. Could our skepticism even begin to approach what theirs must have been?
And yet. And yet this prophecy stands as testimony to the hope that endured among those people in that time. Maybe for you today it sounds like a drink of cool water, like the very thing for which you’ve been thirsting. Maybe for you today it sounds like the insubstantial stuff of pipe dreams. Either way, let’s entertain this hope of our ancestors for a few minutes. As they understood it, this is God’s intention for the world, this is the shape of things to come.
If God has God’s way, what will the world look like?
In short, God intends for our lives together to be in ordered in such a way that we all have access to life and the resources that make life good.
No longer will our world be marked by weeping, distress, and untimely death. In a reversal of the curse from Genesis, no longer will children be born into a world of suffering and misery. There will be an absence of the violence that takes lives too young—the wars that rob us of our young men and women, and that rob too many of them of their limbs or minds. There will be an absence of the kind of violence that stalks at home, the abuse that children face, the violence that affects more than one in four women, the bullying that haunts our young people.
But more than just an absence of violence, God intends that society will be ordered in such a way that the most vulnerable members—children and infants—have all they need to thrive. There will be clean water so that cholera doesn’t kill. There will be plenty to eat, and food justly distributed so that none go hungry. Health care will be available so that common illnesses no longer plague the poorest and weakest. Our world will be arranged so that parents have the time and the ability and the freedom to love and cuddle and teach their children.
When those children grow up, they will build homes and live in them. No more refugees will be made to leave in the middle of the night. There will be no more foreclosures.
This is not a Never Never Land where no one has to work, and we all sit by the pool and eat bon-bons. There is work, but the best kind of work: the kind that lasts, the kind that has meaning, the kind that leads to life for the worker, and life for the people around.
Walter Brueggemann described the vision here as “a society with a sustained infrastructure in which life is not endlessly at risk.” (Isaiah vol 2, 247)
What that means is, it is not magic or miracle that will keep babies from dying. It is the form of the society, the way in which God’s people live together. When God has God’s way, our society will be arranged so that each baby, each young child, each adult, each elder who is eighty or ninety or a hundred years old, each life is nurtured, cared for, cherished and tended to in concrete ways by all of us.
In this world, God will be so close that even before we cry out, God will be there. This peace will be so pervasive that even the wolf and the lamb will lie down together. That’s how it will be on God’s mountain. This, says Isaiah, is the shape of things to come.
So, How do we respond to a vision like that?
Do we throw up our hands and say, because I cannot see it, because I can scarcely imagine it, it can’t possibly be true?
You know, when Joseph and I first visited Tacoma it was in January, and then in March, and then we moved here in the middle of May. So, as you can imagine, it was cloudy during those early days. Folks kept saying, the mountain is beautiful. Just wait ‘till the mountain comes out. But the first week and the second week went by, and all I could see were the nearby low peaks of the Cascades. By the third week, I began thinking, maybe I’ve misunderstood. Maybe Mount Ranier is just one of those peaks way off in the distance, but none of those seems like a big deal to me. It must not be as big as I thought. And then, toward the end of my third week here, I came up to the round-about at Stevens and caught a glimpse between two houses of an enormous snow-capped peak. I nearly ran off the road. Oh – that’s the mountain.
It was way, way more than I could have imagined. And it was certainly way more than the substitute mountains I started looking for. It still takes my breath away. I look for it on my morning runs, and as the sun sets, when we drive north to Seattle, or when I fly back here from somewhere else. Even when we go weeks without seeing it, we know it’s there. It is the central landmark around which our lives are oriented.
I love that Isaiah used this image of a mountain here, because as we wonder how to respond to this unlikely vision, I think it’s similar to how we live with Mount Ranier.
When it is cloudy and we can’t see how Isaiah’s vision could possibly be true, can shake our heads and say, no way; a mountain like that must be a fairytale. We can settle for a smaller peak. Or we can wait, trust, strain for glimpses of it everywhere we look. We can trust that though we cannot see all of it, God’s kingdom will come. And we can orient our lives around this mountain.
If we choose to do that, then this vision of how it will be when God has God’s way will shape not just our theology and our dreams, but also our practical, every-day lives. If this is God’s intent for the world, that no babies die from hunger, then we will want to think carefully about what do with our food and our resources in our homes, in our town, in our country, and internationally. We will share, even like the boy with five loaves and two fish, sacrificially and totally. If it is God’s intent that our days will be like the days of the trees, long and fruitful, with few that live to be less than a hundred, then we will want to find ways to honor our elders, ensuring that they have the resources to age with dignity, and we will take time to sit and learn from their wisdom. If it is God’s intent that young women and young men are no longer cut down in violence, then we will want to consider carefully how we contribute to violence, and when we choose to wage war. We will look to Jesus, the One who came not with a sword, but who was crucified, and there find our salvation.
If we live as if we see this mountain clear as day, it will orient us toward life–life for ourselves, but even more, life for our neighbors.
This vision, this beautiful, amazing vision may not come to pass in its entirety in our lives. But that does not make it any less true. This, friends, is the shape of things to come. We can choose to live as if it were false, as if it were not here—but just like Mount Ranier, behind the clouds, it is still there. Or we can choose to live as if we see it every day; we can choose to make this mountain the center of our lives, the peak to which we aspire, the goal of our striving. And we will pray with hope and strong faith, May your kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven. May it so be.by Sarah W. Wiles September 30, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA