Wednesday, December 01, 2010

God is Here to Help

Isa. 65:17-25; Isa. 12[1]

There are a lot of things I think the church has gotten backwards. Whoever came up with the bright idea that the way to motivate people to do better at life was to tell them just how rotten they are? That always worked for me and my kids—NOT! And where is it written that the way to convince people to have faith in God is to threaten them with horrible torture—for all eternity! And why in the world did they depict God as one who essentially hates the vast majority of the people who have ever lived?

Well, I think this also applies to popular notions about the end of the world. Where did people ever come up with the idea that God is planning on destroying creation and massacring humanity? And yet, if you listen to what the church has traditionally said about the end of the world, it would seem that is precisely what they believe! So here’s the ultimate contradiction—whose who claim to be people of faith turn out to be the ultimate pessimists. That is, when it comes to the destiny of everybody else, of course.

And yet, in the midst of all that fear-mongering, what I would consider to be the heart of the Bible’s message continues to hold out a beautiful and exciting hope. We find this perspective in our lessons from Isaiah today. One of the first things that stands out to me is the very realistic nature of the destiny the prophets saw as the ultimate outcome God has in store.[2] He says it this way: “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” (Isa. 65: 20); and “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21); and “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 65:25). It is a vision of children thriving, and of people living full and fulfilling lives. It is a vision of houses built, and vineyards planted. It is a vision that includes even natural enemies in the animal kingdom living together in harmony. Rather than moaning about gloom and doom, Isaiah virtually breaks into song over the destiny God has in store for the world and all who inhabit it.

And this beautiful vision is based on the “magnificent deeds” God has done and will continue to do.[3] It began with the covenant that consisted of a promise—to Israel’s ancestors and great leaders—that God would give them the gift of peace that would enable them to thrive. But over the centuries, the covenant was broken and peace was marred by injustice and corruption. And so Jerusalem was destroyed and her people languished in exile. But here Isaiah articulates the vision that Jerusalem will be restored. The implication is that God will fulfill all the promises—if not immediately, then eventually.

Isaiah’s vision continues with language of liberation. In a context where the reality of life was such that conquerors continually displaced the people, taking their children away from them, throwing them out of their homes and off their own lands, Isaiah envisions a new exodus for them. Just as God liberated the children of Israel from slavery and oppression in Egypt, in Isaiah’s vision, the people will be brought back from exile to live in their own land free from the fear of conquest.

But Isaiah’s vision doesn’t just concern Israel and her people. In a very real sense, the restoration of Jerusalem leads to the restoration of the whole world.[4] And the liberation of Israel from captivity in exile leads to the liberation of the whole world. Not only do all the nations receive the good news of God’s magnificent deeds, but this destiny God has in store for Jerusalem includes all peoples—even those Israel might have labeled “enemies”—who in that day will join together in worshipping and serving the God of peace and justice and mercy.[5] Isaiah’s vision extends to all creation—even the animal kingdom is to be transformed when God fulfills the promises and liberates the people. Indeed, what Isaiah envisions is a whole “new heavens and new earth”; a whole new creation that is “very good” just as the original creation was at the beginning!

What a vision! In stark contradiction to the fear mongers who seem to delight in painted God as a sadistic mass-murderer, the Bible insists that what God will do at the end of all things will be consistent with what God has always done: Create a world full of beauty; assure a wayward people again and again of the love that will never change; set people free from everything that binds them. It is a vision of God working to restore all things—include our animal friends—to the original harmony of creation.[6]

The God of Creation, the God of Exodus, and the God of the Covenant brings all things and all peoples into beautiful peace and joyous freedom that makes for a full and fulfilled life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think God looks anything like the “god” some church people talk about! The God of this vision is the God who is “our salvation” (Isa. 12:2); or as one “children’s” version of the Bible puts it, the God who is here to help!

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. John W. de Gruchy, “A New Heaven and a New Earth,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 105 (November 1999): 68, “Biblical hope is not located somewhere beyond the world, but in this world.”

[3] Cf. de Gruchy, 66: the prophets are not in denial of the harsh realities faced by the people of Israel, but they hold onto faith in the God of Covenant and the God of Exodus.

[4] Cf. de Gruchy, 69: in Isaiah’s vision, “Peace in Jerusalem brings peace to the world.”

[5] Cf. de Gruchy, 69: “Biblical hope cannot be nationalistically or ethnically confined.”

[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:551; cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 246.

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