A Whole Life
Isaiah 65: 17-25 (The Message)
“Pay close attention now:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
create my people as pure delight.
I’ll take joy in Jerusalem,
take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime;
One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal--
anything less will seem like a cheat.
They’ll build houses
and move in.
They’ll plant fields
and eat what they grow.
No more building a house
that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields
that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.
They won’t work and have nothing come of it,
they won’t have children snatched out from under them.
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
Before they call out, I’ll answer.
Before they’ve finished speaking, I’ll have heard.
Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
but snakes—they’ll get a diet of dirt!
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
anywhere on my Holy Mountain,” says God..
How often do you hear about something that is truly new? How often do TV commercials, for example, promote something that is actually new, not the newer, bigger, better, cleaner, whiter, and sparkle-tastic version of the old? What is truly new?
We’ve been treated in this presidential season to something new: new lows, ever worsening. And, as if we are playing limbo, asking, how much lower can we go? However, we’ve been here before in American history. Previous generations have asked the same thing. Today’s presidential campaign is just a newer, bigger, better, cleaner, whiter, and a more sparkle-tastically fresh version of the same old, same old. It’s not new. It’s tired. I’m tired of it. You must be tired of it. I can only imagine God is tired of it too.
What would be truly new? The prophet Isaiah describes his vision of it. He said, Pay close attention now. Speaking for God, Isaiah said, “I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.”
For some Christians that first means the apocalyptic destruction of all that is. Chaos. Annihilation. Fire and brimstone and terror meant to scare the hell out of us – literally. But take note of God’s vision. Did you hear it? It’s not damnation and in fact it’s remarkably simple. In the here and now, in God’s new heaven and new earth:
That’s my favorite. People will live a whole lifetime. Maybe it means a long life, living to a ripe old age, but I think it’s also an invitation to consider a deeper life. Living a whole life. In one sense, we have little control over whether we live to 35 or 95. But in the other sense we can choose a whole life. What does that mean? I have a few ideas.
First) A whole life is one in which spirituality is more than contemplation. Spirituality is nurturing a relationship with the divine that ultimately leads to a deeper mutual engagement with the world. Like Jacob and the angel, wrestling in the night with God until there is blessing in the morning. Maybe many nights, many years. But it is not finished until we strive for the blessing of the entire community in the afternoon. A whole-life spirituality.
Second) A whole life is one in which we don’t settle for mere pleasure. What is the source of so much depression in our country? Isn’t it possible that, in part, it’s all the things we have substituted for joy? But whole-life joy seeks a joy-fullness that takes longer and come from deeper within; where feeling good enough and being happy enough is not enough. Whole-life joy isn’t quick or painless but is bestowed through struggle.
Third) A whole life is one in which vengeance – whether carpet bombing, the silent treatment, or holding a grudge – where vengeance does not substitute for justice.
We’re told there is a lot of anger “out there,” but what is answer for such anger? This past week the leadership of the UCC joined with the Episcopal House of Bishops to issue a “Word to the Church.” In part, it read:
On Friday another innocent young man of color was killed. The ruling authorities sacrificed the weak and blameless to protect their own status and power.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by this kind of violence in today’s political rhetoric. Americans turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society, to secure their own safety and security.
No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we reject the idolatrous notion that we must sacrifice the hopes of the many to ensure the prosperity of a few. Rather, we must protect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good for all people above all else.
Yes, on Friday another innocent man in the prime of his life was executed, but then God did something new. The death and resurrection of that man Jesus revealed the lengths that fearful people will go. It unmasked the lie that might makes right. But it also revealed the lengths that God will go to overturn what fear mongers try to do, what they try to sell in uncertain times. No, we must say. Love makes things right. Justice makes things right. And so what do you suppose that calls forth from us?
Whether it’s silence or violence, nothing can be justified in the place of whole-life justice. And justice, as Dr. Cornel West put it so brilliantly; justice is just love walking around in public.
Fourth) A whole life is one in which relationships move beyond “how are you” to a desire to actually know how you are. Art and I met a man from India while we were hiking a few months ago. In the course of our conversation about the cultural differences he has encountered since moving here, his first response was that he had to learn that when someone asked him “how are you,” they didn’t really want to know. How can we have meaningful whole-life relationships?
Fifth) And finally, a whole life is one in which we reject the sentimental. Mere nostalgia. We shall not be satisfied until we seek and find beauty.
Spirituality, joy, justice, relationship, and beauty.
There’s obviously more to it than that, but it’s a start. Houses to live in, gardens to eat, dignity from birth to death. And a whole life. Yet, given the general mood of our country, we may have become so used to cynicism that such hope can sound silly. When the language we hear over and over every day is so full of scorn and contempt, it is a serious spiritual discipline to embrace trust. But whole-life people of faith – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and more – and people of good will, commit to doing just that.
Are we at such a place in our national discourse that no realistic assessment of our future can overcome the persistent grievances of the governed? Are things really that bad?
They actually were for the returning Israelites. Just a moment for context. In today’s text, Isaiah’s vision of God’s new world was the farthest thing from reality. The few remaining exiles who returned to their homeland found everything in ruins. All the joy of returning home after decades of capture drained from their faces as they looked around and began to cry, to weep. Houses crumbled. Fields were just piles of rubble. The temple had been completely destroyed. Everything of meaning was gone. That’s why Isaiah’s vision of God’s new world included houses and fields. The absence of crying infants. People able to live a whole life… Because, at the time, it was about as likely as our dreams of public civility today. But if Israel could be restored back then, well, so can we.
Are things really that bad? Well, it depends on what we’re actually talking about or who you ask. How are things really for people who are homeless whose belongings have been swept away? Or people who inhabit low lying islands whose homes are being flooded by rising oceans. Animals in disappearing forests and fish in polluted waters. People whose skills are no longer needed. Ask the victims of Boko Haram. Or Syrians desperate enough to risk drowning to flee terror in their land.
What we are sick and tired of is the rhetoric of division. But do you remember God’s vision? It’s not of damnation and destruction and chaos. It’s not of suspicion, distrust and contempt. The vision of God’s new heaven and new earth is this:
This is far from the used-up, old cynicism we are tired of hearing recycled. Fortunately the medicine we need for our fatigue is simple: goodness. And the resurrection of Christ represents the goodness of God overtaking the power of such fear, distrust and division. Goodness overtaking cynicism, scorn and contempt. Thank you Jesus.
Today we remember the damage that a Friday-kind-of terror can do, what fearful people are capable of, the terror that is still real in our world. But we also unite around a vision of goodness and seek the wisdom of God that is bigger than us and our present time, that takes a longer view of our present struggles, and fills us with the power of God to make a difference within and around us now.
Our new banner states how: (if you can see it, read it with me)
Be the Church
Protect the environment
Care for the poor
Fight for the powerless
Share earthly and spiritual resources
Enjoy this life