Our scripture for tonight is from Isaiah, which is the largest prophetic text in the Bible. The scripture that we’re reading tonight is from the very end of the book, which was written after the Israelites returned from exile. They had been conquered by the Babylonians and marched off. Our scripture is from after they returned. Immediately preceding our scripture, we get a large dose of judgement.
God exclaims (65:1 CEB):
I was ready to respond to those who didn’t ask. I was ready to be found by those who didn’t look for me. I said, “I’m here! I’m here!” to a nation that didn’t call on my name.Isaiah 65:1 (CEB)
God was reaching out and the people didn’t respond. They were in exile and not focusing on God, not listening to his words. But God was calling out to them. And then he gets angry.
Through Isaiah, God proclaims (65:13 CEB):
Look, my servants will eat, but you will hunger.
My servants will drink, but you will thirst.
My servants will rejoice, but you will be ashamed. Isaiah 65:13 (CEB)
This dichotomy continues for another few verses that lead directly to our scripture of focus for tonight, which is Isaiah 65:17–25 (CEB):
Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth: past events won’t be remembered; they won’t come to mind.
Be glad and rejoice forever in what I’m creating, because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy and her people as a source of gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad about my people. No one will ever hear the sound of weeping or crying in it again.
No more will babies live only a few days, or the old fail to live out their days.The one who dies at a hundred will be like a young person, and the one falling short of a hundred will seem cursed.
They will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.They won’t build for others to live in, nor plant for others to eat. Like the days of a tree will be the days of my people; my chosen will make full use of their handiwork.
They won’t labor in vain, nor bear children to a world of horrors, because they will be people blessed by the LORD, they along with their descendants.
Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.
Wolf and lamb will graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but the snake — its food will be dust. They won’t hurt or destroy at any place on my holy mountain, says the LORD. Isaiah 65:17-25 (CEB)
This is a hopeful text. This scripture is about a new heaven and new earth. In the context of being in exile, where things were terrible, and even coming directly after the text of judgment, we are given a glimpse of the amazing work God is doing. We get to see God’s ultimate grace fulfilled in the world.
This scripture explains that God is doing some amazing things. The language at the start of the text is present-tense. “Look! I am creating a new heaven and a new earth,” says the Lord. “Be glad in what I am creating,” he continues. These are words of action in the here and now. God wants us to see what he is actively doing and to be excited about it. God wants us to be joyful. He wants us to be glad. God wants us to celebrate. Together as one people.
Yet, it doesn’t feel like we’re one people right now.
This week’s election, with it’s almost exactly 50–50 split, showed us how divided we are. Disagreement isn’t the issue, we should be able to healthily disagree with each other on issues. That’s how new ideas are formed. That’s how we find better ways to take care of each other.
The problem is when we don’t open into dialogue at all; when we succumb to pointing fingers and yelling at each other. When we focus on hateing other people that don’t have the same ideas as us. Or, even worse, when we just shut out ideas that are not inline with our own.
I am guilty of unfollowing a number of people on Facebook who overly posted political messages that I didn’t want to see. I shut out voices. I shut out opinions. More importantly, I shut out individuals created by God.
Christ explains to us that we are to focus on love. Our vision as a church is to live into this love: Seek and Love God. Love and Serve People. Yet by shutting out people that I disagreed with, I was doing nothing to love them. Doing nothing to serve them. In fact, I was exiling them from my world. I don’t have to agree with someone’s opinions and views to love them. I just have to love them, as Christ loves me. This is a difficult revelation to have.
In our Isaiah text tonight, God is speaking to the people whom are just out of exile. While in exile, they were separated from their homes, their country, their entire way of life. It’s easy when talking about these Biblical stories to picture the people in the Walk Through Bethlehem robes wandering in the dessert or trying to get home. It’s easy to see it as a light-hearted thing that happened so long ago and ended when they returned home.
But the truth is it’s much worse than that. If we open our eyes and look around we’ll see that there is exile in our world today, and it isn’t pretty.
According to the United Nations, there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees that have fled their country due to the ongoing violence there. That same UN report also counts nearly 6.6 million additional people who are “internally displaced,” meaning they have left their homes but not the country itself. That’s 11.4 million people in exile, unable to return to their homes. Or, to put it another way, exactly half of Syria’s entire population — based on 2013 estimates.
We have people here in our country that are in exile, not because of war or violence but because of poverty and injustice. We have people in exile from their families or from their friends because of choices that were once made or words that were once said. As I said before, we might have even exiled each other because we didn’t want to hear what they had to say. People are even fleeing a faith in God, they’re exiling themselves from a relationship with Christ because of their experience with us — Christ’s followers.
The truth is, if we open our eyes we’d see exile all around us every single day.
Yet God says, “Look at what I am doing! I’m rebuilding this. I’m recreating this. The past won’t be remembered.” God is recreating. God is rebuilding. He just asks that we “be glad and rejoice forever” because of what he is creating. Because God is the source of joy and gladness.
I wonder if we actually did this, if we actually focused on the good that God is doing, if people would still exile themselves from him?
Yet, we don’t do that. We dismiss each other. We only focus on people that are like us. We tune out the fact that half of an entire country is living in exile right now at this very moment in our world today.
But we can change our behavior and God even gives us the way forward.
Halfway through tonight’s scripture, the tense changes from present to future. God begins the passage by explaining to us what he is doing: rebuilding the world. He then switches to what will happen when we get ourselves involved, and even gives us a blueprint:
- “No more will babies live only a few days,” — We can help to eliminate infant mortality so it is no longer an issue in the world.
- “The one who dies at a hundred will be like a young person,” — We can care for the elderly so that they live longer, fuller lives that reflect joy and celebration of God.
- “They will build houses and live in them, they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They won’t build for others to live in, nor plant for others to eat.” — We can end slave labor and unfair working environments so that all of God’s people are equal in the world.
- “They won’t bear children into a world of horrors, because they will be people blessed by the Lord,” — We can care for and love all children simply because they are children of God.
- “Before they call, I will answer,” — We can connect with God through prayer and communion in a way that is as natural as talking with a friend — just as it was when God dwelled in the Garden with humanity before the Fall.
- “Wolf and lamb will graze together,” — We can actually strive to get along with those that don’t agree with us; we can focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us.
And what is it that unites us: that we are God’s people, that we live in this world that he is actively creating. His call to us to be glad and to rejoice, forever.
Our world isn’t perfect. There are countless people that are living in exile and it is up to us to help restore them to their homes and into relationship with God. It is up to us, as God’s people, to love them for no reason other than they too are a child of God.
We’re about to enter into a time of communion. This is a time of celebration that God is at work, actively creating a new world. This is a time to be connected to him and to focus on the joy that unites us. I invite you, after you go through the communion line, to spend a moment at the prayer wall and write down ways that you can better celebrate what God is doing in the world and how you can help those living in exile be restored.