Our biblical texts for today are so full of good news! “Really?” you might be thinking, “that Luke passage sounds pretty dire.” But truly – such wonderful news is here: although life presents the worst challenges, ones that mangle our bodies, minds, and souls, we are always resting in the loving palm of God’s hand. Through the challenges we face, God reinvents us, un-mangling our warped selves, and setting us on paths of righteousness, goodness, and mercy. The last word is always God’s, and it is an ear shattering declaration of love for us, and for all that God has made.
Reinvention! That is what God works in us, in all that happens to us. In our passage from Isaiah, the challenges to the people of Judah were behind them. They had endured the exile – a forced march to Babylon and the captivity there. Their physical suffering had been enormous, and so was their spiritual despair, separated not only from the land they believed they had been led to by God, but from the temple where God’s presence was manifested in their very midst. That temple had been reduced to rubble. Had God also been?
And now they have returned home. They are beginning to rebuild that temple – it would be better than ever before. Isaiah prophesies to them the word of their God: “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth.” God is reinventing everything – all the world and the cosmos, too! Many centuries later, John of Patmos would write the Book of Revelation and he would remember – and use – this prophecy he had read from Isaiah: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…” (Rev. 21:1,2). John remembered that God had promised the former exiles to reinvent Jerusalem as “a joy,” and so God had, and after the devastations later by Rome, John proclaimed that God would do it again. When the actions of others, or of ourselves, or the challenges of life cause us to suffer, God reinvents us as many times as necessary.
To the people just returned from captivity God promises, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Yes, there are hard memories that we hold on to because they continue to instruct us – they help us make good choices, or remember a loved one. But there are other memories that have our lives by the throats, that keep us from living fully, that perpetuate our suffering. I read these words this week and remembered a recent conversation with a student who had been raped while at another university. The memory of that violation informed every minute of her life, lurking within every experience or thought. She was captive to it; it was defining her life. There are experiences that people have in which simply saying, “Why don’t you get over that,” or “Try to forget about it,” is truly obscene. But it is just this kind of experience, and of consuming memory, that God will prevent from coming to mind. God’s new heavens and new earth are truly new – the memories that chain us to suffering are gone . God reinvents us, using the past experiences that, although hard, now give us life , and cleansing our minds of the ones that are a kind of hell.
God’s new heavens and new earth will bring to an end all kinds of distress. (Imagine living without distress!) And imagine living without grief. Isaiah prophesies of a time when children won’t die young. In his day, only one in four live births would make it to adulthood. A child who played with her ball in the afternoon, had a hot forehead that night, and might be dead the next day. Gone. Today, we are concerned about the problems of the possible overuse of antibiotics for things that are not actually bacterial infections. The ancient world had the opposite problem, and no end to grief.
Isaiah prophesies that the people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat… ” I heard these verses in a new light 20 years ago while in Guatemala with students. A Mayan Christian activist recited this prophecy as a reminder to himself and to all that one day his people would no longer be thrown off the land that their families had farmed for a thousand years. Foreign agriculture producers would tell them they had no title to their homes and fields and would take them for themselves. Their homes and property became inhabited by others. Some who could stay on their land were convinced to grow not the corn and beans that had always sustained them but rather broccoli and strawberries for export. They were told that the cash they would receive for these crops would significantly raise their standard of living, and enable them to buy as much food as they wanted (among other goods). In fact, they were paid so little money for their cash crops that they themselves now had no way to eat. They were planting vineyards, as it were, but others got to eat the fruit. Indeed, Isaiah prophesies of a new society that God is building in which there will finally be justice for every member. Fairness. Well-being.
God’s promise of prosperity for all in the new heavens and new earth has nothing to do with material wealth, which I think is very significant. Look at what God’s prosperity gospel is centered on: health, harmony across society, an end to distress, freedom from any kind of past experience that enslaves, the reinvention of all social relationships, peaceableness amongst the people and animals who have always been enemies, stability and certainty in the midst of the vagaries of life, the end of all hurt and destruction. This is the kind of prosperity gospel I can get behind! This is a prosperity gospel that sounds like the Gospel.
Isaiah prophesies the reinvention of heaven and earth after the tribulations of the Jerusalemites; Luke writes to Christians centuries later of new tribulations about to come. That temple that was rebuilt after the exile will be utterly destroyed by a new conqueror, Rome. Rome’s ruler of the moment, Herod, had added to the temple’s glory with new, decorative stones and gems. He considered the region to be his, and so its temple had to be fabulous , reflecting his glory, his power. The Jewish population understood that, and so to them the fabulous stonework was bittersweet. Jesus warns his followers that the coming tribulations will be very difficult indeed – the destruction of the temple, wars, natural disasters, persecution, betrayals, and for some, death. And yet, says Christ, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” This is good news.
And it is God’s plan of reinvention after, like the exile, human societies and human agency had caused indescribable suffering. Rome will deliver unheard-of levels of destruction, yet throughout it, God will protect and save. Throughout the challenges, God will reinvent the lives of the followers of Christ. The promise from both Isaiah the prophet and Jesus the Christ is that reinvention may be hard, but it will be worth it.
Perhaps you or ones you care for are in the process of being reinvented now? Or you have been in the past? Perhaps an experience – challenging, tragic, bittersweet, wonderful – has been God’s chance to reshape you, to reframe your relationships with others, to redirect you, to heal you, to grow you up, to make you different than you were before: to reinvent you. This is the blessed possibility in all the trials that come to us. God’s hope for us in all trials and suffering is not that we will be beaten down but that we will let God lift us up, work with us, help us. Past or current hurts or violations deform our lives. Disappointments curtail our joy in living. Ways in which we have been treated unfairly eat at us, they make us grit our teeth throughout our lives. We live with jealousies and resentments. We become misshapen souls.
Let me conclude this sermon with the words I used to begin it: although life presents the worst challenges - ones that mangle our bodies, minds, and souls - we are always resting in the loving palm of God’s hand. Through the challenges we face, God reinvents us, un-mangling our warped selves, and setting us on the paths of righteousness, goodness, and mercy. The last word is always God’s, and it is an ear shattering declaration of love for us, and for all that God has made.
Corrine Carvalho , www.workingpreacher.org, Nov. 17, 2013, “Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25”.