Let us pause for a moment of prayer in the words of Garret Epp, a member of Knox Metropolitan United Church in Edmonton:
God, who gives birth to the world, who gives us breath
fill us with your light,
and help us to usher in your reign of love,
justice and peace here on earth.
Tune us to the harmony of the heavens;
teach us to sing your name.
Grant us wisdom, hope and compassion
for all living things,
and feed us what we need each day.
Free us from what binds us,
as we release others from guilt and shame.
Help us to focus on what is good,
and to do what is right;
teach us how to love.
Renew our hearts, our minds, our strength,
and make us whole, and wholly yours.
(Gathering, Summer/Autumn 2008, p. 55)
I had no idea when I began my theological studies what a tremendous influence the book of Isaiah has had on the development and writings of the Christian tradition. When I began to study Isaiah in depth I became very excited when I discovered how often Isaiah is quoted in Christian Scriptures and how often the prophetic words of Isaiah were interpreted by early Christian communities as being fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There are many examples of this phenomenon but in the interest of time I’ll just cite one example. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is introduced as the messiah, the one who was foretold in the sacred text of Isaiah. Jesus was in a synagogue in Nazareth standing in front of religious leaders and the gathered community when he read these words from the sacred scroll of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:17-19)
It’s important to remember that Jesus was Jewish and that he was profoundly influenced and inspired by the prophetic teachings of his religious tradition. The book of Isaiah contains much which reflects radical and subversive ideals regarding social justice issues and these ideals are reflected in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed God’s vision of a world where all are treated with respect as equal citizens; where all had enough to eat; where all can live without fear, in peace and harmony; where all can work together side by side to create a community that is a welcome home to all.
Today’s reading from Isaiah reflect these ideals,
“They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” (Isaiah 65:22)
Isaiah also illustrates God’s desire for the creation of new heavens and a new earth by saying,
“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
We know these sacred writings influenced Jesus’ life and teachings which in turn influenced the Christian communities of his time. But, some may question whether they still have power and influence in a more contemporary North American context.
Do any of you remember growing up hearing stories of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919? A favourite story of mine, regarding this event, is from a book written by retired United Church minister, Jim Manly. Manly tells the story of J.S. Woodsworth, a former Methodist minister and the first leader of the CCF party, who was charged with seditious libel for material that he published in a labour newspaper during the Winnipeg General Strike. Unfortunately for legal officials, two of the six items cited as “seditious” came directly from Isaiah 10 and Isaiah 65. A few months after Woodsworth was charged the government quietly announced that they would not prosecute the charge. (The Wounds of Manuel Saquic, Jim Manly, pg. 111)
As J.S. Woodsworth knew, although the Bible is often used to support established authority, and the status quo, there are also a great many examples in sacred scripture which are truly radical and subversive in nature. Jim Manly, in his book “The Wounds of Manuel Saquic”, comments on Isaiah 65:
“The…poet who wrote, ‘They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat,’ had a powerful vision of a new society where one class would not exploit another. This vision did not fit easily with the market economy of ancient Israel; it did not fit well with the raw industrial economy of Canada after the first World War; it does not fit well with the new global economy that lays off Canadian workers when manufacturing plants relocate in third world countries to exploit the labour of children or young women.” (The Wounds of Manuel Saquic, Jim Manly, pgs.111-112)
Jesus, influenced by the prophetic tradition of his heritage, proclaimed God’s vision of a just and loving world. He worked tirelessly to convince others that they had an essential role to play in the realization of God’s commonwealth. During his lifetime, and after his death, the movement that continued Jesus’ ministry strengthened and practised their faith zealously in the form of justice-filled action.
This movement is still alive and thriving today. Christians all over the world turn to the stories in the Bible to inspire and inform their faith.
We know that as the Body of Christ in the world today it is up to us to continue Jesus’ prophetic, healing, teaching, justice-making ministry. We realize that we are the hands and feet of Christ in our time and place. We know, as he did, that we are co-creators with God in the realization of a new and just world.
Where do we see signs of a “new heaven and a new earth” today? One article I read gives some examples:
“When a Christian and a Muslim sit down to eat and talk, it is a sign of the reign of God. When people band together to begin the eradication of malaria in Africa, it is a sign of the reign of God. …When millions are fed, when Habitat for Humanity builds another 100 homes, these are signs of the reign of God. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a sign and seal of the certainty of the coming reign of God. It is a divine vision that we can never fail to hold before us, reminding us of our part in the dream and reminding us of God’s constant work to make that dream a reality.” (Lectionary Reflections by John C. Holbert)
Another article suggests that,
“We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time. We are able to bring comfort…one act of [compassion] at a time. One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice…one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace.” (Feasting on the Word,Year C, Volume 4, pg. 292, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
Some examples from our local context that come to mind are: the countless volunteer hours which are offered in support of services which benefit persons who are economically marginalized (like the Kimberley Helping Hands Food Bank); random acts of kindness that happen every day and planned actions that support children, youth and seniors in a variety of activities and services; the sponsorship of refugee families and other initiatives which reach outside our community with concern and action; the work of the Go Go Grannies in support of the Stephen Lewis Foundation; our congregation’s contribution to the United Church of Canada’s Mission and Service Fund; contributions to disaster relief efforts including community support of the Shelter Box program; circles of care which offer pastoral concern such as our Prayer Shawl Ministry, to name just a few.
We know that God’s commonwealth, expressed in Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, will not happen overnight and that faith, hope, perseverance, hard work, and cooperation are some of the tools we need to carry with us proceed into the future. Even so, small but vital initiatives are glimpses of a world transformed by God’s love and grace.
I’ll end with a contemporary poem, by Judy Chicago, which echoes Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth:
And then all that has divided us will merge.
And then compassion will be wedded to power.
And then softness will come to a world
that is often harsh and unkind.
And then women and men will be gentle.
And then both men and women will be strong.
And then no other person will be subject to another’s will.
And then all will be rich and varied.
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance.
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old.
And then all will nourish the young.
And then all will cherish life’s creatures.
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth.
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.
(Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage, 1979)
May we commit ourselves
to participating in God’s kingdom coming.