The turning of seasons in our northern climate in the church year, moving from fall to Advent to Christmas to the new year invites us to consider the future, think about what is coming.
Hope….a new thing on the horizon…. come.
These are the words of Advent, and of the prophet Isaiah.
He says the old things will not be brought to mind – we will not miss them, or long for how it used to be, No yearning for what once was, our lives will not embrace the past tense, it will be all future, all hopefulness.
Third Isaiah, as this writer is called, writes to the people of Judah who have returned after exile in Babylon, but who are lost in their own land. All of the familiar places and structures are gone. Villages and towns have been destroyed and not rebuilt. The city walls – the temple of Jerusalem – all lie in ruins.
The people were allowed to come back home, but home had been transformed into something unrecognizable and unwelcoming. Others are now living on their land, in their houses, doing their work, tending their vineyards. How do you re-establish all that has been devastated by war and a generation of absence? Who is there to help or to care? “Sorrowing wand’rers in darkness yet dwelling,” says the Finnish Advent hymn, “Plaintively sighing with hearts full of anguish…Will you help us soon, will you help us soon?”
The prophet’s task is to say “Yes” – to proclaim again the promises, to instill in them a vision of renewal, of hope… of God. You will not again plant what others will reap, or build houses others will dwell in. You will be like an oak, living long in the land. Hope for the ancient Israelites was about nation building and unification after the devastation of war. Starting again almost from scratch, and still not masters of their political fate.
The setting changed, but the dynamics were similar for the people of Jesus’ day. They were waiting for a savior from Roman oppression, a new king, home rule.
This “new heaven and new earth” passage from Isaiah 65 is what inspired the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth in Revelation 21. But “new heaven and earth” is not like “new iPhone,” not a replacement with better bells and whistles. A new home in an altered state is not what is pictured at all. In this vision from God through Isaiah, salvation isn’t in heavenly mansions, but is comfort, trust, gratitude, and praise of a God who lives in our midst. It’s a renewed world, a restored one. It’s still a realm where people are born, live, raise children, acquire homes, plant gardens, eat meals, and even, eventually, die.
The difference is, they are no longer living dispossessed and dying violently. “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat … They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity” (verses.22-23). This is eschatology, the envisioning of future days. But unlike some violent last days scenarios popular today, it is not a vision of the faithful being raptured to heaven, leaving a ravaged earth behind. Rather, the vision is of the earth’s inhabitants living long in the land, and secure on a fruitful planet. It is a vision we identify with strongly in our day. A world where “they shall not hurt or destroy”, where implements of war are remolded into plows and pruning saws, garden hoes.
Living in the midst of a pandemic has given us an opportunity to experience what new creation might look like. We have had to adapt our lives and lifestyles. Along the way, perhaps you’ve made changes you want to keep, or have seen life from a new perspective that you appreciate. Illness often changes our perspective, changes our value system. So does getting a puppy, or having a child, or grandchild. I think the new creation must be like that, like the transformation of your life that occurs with birthing or adopting a child, getting married, opening your heart to something that needs it and is taking up residence there for the long term.
The ecological pledges made in Glasgow will require transformational changes, too, on a corporate and national level.
It’s not a new smart phone with new bells and whistles that is called for, it’s a new love that will transform every aspect of our lives from deep down in. Love is the only thing that can do that. Christ coming into the world was a new creation for God, a new transformative way for God to love this blue ball of a planet, and the unruly, willful people of dust and ashes, and the always recreating plant and animal kingdoms. This new creation is always an act of love, an expansion of the heart of God. It’s the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes that day of his enlightenment. It’s Mary Oliver in her poem welcoming in the uproar of mice and the limping raccoon that headed straight for her kitchen and started scrounging through the cupboards. It’s the fox at her door. It is love for the world, love for the other, some other, that brings us out of ourselves and into a new creation of our still existent life. These young parents did not stop being themselves when their child was born, but who they were has become something new in deeply transformational ways.
This first Sunday of Advent finds us poised – as we always are – between death and birth, life as we know it and life that will inevitably change. In the Hebrew language the word Wait is the root of the word Hope. Waiting is an active state of something new on the horizon. It’s not dread, it’s not fear, it’s not longing for what once was to stay. Waiting is in expectation, anticipation, hope for what love will do to your heart.
As you reflect on images of the future, here are questions for you to consider: in what are those deep transformational hopes grounded? And how do they inspire you to live now?