Friday, November 19, 2010

living in an "it is what it is" world (isaiah 65)

The vision of the prophet begins with the creative work of God.

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;

We read in our translation “I am about to create” but it could also be translated “I am creating”. It is not that God did something in the beginning and then let it take its own course; God is always involved, always creating, always speaking. The creation of God, we remember from the Book of Genesis, has a pattern, evening and morning, the first day, evening and morning, the 2nd day, evening and morning, the 3rd day. And this has a meaning: we sleep in the night, we dream, we rest, but God is creating, God is at work, and then we awake, in the morning, to find that the work has already begun. We take part in something that God has already gotten started, and so whatever we do is not creation out of nothing. God has gone before us.

This creation of which the prophet speaks is going to be massive, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth, and it is not going to be the same old thing, only with a different package, or a remodeling; God is going to start over, wipe the slate clean. Of course this had been the history of how God had been at work in the world: Israel remembered a great flood, an opportunity to make a new start, and Christians have always likened that to baptism, to new life, to new birth by water and the spirit.

It is a mercy that God is always giving us a new beginning, a new day. We can forget the bad stuff, wipe the slate clean. And many of us, at least some of the time, would welcome something different, something new, something better. A few years ago I began to hear a phrase: “It is what it is”. Have you ever heard that phrase? I would sometimes hear a friend or two say it, “it is what it is”. Sometime later I came across a list of the most annoying phrases in America. Number One: “whatever”. Number Two: “you know”. Number three: “it is what it is”.
Your day has been terrible: it is what it is. That repair of your computer/ipad did not quite fix the problem: it is what it is. Stuck in traffic, or in an airport? It is what it is. That task which you thought would take a day, it will take a week. It is what it is. Your favorite team is having an awful year. It is what it is.

Why do you think this phrase is so annoying? Could it be that deep down our expectations were higher. And so the prophet comes along with good news, not “it is what it is”, but “it can change”. There is a new creation. But what will the change and creation look like?

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

Here the mind and heart of God turns toward the people of God, toward us, like a parent who voices her hopes for her son or daughter: he will grow up, she will find someone who loves her, they will have children, be happy, will find meaningful work, they will be spared tragedy, they will enjoy a long life together.

For Jewish people, with a somewhat ambiguous understanding of the afterlife, longevity was and is important. As Americans our lifespans are getting longer, and we do sometimes take all of that for granted. Most of us have access to health care, we are spared the conditions of a disease like cholera, which has threatened Haiti recently, or malaria, which has ravaged the continent of Africa. We do know children who live only a few days, or children who live a few years, like the young girl we have followed in Caldwell County, and adults who do not live out their lifetimes but these are the exceptions, not the rule. A long life: this is the promise of God. But what does this life look like? Beyond quantity, what is the quality of this long life?

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…
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.

All of a sudden, in the vision of the prophet and of God, we become active participants. It is no longer a spectator sport. God began creating, but now we are at work with him. God gives us the vision, but God uses us to shape it into something that is real.

You may have heard the old story about the rural pastor who was getting to know the members of his church, many of them were farmers, and one day the pastor drove out into the country, left the main highway and turned onto the dirt road, he walked up to the house and rang the doorbell, he then learned that the gentleman he was searching for was in the barn, he walked a short distance over and shook hands with the farmer.

They surveyed the land, beautifully cared for and cultivated. There was a long silence, not unusual for country people who are not in a hurry. The pastor broke the silence and to make conversation said, “it is amazing to behold the glory of God’s creation”. There was a pause, and then the farmer stated, matter of factly, “you should have seen it when the Lord had it all to himself!”

It is true that God begins the work, but we are called to continue it, to complete it. God creates something new. We participate in the creation of God. We participate in changing the world. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t.

The vision of Isaiah is a beautiful dream for us, for the world. It concludes:

They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

It is beautiful, this vision, it is poetry. But it lacks something. And what it lacks is precisely what we hear in the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. Paul is writing one of the earliest letters to the first Christians, one of the oldest manuscripts in the New Testament, if not the oldest. The believers thought the world was coming to an end, that Jesus was returning, soon, and so they became passive, they stopped working, they became idle, and in their idleness they turned to gossip.

Now that may be a strange concept to you….gossip in the church, but you will have to imagine that at one time, in one place, there was gossip in the church, a newer translation has it, people “meddling in the business of others”. It happens. They were no longer listening to the voice of God or the words of the prophet, they no longer thought about building houses or planting gardens, maybe they had become too heavenly minded to be any earthly good, as one evangelist described it!

Both passages of scripture speak to a common experience that I believe afflicts many Christians. The world is a mess, and so we have settled in to a way of coping: I can’t fix the world, but heaven will be wonderful. And heaven will be wonderful. But the clear teaching of Isaiah, and this is echoed in Revelation 21, is that God wants earth to be like heaven. That is what we pray, every week: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!

We do not give up on God’s dream for this life. As I listen to the words of the prophet, it is clear to me that God does want to change the world. “It is what it is” would never be the will of God. God expresses, quite clearly and beautifully, what his intention for the world is, and by world I mean our lives, our families, our workplaces, our communities, our planet. It is a clear and compelling vision. But it lacks something.

It is a vision without a strategy, and that is where we come in, that is where we connect with it all. God leaves it up to us to develop the plans, to draft the blueprint. And so we look within ourselves----our skills, our interests, our abilities, our training, our expertise, and we get to work. We take it a day at a time, we build, which means we clear land, we lay the foundation, we plant, we till the soil and water it, we stretch our backs and dirty our hands and develop relationships, and think through the complexities of the world as we know it.

“It is what it is” is annoying, and it is not acceptable. To hear the prophet is to lean into the future of God’s dream, it will come to pass, it will become a reality, God is already creating, a fresh wind of the spirit is blowing, God is changing the world. We try to avoid the errors of becoming complacent or passive, believing that the world’s needs are overwhelming, beyond our reach, so why bother (?); or playing God, seeing it as a solo task, thinking it is all up to me, that my efforts alone will accomplish the vision.

Both errors are wrong. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t. God wants to do this work with us, that is why God created us! As we seek freedom and justice and reconciliation in this world, wherever we are, God is right there with us, because that is precisely what God wants the world to look like. It is as if God left the picture unfinished, and gave us the paintbrushes to complete the work of art, or left the structure incomplete, but gave us the tools to go about it. But the end product, of that there is no doubt: the vision is clear and compelling.

If we are going to get to the holy mountain, which is where Isaiah’s prophecy takes us, the peak of what God wants us to taste and see, we are going to have to keep working, keep walking, keep running the race. Do not be weary in doing what is right, Paul encourages them, and us. Don’t accept an “it is what it is” vision of your life and your circumstances. The cure for frustration, cynicism, despair and negativity is the dream of God.

These two passages of scripture, one from the prophet, one from Paul, bring together poetry and advice, a dream and a strategy, mysticism and service, optimism and reality. They unite heaven and earth, love of God and love of neighbor, inspiration and perspiration. They bring together a gift and the command to honor the gift, and that gift is life. In all of this we hold together the dream of God and the work that we do every day of our lives. It is how, and why, we keep going. Without God, we can’t. Without us, God won’t.


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