This coming Sunday mainline Christian congregations will hear again the words of the prophet Isaiah (65:17) announcing for the Beloved, For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
Over the millennia, it has been popular to see this text as about a specific event, a specific apocalypse and recreation and restoration. Indeed, when Isaiah was preaching those words to the exiles in Babylon, what else could that possible mean?
And yet we are always living at the end of things and at their beginning, too. We have a chance to be part of a new creation, to bear witness to the changes in the heavens and the changes on earth, to forgive what was wrongfully done before and to build a different more peaceful world together.
That's the hope that I hold onto, especially on the days when my own pain is very great, so great I cannot be still and struggle to laugh and breathe, let alone be kind and generous and attend to my nearest duty.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. (Isaiah 65:18)
Isaiah reminds us in the midst of our fears and our troubles, in the middle of what seems unendurably difficult, of just what calls us forward: the kind of love and transformation that ends suffering.
No more shall there be in it an infant that 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. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (Isaiah 65:19- 20)
In this world that is going to be, there is still work, there is still effort, we are still needed to do what is right and what is good. We build homes, not only for others, but for ourselves - this is a promise that all shall be housed, all shall have a place they belong. What a promise to enslaved and exiled people! Whether we struggle with feeling exiled or we actually are living in exile from our homelands, the promise of newness is that we can build home together. This promise does not need to wait for another day to come to fruition. The promise of making home together in within our power right now, if we want to make it real, if we believe in the kind of love that ends suffering.
But then it is up to us to help make that new world, wherever we are, however find ourselves, to cultivate together abandoned and desecrated land, to build together shelter enough for everyone to have a place in the world, to grow home right here and now and let our identity as exiles slowly cease to exist, feeding the home we are making now.
That's the difficult hope I remind myself with, when it is easier to feel apart and alone than it is to get about doing what needs to be done, namely, making home for myself and others right where we find ourselves now. My life has changed dramatically in the past few years, and every time I cannot attend a meeting or join friends at a cafe or go some other place because of curbs and steps and crowded narrowed cluttered spaces I have a choice: do I suffer in exile, or do I go ahead and make home, welcoming and meeting others where we can meet, inviting and encouraging my neighbors to want to make our towns accessible to all?
We still have responsibilities in the new heaven and the new earth. And so, the old heaven and the old earth, the ones filled with suffering and injustice, these can pass away, starting again right now, but only if we attend to that work of transforming love with hearts of hope and courage in meeting this new day.
Isaiah speaks to other exiles and tells them what we need to hear: there is future hope and there is comfort in that vision, and there is also work that we ourselves can do, work that is a way of the Holy calling and answering us while we are yet crying out: we need not labor in vain when we labor in love to bear a new heaven and a new earth day by day into being, through kindness and generosity and tremendous effort making hope real. Hope is ours indeed, when hope is in our deeds.