Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
People noticed Joanne. An elegant woman, she spent her summers by the swimming pool. Over the years, we became summer friends—discussing books, jobs, and our shared love of all things summer. An aloof woman; by nature or design, I was never quite sure; it surprised me when, at the end of one summer, Joanne told me she was quite ill. We would speak at infrequent intervals over this last year of her life.
A baptized person; although, by her own account, not really a believer; Joanne vacillated between denial about the seriousness of her illness and deep resignation. Mostly, she seemed strangely disengaged from her own life.
One day, curious to hear how Joanne was thinking about her future, I asked her, “Do you have a vision for your life on the other side of this illness?” She thought a long, long, long time before answering. And when she spoke, she said, “I think I’ll repaint the living room.”
In that moment, I knew she would die; for Joanne lacked a vision broad enough to sustain life; deep enough to animate hope; mysterious enough to have drawing power.
We all have difficulty with vision. Choosing something too small, we try to make it a source of generativity and hope; only to discover it lacks vitality and offers no strength in life’s hard places.
True vision provides a lifeline. Think of it as standing on the beach and experiencing the pull of the horizon; drawing us out to the very edge of what we know and then just a little farther. If all we can imagine is some version of what we already know, death gains a foothold.
Isaiah speaks to a people worn and weary. A full generation has passed since the return from exile in Babylon. Exultation has turned to exhaustion. God’s people struggle with hard realities: will they live as an inclusive people—or not? Will they practice neighbor ethic—or not? Will they manifest a passion for justice—or not? (Bruggemann, Isaiah 40-66)
God gives Isaiah a vision of outrageousness to speak; so large it will set heaven and earth to rejoicing; a vision so compelling it causes Isaiah to rise up on his tiptoes; to look beyond the horizon of rubble and ruin; to see and to know the astonishing possibilities of God.
New heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem: the old and the former, the previous and the failed; over, done, and gone; God reversing every evil, cruel, and petty thing. No more homeless or broken or terrorized folk left abandoned to lonely suffering, anxiety, and fear. No more building houses that some tyrant takes over or planting fields that some enemy confiscates. “When my people work,” says God, “they will have something to show for it. Their children will play outside, free of fear, death, and misfortune. Before they cry out, I will answer. Before they speak, I will hear them.” (Peterson)
Isaiah casts God’s vision to animate hope: not hope as a pipe dream, not hope as wishful thinking. Rather, hope: trust in the God of newness; hope that calls us to live as faithful participants in God’s new creation.
Jesus speaks from a different place. He speaks from Holy Week. In the temple, just before his arrest, Jesus says that those who seek to embody the way of God’s inbreaking Kingdom will face tough times: turmoil and persecution, ridicule and betrayal, arrest and even death.
When difficulties come, we need both the expansiveness of Isaiah’s vision and the endurance Jesus calls forth. “Nothing of you will be lost,” Jesus promises. “Staying with the Gospel proves necessary; staying with the Gospel until the end. You will not be sorry,” says Jesus. “You will be saved.”
God promises to do God’s part in bringing life out of death. God will not do our part. God will not do the work of choosing for us the vision that will guide our lives. (Bruggemann, The Threat of Life)
Historian Taylor Branch tells a story from Birmingham in the spring of 1963. The civil rights movement seemed poised for another defeat. Birmingham had more jail space than the movement had people. And then, a surprise. One Sunday, 2,000 young people left worship at New Pilgrim Baptist Church to march. “How long can this continue?” the shocked police wondered. “How many people do we have to arrest?”
The line of young people stretched out over five city blocks. As the marchers moved toward the line of firefighters and hoses, police and dogs, the notoriously cruel Bull Connor ordered the hoses turned on.
The young people dropped to their knees and began praying. Rising up, the Rev. Charles Billups challenged the authorities, “Turn on your water. Loose your dogs. We will stand here ‘til we die.” Slowly, the marchers moved forward. Slowly, the firefighters and police parted, allowing the marchers to pass. Onlookers said it was like watching Israel’s children pass through the Red Sea to freedom. (Story in sermon from Childress)
What outrageous vision inspires such courageous action? What mystery pulsing deep in the heart of things draws us so completely toward the horizon of holy purpose? What creates endurance and perseverance in the face of hostility and struggle; disappointment and even death?
Despite what we read and hear in the news as considerable evidence to the contrary, God’s vision of life prevails. True vision animates hope. And hope opens our eyes to see what others cannot see.
Michelangelo stood before a block of marble, discovered by the previous sculptor as unworkable, and saw the possibilities of his magnificent David.
With the crucifixion just days away, Jesus offers a vision of the future; held by the steadfast love of God. And then he allows his life to be broken open and raised up that we might see and know for sure and for certain that a life held by the love of God never perishes.
Sometimes the vision God sets before us seems daunting. “When things are at their worst,” says Jesus, “that’s your chance. Testify. Account for the faith within you.”
So what do we say, dear friends, you and I? What vision, broad and deep, captures our hearts and lives with sustaining power? What mystery has us standing on tiptoe, straining toward the horizon of holy purpose? What hope allows us to live into the promise of new creation, not once, not twice, but over and over and over again?
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
The Message, Eugene Peterson, NavPress, 2003
Isaiah 40-66, Walter Bruggemann, Westminister John Knox Press, Louisville, 1998
The Threat of Life, Walter Bruggemann, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996
Kyle Childress, sermon, Christian Century, 11-2-2010