Persistent Hope

Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25

Persistent Hope

This passage from the oracle of Isaiah has become so familiar to some of us that we fail to realize its significance. Here, God through Isaiah pulls back the curtain of time and enables us to peek into eternity. What we see looks strange and phantasmagorical to us—a bizarre, dream like glimpse into a reality where things just don’t work the way we expect. And yet it also depicts the direction—if not the destination—of God’s redemptive work in us and throughout all of creation.

My friend Mindi sums it up like this: 

Isaiah 65:17-25 contains the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the ways of this world no longer have a hold on us. The prophet envisions a time when everyone enjoys what they have worked for, where the struggle of this world disappears and untimely death is no more. This vision is of peace and prosperity, of hope for all, where there is no domination, despair, and exile.

This vision is often too much for us to hope for, and yet it remains the persistent hope and activity of our transforming God. 

Part the First

Unlike Isaiah’s vision [Isaiah 65:17], we are all too aware of “the former things”—those systems and processes that have influenced and frequently impeded progress. In churches as in life, we are often stymied by claims that “we’ve never done it that way before” or “we tried that once and it didn’t work” or “Such-and-such did it that way.” In life as in churches, we often carry our past wounds into the present and the future, often stunted by the pain of grudges and the impossibility of reconciliation and forgiveness in past relationships.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
(Isaiah 65:17 NRSV)

Part the Second

Similarly [Isaiah 65:18], the idea of newness and change generally creates not gladness or joy, but fear and trepidation. We face a future—and even a present!—that feels uncertain to us. The world doesn’t work the way it used to. The old rules of life no longer produce predictable results. And so most of us struggle to sort out how to live a good life or embody our faith in this new reality. 

Yet God speaks through Isaiah:

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.” (Isaiah 65:18 NRSV)

Part the Third

Our world is filled with grief and sorrow [Isaiah 65:19b]; with lives tragically cut short [Isaiah 65:20a]; with people working their whole lives only to have nothing to show for it, or working hour after unending hour at a series of jobs and still not earning enough for their family to eat and survive [Isaiah 65:22a]. We are afraid for the world our children are inheriting [Isaiah 65:23a].

And to all these things, God says “no more!”

“No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19b NRSV)

“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.” (Isaiah 65:20a NRSV)

“They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.” (Isaiah 65:22a NRSV)

“They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity.”
(Isaiah 65:23a NRSV)

The Reversal of Fortunes

The gladness and joy of this vision comes about because in it we catch a glimpse of God’s future when these injustices and fears and pains will be eradicated from the human experience.

Where there are now those who die before living a full life, Isaiah imagines a day when someone even 100 years old is considered an adolescent. [Isaiah 65:20]

Where now far too many do not receive fair compensation for the labors they perform, Isaiah imagines a day when everyone gets what they have worked for. [Isaiah 65:21, 22b]

Where now we fear for the world of our children’s future, Isaiah imagines a day of blessing and wholeness and security that will permeate not just their experience, but the experience of generations to come. [Isaiah 65:23]

Hard Work

What Isaiah anticipates 2500 years ago continues to be the impossible dream of today. 

But what stands out to me is not the content—it is not a matter of what Isaiah describes God doing. What stands out to me is that nowhere in the scriptures is it suggested that these transformations of ourselves and of the created order will be easy. 

If anything, we should expect they be hard. In last week’s reading from Haggai, this transformation was described in earthquake-like terms:

“For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations” (Haggai 2:6–7a NRSV)

The book of Revelation—in peeking behind the curtain some years later—envisions the Lord God of Hosts (or more literally, “Yahweh, commander of armies”) waging war on the forces of darkness as God brings about the imagined world Isaiah suggests. Jesus—our front-line general in this conflict—is depicted as a military leader through whom God will achieve victory. In chapter 19 of Revelation we read:

“Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”” (Revelation 19:11–16 NRSV)

Nowhere in the bible is it suggested that these changes will come about with a snap of God’s fingers. Everywhere we look, we see difficult language describing how God will make these things so—throughout history, and through those among us who partner with God.

It will not be a simple matter for all of creation to be transformed according to God’s desires. ……Just as it is not easy for our individual hearts to be transformed into Christ-likeness. 

Where Are We?

Which brings us to another point…… Isaiah describes what God is doing. But where are we in all this? If we imagine that cosmic battle illustrated in Revelation, whose side are we on? What are we doing to advance the cause of Christ? 

If we want to be on God’s side, then we will be working towards the fulfillment of God’s priorities. We will be working to achieve God’s vision of peace and wholeness.

This is not, of course, something we can do on our own. Author Dallas Willard has written that “The greatest temptation to evil that humanity ever suffers is the temptation to make a ‘Jerusalem’ happen by human means” (The Divine Conspiracy, p.380). What he means is that we try to use our own power and ability to bring about the reign of Christ in the world. But doing this—whether through our attempts to legislate morality, to establish a “Christian nation,” or whatever—it always winds up “eliminating truth, or mercy, or both.” 

This is not God’s way. These are not God’s weapons. 

God’s way and weapon is love. It is relationship. It is invitation. 

It is impossible to advance the cause of Christ while utilizing the powers of this world. Only the power of the Kingdom of God as known and expressed through Jesus will bring about the vision of Isaiah, and John, and even of you and I today. 

This hope of transformation has persisted throughout the centuries and millennia because God has written it on our hearts. Because it is an intrinsic part of God’s redemptive plan—not just in this life, but for all of eternity. Because ultimately, this life here and now is a training ground for our eternal work and existence with God. No matter our biological age, we are now children and adolescents whom our Divine Parent wishes to train, and in whom our Divine Parent wants to instill certain priorities and values and lessons. This is boot camp, preparing for the day when we can be set loose in God’s universe and empowered to “reign with him,” as the scriptures imagine.

This future reality is what gives meaning and purpose to it all. 

And for those of us who place our trust in the One True God, we realize that there is nothing that will prevent God’s purposes from being fulfilled. There is no way that the enemy can derail this vision of life as God intends it to be lived. There are no obstacles that keep us from the love of Christ, and the fullness of Kingdom life that begins now with our “rebirth”, and continues, unabated by death, into the eternal future with our loving God.

There is a reason for this persistent hope. And that reason is God. The very God who loves you, who has committed an eternity of resources to develop you into who you are created to be, and who will never—NEVER!—give up. As Eugene Peterson was said to sum up the gospel message:

God loves you.
God is on your side.
God is coming after you.
And God is relentless.

“What Are You Doing Here?”

Scripture: 1Kings 19:1-16

The Story

Well, that’s our story this morning. Looking back to the preceding context, we learn that:

On account of the King’s injustice and unfaithfulness, God has worked through Elijah to bring a drought to the land…… hoping to get their attention before things get worse.

As things do get worse, Elijah has confronted the government and its manipulation of religion for its own purposes of power and control.

Elijah has confronted that religious construct—the prophets of Baal—and effectively hamstrung it…… demonstrated its falsehood, and rendered it impotent.

From this triumph, Elijah goes again to the king and ends the drought, providing further proof of the power of the One True God.

And for his labors, Elijah gets death threats from the queen [1Kings 19:2]—threats so grave and so serious that he becomes genuinely afraid [1Kings 19:3] and flees to the wilderness to escape.

 

But it is all too much for him. 

Elijah is exhausted.
He is depressed.
He cannot see a way out of this predicament.
He cannot envision a future wherein he even survives. 

So he wishes himself dead [1Kings 19:4b], asks God to do the deed, and falls asleep to dark and fell dreams.

He is awakened by what the text calls an angel [1Kings 19:5b-6], which is how the Old Testament tells of a human-like form that essentially manifests the words and presence of God. Some stories are a bit ambiguous as to whether the angel in question is actually God-in-human-shape, or just some heavenly being representing God. But I don’t think it mattered much either way to the one actually having the experience.

The angel seemingly manifests a cake and some water—and it does this not once but twice, recognizing that Elijah has clearly endured more than he can handle [1Kings 19:7b]. Still, never underestimate the value of a nap and snack.

So nourished, Elijah journeys for many days until he reaches to Horeb—also known as Mount Sinai, and explicitly here called “the mountain of God” (1Kings 19:8b).

“What are you doing here?” Elijah is asked. And he vents [1Kings 19:10]: I’ve done all the right things; I did everything God told me to do; and now I’m alone and about to be killed and it’s just awful.

Based on where Elijah has come to (Mount Sinai), and based on what happens next in the story (an encounter with God), it seems that at the heart of Elijah’s question is one that is still familiar among us today, especially during hardship: “Where are you, God?”

Where are you, while these bad things are happening me?

Where are you, while people are out to get me?

Where are you, while I despair and lose hope?

Where are you, God?!?

 

So the angel tells Elijah that God the Lord is about to pass by…… 

But not in the wind so strong it tore the mountains themselves into the sky.

Not in the earthquake that threatened to rend the foundations of the very earth apart.

Not in the fire that consumed everything before it.

God was not in any of those. God was in the “sound of sheer silence”…… the “still, small voice.” And when Elijah heard it, he knew it was God [1Kings 19:13a].

 

In his despair and nourished by God’s own provision, Elijah has journeyed to the place where Moses spoke to God…… where Moses looked upon God…… and where Elijah has now had an equally profound encounter. 

But it was still not enough. God is more attentive and attuned to us than we can even imagine, so God asks again—this time verbally: “What are you doing here?” (1Kings 19:13b). And despite the moments-ago encounter, nothing has changed for Elijah. He offers the same ranting response—verbatim. 

So God changes tactics; that’s what God does—God adapts. Instead of giving him what Elijah thinks he wants, God gives Elijah what he needs: direction, purpose, and the means to matter…… all of which make life worth living once again.

It is worth adding that in the immediate aftermath of this episode, a youngster named Elisha becomes Elijah’s disciple. It is clear from the story that part of what gives Elijah purpose is training the next generation of faithful leadership.

The Haunting Question

Ultimately, that’s the story. But what hangs with me—what haunts me—is God’s question: “What are you doing here?”

It’s a question that God had to ask twice. The first time, God’s response suggests that Elijah thinks he is there in this wilderness place for God—for an encounter. So that’s what God gives him, even though—I suspect—that God knew full well it will not satisfy. God likely knew that Elijah had not run away to this desolate place to find God, but to escape……and maybe (like Job) just to be heard. 

God’s response following the second asking proves more fruitful—it demonstrates that Elijah could not imagine a future anymore. Why is Elijah there? Because he needs a job to do, even if he thinks (in this moment) that he can never do another job ever again. 

Note too how Elijah uses the same words both times; like God’s question to him, Elijah’s response is identical. He—incredibly—isn’t sufficiently shaken from his depression…… even by so direct an encounter with God. The only change that comes through this story is his willingness to “go back in” and keep doing the work.

 

“What are you doing?” is a haunting question for me because I don’t think it’s intended only for Elijah: Why are we here? ……right here; right now. Why are we here?

Most of us are here because we think we want an encounter with God. 

We hope that the music we sing will enrapture our soul. 

We pray with the desire to feel God “pick up” on the other end of the line.

We listen to scripture and sermon hoping to discover some hidden “key” that will help us make sense of things.

But I suspect that most of us are actually here because somewhere deep inside us (as with Elijah), we intuitively know that we need a commission—we need to hear God say: “I still believe in you. I want to accomplish great things through you. Now hold your head up, get back in there, and let’s get some things done together.”

That’s a pretty powerful gospel right there.

Demons

In a lot of churches this morning, a New Testament gospel text will be read alongside this Old Testament reading. According to the lectionary schedule, that happens to be (what we often call) the story of the Gerasene demoniac, found in Luke 8. 

I think you’re probably familiar with this story too.

Jesus crosses over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee. As he literally steps off the boat, he is confronted by a filthy, naked man who reeks of death. A man whose condition has driven him from the city…… to the countryside…… to the isolation of caves and tombs. 

Through this encounter, the man will be purged of his demons (which go into some nearby pigs) and he is restored to life. But the folk of the city will not be able to handle this rebirth—”they were afraid” (v.35); and they will try to drive both him and Jesus away [Luke 8:37].

This man—often called “Legion” after the name the demons gave for him—he is introduced in the story as “a man of the city who had demons” (Luke 8:27 NRSV). If you think about it, it seems to me that reference could describe a lot of us. When did they descend upon him (I wonder?)…… and on us…… (who knows?). Most of us didn’t even recognize their presence until we were somehow under their power, and desiring to be free. 

 

My brain comes up with all kinds of connections and questions here:

It’s hard to not draw parallels to the simultaneous addiction and isolation that comes when social media is abused.

It’s difficult to not think of the ways the “talking heads” of our culture infect us with divisive ideologies that do harm to our neighbors, ourselves, and our planet.

Legion’s demons go into some pigs that end up drowning; where do our demons go when they leave us? And what do they destroy along the way?

And perhaps most importantly: How do we so encounter Christ that he can cast out our demons and restore us to health and life?

But recognize too that healing and restoration to life does not solve all the man’s problems. Those who knew him from “before” can’t accept the change in him, even though it is for his wellbeing. This stands as yet another important reminder to us: It is a lot easier to be the person the people around you expect you to be. But it’s a lot more fulfilling to be the person that God knows you can become.

Being Found

In the midst of this conversation, it is also worth remembering that God does not stand aloof or far off from us. The “heavens” in which God was believed to live were not a place somewhere out in space, as Jesus often reminds folks. The word he uses refers to the air that is all around us…… the atmosphere both near and far. When Jesus says the Kingdom of the Heavens is “at hand” [Matthew 3:2 NIV], he is saying that it is right there, all around you, presently available to be experienced—just like the air that encompasses your body each moment.

That is how far—or rather how near—God is to you. And even in the Old Testament, God is trying to be found by us. I love the opening verses of Isaiah 65, situated nearly at the end of that book. This chapter speaks of the judgment and justice that God will oversee in the lives of the ancient Israelites, but the initial verses paint a picture of God as the father of the prodigal, eager and even desperately trying to call his child home. God through Isaiah says:

“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name. 

I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices” (Isaiah 65:1–2 NRSV)

Connecting this to the stories of Legion and Elijah…… God is trying to be found by us…… 

whether we are nearly suicidal from isolation and exhaustion, 

practically torn apart from the demons that control us, 

rejected by those who know us best, 

or whatever state we may be in. 

God is trying to be found by us.

Outro

What are you doing here?
What are you doing here?
What are you doing here?

There’s work to be done. God still believes in you. God wants to accomplish great things through you. Now hold your head up, get back in there, and let’s get some things done together.

Yeah?