This morning’s sermon is taken from our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah.
About five hundred and fifty years before the time of Christ the nation of Israel was taken captive by the Babylonians. The people and their cattle were marched eastward out of their homeland. Much of their property was confiscated. They were a people without hope … until, that it, the prophet Isaiah came bringing them a vision of salvation.
A prophet isn’t so much one who predicts the future as he is one who proclaims the word of God. The word of God, by it’s very nature, points to the future and God’s part in it. So, a prophet’s job is to get people out of whatever rut they are in and on with the life God has envisioned for them.
This was what Isaiah did when he recalled for Israel a Lord who “makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior.” Isaiah was giving hope to a people who had lost hope. He was helping them to remember the grand story of the Exodus, the glorious time when God parted the waters of the sea to hep the Israelites escape from the dreaded Egyptians and then, just when the Israelites had safely crossed and just when the Egyptians and their horses were in the midst of the sea, the Lord let the waters come back, crashing down on the bad guys, tossing horse and rider into the sea. The Exodus was – and is – Israel’s premier story of salvation – one which they looked back on. Fondly. Profoundly. Frequently.
But remembering how good things used to be wasn’t sufficient for a God who has a future to tell us about. And so, through his prophet Isaiah, God pleads with Israel saying, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
What is that “new thing” God has in store? Well, the answer lies with poetry. The best way God has to describe his plans is through poetic imagery. He speaks of making rivers in the desert, of water in the wilderness He speaks of jackals and ostriches honoring him. He reaffirms that Israel is his chosen people and will be his chosen people. In short, God is telling them; “Do not look only to the past for your salvation. Look to the future as well.” To the Israelite prisoners-of-war in a faraway land he is telling them: “Guess what! What I did for you in the past I will do again. And again. As a matter of fact, I am about to do it. It is even beginning to happen now. Look around for it. It is springing forth. Watch for the signs!”
In this prophetic vision for Israel there is a prophetic vision for us, as well. Like Israel, we Christians know our grand story of salvation – the one which happened in the past We recount, frequently, the story of Christ on the cross and the empty tomb. We tell that story as fervently and as frequently as our good brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith tell the story of the Exodus. God came triumphantly to save us – back then. And many of us (not enough of us) understand our individual salvations as having taken place at the baptismal font. When the Pentecostals ask us Lutherans for the day and year we were saved, we Lutherans respond with the day and year of our baptism. And that is correct. God brought each of us fully and wholly into his glorious kingdom at baptism.
But there comes for each of us a time of grief that we have somehow been removed from that good thing that ws. We either feel it corporately or individually: Corporately in the sense that somehow humanity has been force-marched, along with cattle and goods, into a distant and foreign country. Muslims are gunned down in worship because they worship a different God. Kids are gunned down in schools because …. because … because??? Racism runs rampant, not only with fringe groups, but with too many of our elected leaders. We have been lead into a foreign country of fear and tribalism. So we are left confused: If God saved the world, why is it in the mess that it is? Or maybe that sense of exile comes individually: God may have died for me and he may have brought me safely into his kingdom at my baptism. But why, then, isn’t my life a holy one? Why is there divorce in my life? Bankruptcy? Illness? It sort of becomes the reverse of Amazing Grace: “I once was found, but now am lost. Could see, but now am blind.”
What does salvation have to do with my future?
Isaiah answers this question poetically. Just as the vision for the future in Isaiah couldn’t be told in any other way than poetry so, too, does the vision for our future get told in the same way. This is the way scripture gives us hope. With poems and songs. It doesn’t do just to say it. We need to sing it, too.
And here it is imply not an option to take the Bible literally. Do you think when Isaiah says that God will make rivers in the desert that he is speaking of literal highways of watter in the middle of the sand? Re-doing earth’s geography? No. He is speaking of bringing relief to suffering, of making things better, of creating things which do not yet exist.
Do you think when Isaiah says that jackals and ostriches will honor God that two of the most ridiculous animals God put on the face of the earth kneeling down in prayer. No, I suspect that it is God’s way of saying that, in the end, all of creation will be brought under his kingdom. It should be a comfort to us that the wild and the ridiculous in our lives will one day be brought under control. It is God’s great word of comfort that it will, one day, be “ok.” These are words of hope.
There is poetry in the New Testament as well which sings of hope. We have poetry which tells of God’s plan for our future with great imagery, allusions, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech. We are told of the New Jerusalem coming out of the sky. The New Testament poet is the John who recorded his revelation in our last book of the Bible. He uses vivid imagery like horses and beasts and whores to represent those evil things which everyone of every century has faced. Now listen to John’s poetry. You can’t take it literally. You may have no idea what the images mean exactly. But you sure do get the gist of hope. Here’s the last little bit of John’s apocalyptic vision: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. .. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
When you read the poetry of Revelation – that is, when you read it as hope-filled poetry rather than the alarming sky-is-falling books that are so popular today – when you really read the poetry you see a vision of a God who will not stop until all divison is healed, all illness made well, all brokenness made whole. The imagery may be streams in the desert. It may be New Jerusalem. It may be golden thrones, pearly gates, and golden cobble stone streets – but the message is the same: The God who brought Israel out of the desert, the God who died on a cross outside of Jerusalem, the God who received you into his loving arms at baptism will, in the end, have the final word and that word will be good. He will not stop until his creation is complete.
People, God will make all things new. All things. She will not stop until her creation is complete. She will not allow a shred of unfaithfulness to remain. Evil will be vanquished. Sin will evaporate. Death will be destroyed.
We do not come to God by hell, fire, and brimstone. She comes to us by new rivers, new cities, and water in the wilderness. It will be good, my friend. Good beyond your wildest imaginations! Poetry doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Text: Isaiah 43: 16-21