If you attend a lectionary-following church, you might have heard an oft-quoted passage in church today. You know, new heavens, new earth, the lion laying down with the lamb, etc. It’s from Isaiah 65, and Christians tend to like this idea of a new heaven and a new earth. We like not having weeping and mourning. We like that God will know our needs–and answer them–before we even voice our prayers. Those of us concerned with social justice yearn for a time when the “way of the predator” is no longer the way, when “the prey” can trust in the new way of doing things, when peace and justice reign (and rain) down. Someday, we say. Someday.
(Here’s the passage in full, from the New Living Translation, if you’re interested.)
J and I drove an hour out into the country today to hear some good friends preach on this passage at a small country church (more on that some other time), and the sermon we heard took a surprising turn towards the end. Look at this passage again. If this is about heaven, why are there people dying? Why is there still labor (of the child-birthing kind as well as the grape-growing kind)? These are interesting questions.
Prophets–the old timers as well as contemporary ones–are people with imagination, those who can imagine the world in a new way, the way God intended it. Isaiah indeed imagines for us what the “new heaven” and “new earth” will be like. But what if he is also challenging the people of God in his day, and challenging us, to rethink this earth, this life?
So think on this for a minute. Then think about the world around you.
This passage does not describe the world we know. Not one bit.
An hour ago, we finished watching a documentary about the modern-day slave industry. Modern-day. As in, right now. This earth. This life. This country. Millions of people. And we’re not talking about people who are just in a tight spot, not people who are suffering from poverty and the host of problems associated with that. These are people literally being sold. Sex slaves. Labor slaves. Children. Adults. This earth. This life.
One of the problems mentioned in this documentary is how we tend to move between two extremes: ignorance on the one hand and utter helplessness on the other. Either we don’t know what’s going on or we feel so completely overwhelmed that it seems impossible to do anything about it. What can we do, after all? Our closets and bedrooms, our cell phones and televisions, our kitchens and refrigerators. . . it is impossible to know how many hands touched our goods before they got to us. Literally impossible. And, quite frankly, the more I find out, the more I feel stuck. The more I want to just wait for the new heaven and the new earth, and do nothing in the mean time (except maybe pray when I think about it).
Well, I’ll just make one suggestion, maybe the place we should all start, myself included: let’s start by imagining a different world. A crazy world. A world where there are no predators or prey, where even the lions are vegetarians.
That’s just crazy.
But Isaiah did it.
We can, too.