First Congregational Church
November 17, 2013
26th Sunday after Pentecost
"The Participial Form of the Verb Makes All the Difference"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was once a king of large country with many people. The king wanted to extend his control into the realm of nature as well as over the people. So he launched what he called "A Campaign Against Four Evils." The Four Evils were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. The sparrows, he said, were special enemies, because they freely helped themselves to millions of tons of food each year. How dare they take away food from the People?
So one day the entire populace was ordered to wage war on the sparrows. They were to relentlessly pursue the sparrows by banging loudly on pots and pans so as to chase them into a frenzy. And it worked. Sparrows by the millions finally dropped dead of exhaustion, clearly no match for the dictator.
The next day the country's newspapers were triumphant with stories of marketplaces all over the land being glutted with more fried sparrow than the people could eat. But those papers never seemed to report on the following two years of massive crop loss and famine. It seems that without the sparrows eating "millions of tons of food," wheat-eating insects flourished, consuming massive amounts of grain and other foliage. * It, is, if nothing else, a point to the song, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."
We may - from time to time - think about God's redemptive work in the lives of people. Redeeming people from death, from abuse, from grief, from sin, from illness, from addiction, from anything from a long list of maladies that fall on us and the human race. But we don't often put the two words - redemption and nature - in the same sentence.
Before we get to reading our passage from Isaiah, we may hear a little richness in remembering that when chapter 65 was written, Solomon's 6th century before Christ, glorious, gargantuan, gilded temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and the elite of the Jewish people were taken into captivity back to Babylon - modern-day Iraq. Seventy years had passed, and a lot of the exiled people had died, babies had been born, and a generation or two had known only the magnificent Babylon, with its wide streets, canals, sumptuous gardens, huge protective wall that was twelve feet thick, and the stunning gates to the city proper.
But the king of Babylon at that time, Cyrus, set the Hebrew people free, to go home to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. During the time of exile, those who stayed in Jerusalem had bought up some of the "vacated" land, and the Samaritans had caused some trouble, so "home" was not exactly home. On top of all that, the rebuilding of the temple was not as exciting as it may have been anticipated. It was much smaller than the temple that the old-timers could remember, much less opulent, and certainly a step "down" or "backward" from life in Babylon. So the writer of Isaiah says,
17 “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. 20 “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them. 24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
Thank you, Pat. This is one of those passages that may ring a far-off bell, with familiar parts heard at funerals and Christmas-time. Some of us may recognize it as the basis for the famous paintings depicting "The Peaceable Kingdom." For the people some 2,500 years ago, Isaiah's prophecy would sound like a Peaceable Kingdom. Even in the last 100 years, we've come a long way from the 75% infant mortality rate and complications of childbirth that left many women dead or unable to bear children. To not have to settle legal battles of property rights would be heaven.
It would be so wonderful to have the time to ask each one of you what you think about the last verses that Isaiah talks about - about the critters - and how you "see" that part of the prophecy playing out. There is a little clip on a website called 22 Words, that shows little Marshall Shaffer, who is all of maybe 18 to 24 months old, dressed in a tiger costume. He's at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, WA, in front of a tiger cub that is maybe three to four months old. Separated by a glass, the child and the cub play together, tagging one another, faking each other out, running back and forth between the ends of the glass. The laughing little boy and the extra large kitten give a clear glimpse of what it could look like - when God redeems all of nature - us and the animals and birds and even the vegetation and the land itself - for God's new world.
I wonder how many of us read or hear this passage as coming from far-off history, way back, when life looked so different from our present. And yet, there is a way out-there sense, as in that apocalyptic day when Jesus returns, an apocalyptic time that is yet to come. History and future are good things, and they are good for various purposes. But the present, that's where most of us live, and outside the "future," there seems little to apply to our lives today - regardless of our situations. Except that "The Participial Form of the Verb Makes All the Difference."
To be honest, I wouldn't know a participle if it ran up and smacked me upside the head. On behalf of all of us who have failed you, I apologize to the English teachers among us. And knowing that the original language of our passage was in Hebrew, well, I can't bluff you all that well. Suffice it to say that when I read Corrine Carvalho's commentary on Isaiah and this part about the participial form of the verb in the first verse of our passage, I couldn't pass it up.
It's not so much that it's a brilliant sounding title, but the implications are what really matter. It has to do with the verb create - from which we get creation - and the idea that it is an on-going activity. Ms. Carvalho put it so simply and beautifully: "That ideal world is being created "new" every day. Then she put this cherry on the top: "God's creative work turns the profane world of the city (Jerusalem) into holy space, God's territory."
"That ideal world is being created "new" every day. God's creative work turns the profane world of the city into holy space, God's territory." I tell ya, I got so excited about those sentences last night, I almost said "Amen" right out loud!
Isaiah's words are not just about what happened in the past, which didn't result in a lasting peace, and they aren't just words about an indefinite future. They are words about now, today, this moment, and God's creation making this - and this world - all the worlds - holy space.
Ms. Carvalho ended her commentary by saying that Isaiah 65:17-25 "invites people today to consider how our experience of God's holiness changes the world for us." So how - in your experience - does God's holiness change the world for you? How are you "glad" and able to rejoice in what God creates day after day? Where does the wolf and lamb lie down together in your heart? Perhaps it's the wolf of pain and the lamb of letting go? Perhaps the wolf of resentment and the lamb of grace?
I suspect that these questions are not easily answered by everyone here today. For some, I suspect that the next moment is a dark, unknown place or a possible element on the list of things we consider "bad," and for others, it is a place of joy or gratitude and the long list of "good things." For some of us, tomorrow is not only a very long way away, it, too, holds great potential for worry, anxiety or disappointment. For others of us, tomorrow will take care of itself, it is all about living in the delight of that which God has created.
For now, life isn't fair, but we have each other and God. For now, a new world has already begun, because Christ has risen. For now, it may seem like life is a roll of the dice toward chaos, but it is really a picture of communal harmony. In terms of music, there are "perfect" intervals, unison, the perfect 4th, the perfect 5th and the perfect 8th or octave. But there are so many other intervals, and without the augmented fourth there would be no Bebop, and without minor sevenths, the Star Trek theme just wouldn't be the same.
Things may/will look different in God's "upside down kingdom" (lions and lambs together.) But in the midst of trouble, God is not caught by surprise and our answer is already on the way, having already come in the Christ.)
"In the Lord's Prayer, we pray 'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." From our Isaiah passage, we are reminded that before we can call, God will answer, not just once or twice, but every day, every moment. God's answers are not always what we want to hear, but "faith" comes in when we step forward, believing that God not only answers our prayers, but will lead us, if we allow God to take the lead. This passage reminds us that while we are yet speaking, God hears. Not heard or will hear. Hears. Right now. Always, right now. So let's.
Ever-Creating and Always Redeeming God, we thank you that the participial form of your verbs all the difference. Today, we are especially grateful that you create - new, every day - a new heaven and new earth, even when we don't recognize them as such. Thank you for the history you've given us, that we may rely on your past leadings and creations to help us as we look to you for those things in our present. And we thank you for the future you give us, that we may look forward to the time when yours will truly be a peaceable kingdom. For now, God, remind us that you care about our lives in such detail, that it matters when a sparrow falls from the sky, and how much more when one of our hearts weep or a soul cries. In great gratitude for all our blessings and for the gift of your son, who redeems us all, all your created ones say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.