"Imagine a World"

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10

Mt St Helens

How many of you have had a chance to visit Mt St Helens since its eruption in 1981?  What did you see?  [Take a few minutes for people to respond]

Over 230 square miles of forest were either scorched or blown down by the force of the eruption.  Spirit Lake, previously a major resort and recreation site, was left with toxic levels of volcanic gasses and filled with a mat of fallen trees.  For a number of years, there was no color present in the landscape other than ashen grey.  When President Jimmy Carter visited to survey the damage, he said, “Someone said this area looked like a moonscape.  But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what’s up there.”[1]

In a moment, nearly 150,000 acres of land were destroyed.  In a moment, a beautiful mountain landscape was transformed into a barren wasteland, lacking life and seemingly without hope of returning to the pristine natural beauty that it once had.

Isaiah in Context

I imagine that the people of Judah saw a similar landscape as they looked out over their land.  They were living as refugees in the land of Babylon, forced to leave their homeland after much of it – including the capital city of Jerusalem – was destroyed by war. 

They looked upon their old homeland, they saw the land ravaged and burnt, their memories and livelihood taken.  All that was left of their land was ash, and all that was left of their previous political power was a stump.  The royal line of King David was cut short.  That stump represents all of Israel’s lost hope, their despair, and their resignation.  And that stump – that tiny, lifeless remnant of what Israel once had been – was precisely where Isaiah found God’s message of hope for the future of God’s people.

It was in the midst of one of Israel’s darkest moments that the Prophet Isaiah came forth with a vision of new life bursting forth from dry stump that was presumed to be dead.

Imagine a World

“Imagine a word,” Isaiah says, “where a new King from David’s line will emerge.  A King like Israel has never known before – A King truly blessed by the Spirit of God – a king who is wise and understanding, who has foresight and strength, who displays knowledge and fear of the Lord.”

“Imagine a world,” Isaiah says, “that will be filled with justice and righteousness, equality and faithfulness.”

“Imagine a world!” Isaiah proclaims, “Where the wolf and the leopard will live in peace with the lamb and the goat.  Predator and prey won’t just put up with one another, but will feed from the same pasture and drink from the same stream.  This world will be completely free of oppression and fear.  It will be a world where children play without worrying about the threats that might lurk beneath the surface.”

In other words, Isaiah is asking the people of Israel to imagine a world completely unlike the one in which they are living.

Can You Imagine?

Can you imagine?

Most of us are familiar with this passage.  There’s a good chance you have heard this passage preached on at least a few times in your life…  But can you imagine?        

The truth is, it’s incredibly hard – if not utterly impossible – for us to imagine.  We don’t have to look far to see enough to make us second-guess whether Isaiah’s vision was just a dream of a world that can never be.  All around us, we see images and hear stories that remind us of just how far away from this promised world we are living. 

This week alone, we receive two huge reminders of our distance from this world of peace and righteousness.  Yesterday marked the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  This coming Saturday marks the 1-year anniversary of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Each morning’s headlines seem to tell the story of which nation has taken up arms against which, how many people are still out of work, and the many ways in which systemic oppression is still alive and well in our world.

It would be easy for us to dismiss Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom as a failure.  At times, it’s tempting to believe that our world is beyond hope.  But if we dismiss Isaiah’s vision, then we miss the Good News this vision has already partly been fulfilled – we have received our King!

In Christ, we have received the promised King who showed us what God’s Peaceable Kingdom looks like.  He showed us what it looks like when the oppressed and the oppressor to share a table.  He revealed to us a world where the weak break bread with the powerful.  A new paradigm where a King comes with a basin and a rag to wash the feet of his followers.  He taught us how to care for the sick, the hurting, the lonely, and the despised.  He offered hope to those who believed that their situations were beyond hope.

Christ offers hope for the future of God’s people, but he didn’t offer the quick and easy fix that many continue to look for.  He came to bring about a new world – but he came to do it not just for us, but with us.  Ultimately, Christ has invited us – all of humanity and all of God’s creation – to play an active role in the ongoing story of the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.

Kingdom-Minded People

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he writes that “everything that was written in the former days was written so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures.”[2]  We receive the hope and encouragement of a world that is yet to come – a world that we desperately long for – while at the same time we receive a charge to take action here and now.  We know that it is entirely up to God, but we can’t deny that our own actions or inactions have an impact on the bigger story of what God is doing in our midst.  “Therefore,” Paul writes, “welcome one another, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.”

Christ has empowered us, as individual disciples and as the Church, to help to carry out the vision of God’s Kingdom on Earth.  And so we move toward the world that Isaiah has imagined – one moment and one relationship at a time. 

Nelson Mandela was an example of somebody who understood that he played an important role in realizing the vision of peace, justice, and equality.  He dedicated his life to working for the transformation of an oppressive system, and ended up playing an essential role in guiding South Africa to a new democratic government and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens.

The vision of oppressor and oppressed, predator and prey living together in peace and reconciliation was a vision that Mandela believed fully possible, even under the system of apartheid.  In his autobiography, he wrote, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner.”[3]

The fullness of God’s Kingdom is coming.  The New Creation is at hand.  Let us follow the way of Christ and serve as examples to the world of what is possible through the peace and hope offered to us through Jesus Christ.  Let us begin with ourselves, our homes, our schools, and our community right here in Bay View.  Let us be peacemakers, trusting that, one day, all of the predators will live in peace with their prey, and all of the oppressors will show love to the oppressed.

Conclusion - Oscar Romero Prayer

I want to end with these beautiful words, commonly known as the “Oscar Romero Prayer”:

It helps, now and then, to step back   
    and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
    it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
    the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
    which is another way of saying
    that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
    We plant seeds that one day will grow.
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
    We lay foundations that will need further development.
    We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
    and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
    and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
    an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
    but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
    ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.  [4]

[1] Howard Berkes, “Mt St. Helens: Memories of a Mountain Explosion.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4655701

[2] Romans 15:4 (NRSV), emphasis mine.

[3] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom.  Quoted by John Freidman in “Casting Off Chain, Enhancing Freedom of Others: The Legacy of Nelson Mandela” at The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-friedman/nelson-mandela-legacy_b_4394830.html

[4] Bishop Ken Untener, “Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along The Way”  Accessed at http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers/archbishop_romero_prayer.cfm