Christian Responsibility to the New Creation: a sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25

Holocaust scholars and historians released a new study of concentration camps and ghettos in 2013. Contra the previous estimates of between 6 and 11 million deaths, the new study suggests that that number is actually much higher; likely between 15 and 20 million. Those numbers are absolutely staggering. Imagine the horror that these people had to face: being separated from their children, knowing they are going to their certain deaths; alone and scared; the torture and slavery these people were subject to for no other reason than their ethnic identity or religion or sexual orientation. Now imagine, yourselves, going through this as someone who believed in God. What kind of toll would this take on your faith? For some of us, our faith would be completely annihilated; obliterated by our horrific suffering which completely strips us of our freedom and agency. Some of us would, no doubt, maintain our faith to the very end, hopeful that God is still working.

And I think a few of us would still believe in God, but with anger and disdain. The Algerian philosopher, Albert Camus, called this “metaphysical rebellion”: someone who believes in, yet hates, God. Legend has it that on the walls of one of the cells in an Austrian concentration camp, a prisoner scribbled the words “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.” I think, at this point in Israel’s history, this had to be what some people thought about God.

They’ve been the object of God’s wrath; they’ve suffered under the rule of so many bad kings; they’ve been enslaved in Babylon. There is no doubt that, at some point through all of this, the stories of God’s people passed down from generation to generation, slowly slipped away. By Isaiah's time, people stopped talking about the joy of YHWH's law, like the Psalmist loved to do. When the Israelites would tuck their kids in at night, they no longer told them the story about how the LORD brought them up out of the land of Egypt. Somewhere along the way, the Israelites were subjected to so much suffering, so much misfortune, that they forgot who YHWH really was.

Our passage this morning reminds us. In it we see the God who loves us and chose us. And just like the Israelites, we desperately need reminding. At the beginning of the text we read that God creates a new heaven and new earth; the new shall be rejoiced in and the old shall not even be remembered. Now this should sound pretty familiar to us. Paul uses this language; John uses this language. A LOT of the New Testament is one long commentary on Isaiah; Jesus even reads himself back into Isaiah. Though this does lend us a commentary on the importance of Isaiah for our interpretations of the New Testament, what’s even more important is what Jesus reads. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Christ proclaims himself to be the one who sides with the poor, the captive, and the oppressed. In other words, the God which brings the new creation and wipes away the old is the God of the powerless. Imagine how utterly powerless the Israelites were — the small, minority group which existed alongside sheer superpowers. God could have chosen to be the God of another mighty nation; a strong, fierce nation! But God didn’t choose the Israelites because they were numerous or strong or mighty — he chose them because he loved them! The God who created the universe loved, from eternity, this small group of the oppressed. It had nothing to do with their power, nothing to do with their abilities, nothing to do with anything they themselves could provide. But instead it had everything to do with what God could provide!

What a blessing, friends! What a blessing to know that we don’t have to manufacture our own hope! That our hope doesn’t rise or fall with the gross national product or the person sitting in the Oval Office! God alone brings peace and joy. God alone slakes our hunger and thirst for something more. God alone can deliver the oppressed. And God alone establishes the new creation where misfortune and suffering are not even remembered. God takes it out of the Israelites’ hands. No longer will they be forced to brace for the waves of misfortune that have crashed over them for so long.

The long description of the new creation is one long list of how God is striking misfortune from the lives of the Israelites. Children living long lives, building houses and living in them, planting vineyards and eating of them; these are all stipulations of covenants. These are the things at stake in waging a covenant with someone. And this is the reality Israel has been living with for generations. Consider the constant fear of breaking the covenant and losing your children and your home. Consider the sheer anxiety we would feel as people being subjected to a covenant made hundreds of years ago. It would be absolutely terrifying.

God creates the new heaven and the new earth because he doesn’t desire this fear and anxiety for his people. He desires a peaceful, loving existence. An existence where no one is poor and oppressed at the hands of another. An existence where the throne is occupied by YHWH's Messiah and him alone. And existence where relationships between all people are marked by love, not hate.

God alone can establish this new creation. We have no power to bring it about — not through human will or action. But we are the body of Christ. We participate in the divine life of the triune God. We are the instrument through which God works to ready the earth for the new creation. Christ is coming back but we have work to do before that can happen. And therefore we have responsibilities!

We have a responsibility to the poor and oppressed. If we want to be responsible Christians in the public realm, regardless of personal agendas or political convictions, we must have something to say about our brothers and sisters who live in fear. Fear for their bodies, fear for their families, for their dignity, for their next meal. The world is full of children, exactly like my beautiful, little baby boy, who are dying because they don’t have access to food and clean water. There are people all over the world being discriminated against because of their race and sexual orientation. We have a responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, friends. The plight of the voiceless is, and always has been, the plight of the church.

And this responsibility isn’t always easy. It isn’t always comfortable. It can entrap us into very uncomfortable situations and conversations we often walk away from feeling vulnerable and unsure. But I encourage you, friends, to set aside those fears and allow yourselves to be led by the Spirit. This is a time for courageous dialogue and defense of the defenseless. This is a time to set aside our differences and come together in anticipation of the new creation God is working to establish and care for those on the margins.

It can be really difficult to acknowledge that these issues exist. And even when we do, it’s easy to feel like they are unconquerable because of how vastly they have penetrated our society and its systems. But we can take a stand against those parading the message which appeared on the front page of NewsWeek a few days ago: the message that says “Make America White Again.” A great theologian once said “Preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.” Well, this is our opportunity to interpret our newspaper from our Bible. This message and the people who perpetuate it are enemies of the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ. But we are not called to hate them. We are called to love them and that includes correcting. This is our opportunity to take a stand for the oppressed when that co-worker makes a racist remark at the water cooler or when we hear someone engaging in this kind of rhetoric. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

The love of God has moved each of us. We are forever changed because we have been loved long enough and fiercely enough that we might offer ourselves to God. Upon offering ourselves to God, we become the instruments through which God loves the world and we are called to love this world, through word and act, deeply and heavily. We have a responsibility to the new creation, friends. Let us arise, and get to work. Amen.

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