Pentecost 26C, November 20th 2016 Isaiah 65:17-25
New Heavens. New Earth. Possibilities For Human Society, Now.
What is this New Heaven, New Earth? What are the possibilities for human society today, in short where is our hope? The gospel is grounded in the idea that hope is possible, that hope is in all we need so where is it? What does it look like?
For starters we might see if we can paint a picture of what this hope looks like as it is today and then we might be able to see an alternative picture of what it could be.
It seems to me that the hope we all talk about today is far from the biblical hope that Jesus envisaged. That sort of optimistic hope is far from being the hope we seem to live by today. Our hope is perhaps a so-called mushy neo-evangelical muddle in the middle of extremes. Now you might say; what does that mean?
Well! It’s no secret that the western world over the past several decades has witnessed growing economic inequality and deepening economic insecurity for a very large section of working people around the world. Just look at the rich lists and the debates around what poverty means and how to measure it, and we see that all we can talk about is the results of policy rather than any alternative policies that might address the issue constructively and systemically or if you like culturally. The point I want to make is that we miss the hidden things when we get caught up in the debates. In very technical language we have to say that most analysts miss the hidden injuries of class that become dramatically intensified when the underlying psychological and spiritual dysfunction of global economic ideology, interacts with economic insecurity. Note I am talking about all ideological drivers as opposed to naming any ideology such as capitalism or socialism and I am doing this because I think using those names limits our ability to see beyond the current presenting view and be able to entertain an alternative.
Another way of approaching this hidden factor is what was shown in the Brexit vote process and just this last week in the American Election. The American situation has a very important message for the world and that is that we can keep on voicing our arguments for acceptance of our world view and our principled stand for justice peace and integrity, but we cannot expect that argument to overcome more fundamental needs. As progressive communities we have a belief in democracy being a reliable, liberal mechanism for populations to express their interests, and yet the centre of gravity of what occupies most people’s consciousness is one that we’re mostly far out of touch with. We’re in an echo chamber of postmodern, globalist values that have their own drivers. We group together on Facebook. We follow each other on Twitter. We consume digital media and stay abreast of events and global affairs like never before and yet the whole world, the very world we think we can see is actually unknown to us, even as our neighbours, who have the most impact on our national lives, have become foreigners living beside us. We see the diversity and the differences but we fail to recognize the very nature of the community that has become globalized.
In this sort of environment, both Socialism and Capitalism as economic and social systems escape the scrutiny they should receive and they become fundamentalist when they are not open to critique. In simple terms, both left and right movements lose faith in the efficacy of democratic government and turn to authoritarian leaders in the hope that their own fears and pain can be alleviated. How often do we hear today “it would be good to have a benevolent dictator” as if all this political stuff is too technical and too difficult to be sorted out. A nice person telling us what to think would help. HaHa! This development has been happening around the world in recent years including NZ. Just listen to talk-back and read face-book and this becomes more obvious. Intolerance, racism, sexism and the extremes are voiced without critique. And in the vacuum created by this battle of ideas we lose sight of how to even shape an agenda for how to build a healthier and more just society in the coming decades, let alone know how to articulate what it is that we think is healthy and just. We become consumed with restructuring or shifting the chairs on the deck of the Titanic rather than finding a lane with less icebergs.
Back to my concern for a certain hope or a hope filled existence rather than one driven by fear. The truth is that this mushy-middle approach is not only frightened, and frightening, it has flattened and been made one-dimensional, the role of both theologian and prophet, in the life of the church and thus the idea of a certain hope rooted in the possibilities of imagination and creativity and dare I say it, God has become sidelined by the presenting rather than the actual.
Our story from the prophet Isaiah will have none of that fear driven stuff. Instead, through the use of vivid picture language, Isaiah offers a vision, or states a position, which reminds us “of the ideals for which we hope and for which we believe God strives. The ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to God’s transforming power” (RPregeant ,P&F web site, 2007).
Some might say that this is a most appropriate passage as we come to the end of the Christian year, and in America yet another election! The task of Trump is to now speak consilitary without losing face, to hold true to what he said within the constraints of what he can and can’t do. His success or failure will be determined by his ability to keep control of the myth he created in the face of a different reality. The challenge that now faces the country is to hold him to the ideal by spelling out what is expected of him in office. One group of Australian biblical scholars reflected on this passage and they wrote; “All that has prevented creation from being what God intended will be removed. The disasters we see in the world about us every day are not what will determine the future of God’s creation. Neither terrorist activity nor the exercise of military power will hold sway in God’s order of things. Political deception will have no place, nor will abuse within the family or workplace. The selfish exploitation and neglect of nature will be recognised… This is what the writer(s) of Isaiah 65 look toward. They look not just to the making new of the physical world, but also to the renewing of the relationships and interconnections within the world which maintain life in its physical, spiritual, social and other dimensions. That is the Christian hope” (HWallace et al. web site, 2007). New heavens. New earth. Possibilities for human society, now.
Over the last few weeks I have been talking about the so-called ‘apocalyptic’ talk as being a basis for human transformation rather than ‘end-of-the-world’ stuff. Again underlying this claim is that life is better lived out of the possibilities and in hope rather than the fear of failure and the inevitability of death. We also noted that this required of a certain encounter with this reality and it is that we are to read and study the biblical stories seriously, and not literally, and that our purpose is to even though it feels a small way, we are to participate in the transformation of the world. Again our task is about reimagining rather than scaremongering with the end-of-world stuff.
So how do we go about this reimagining of our lot, our world as it is and what it could become? How do we if only in a small way begin to participate in the transformation – reimagining – of the world? One way might be as I suggested earlier by beginning with a critique of the now and the way the now was created. Michael Lerner, a progressive Jewish Rabbi in America, wrote in 2006 a powerful book called The Left Hand of God. In the book Lerner challenges both the political ‘right’ and the political ‘left’ to re-imagine the way society is organized by presenting what he calls a new “spiritual vision… a whole different level of discourse, not something narrowly instrumental that is basically about winning an election” (Lerner 2006:5, 18).
He sets out what he called a ‘Spiritual Covenant with America’. “We invite our fellow Americans”, he writes, “to join us in building a society based on (a) new bottom line” (Lerner 2006:229).
He goes on to identify eight areas or issues that are covered by the Covenant, and they include:
- personal responsibility,
- social responsibility,
- values-based education,
- health care,
- environmental stewardship,
- building a safer world, and finally
- the separation of church and state and science.
It is true that the greater secularization of society in New Zealand might want to claim that we have addressed some of these issues they are still in my mind a sound basis from which to begin the focus on where hope might lie.
We don’t have time to go into any detail of Lerner’s Covenant today other than to offer some words from his conclusion that might ring bells in our New Zealand context as well: “There is an enormous spiritual hunger in America. It is a yearning for a new way to think and a new way to live. We have been trapped into thinking that fulfillment comes from achieving material success. But as the globalized economy makes accessible more and more material goods at prices that can be afforded, and more Americans have more commodities – more computers, cell phones, DVDs, cars, boats, televisions, and other gadgets – than anyone else on earth, we find ourselves reaching for something else, something that cannot be satisfied by a new purchase. We want meaning to our lives…” The similarity of the background scene between America and NZ confirms for me the evolution of the western world and its impact on western society.
Lerner also offers two images of Right Hand and Left Hand of God, into our context and this can mirror the Western world’s democracy that is based on the party political structure. The adversarial winner takes all mode and more importantly for my address today the idea that a New Heavens and New Earth a New World“, is a challenge to the current western point of view. Lerner says that The Right Hand of God is embraced by the powerful… [and] used to provide legitimacy to an American empire and a competitive and unjust economic marketplace… The Left Hand of God emphasizes the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation, recognition of the spirit of God in every other human being and an awareness of our interdependence with others… (Lerner 2006:358).
The truth is that throughout history, as well as within each of us, we can find elements in our life experiences that identify with the vision of the Right Hand of God. And similarly, there are also signs in both our individual and communal lives that come under the influence of the vision of the Left Hand of God. My claim today is that the hope of the Gospel lies in our ability to be able to critique both hands. Why? Because; when social energy flows more toward hope, we find ourselves supporting policies that are more generous, more oriented toward establishing peace and justice. And when social energy flows more toward fear, we find ourselves supporting policies that seek to dominate others, and to build institutions based on the assumption there is not enough in the way of material goods to go around (Lerner 2006:358-59).
The good news in our text today is: that the world can be re-imagined; can be transformed. And our role in all this is to challenge the powerful voice of fear. Be it in the church or in society in general. Challenge the assumption that fear is the driver of society and bear witness to the reality and the ramifications of the vision of Isaiah and Michael Lerner and others. A Christian hope is a certain hope because the impossible is possible. New Heavens, New Earth, New World. A New Way is possible, new economic ideas, new models of family, new understandings of responsibility, new ways of learning and experiencing life, new ways of caring for each other and the environment, and new ways of keeping each other safe are possible. All it takes is having a hope that is impervious to ideology and to circumstance, a hope rooted in the possible of the impossible. And we would say; a hope rooted in the Jesus Way. Amen.
Notes: Lerner, M. 2006. The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. New York. HarperCollins