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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 17, 2013

 A Word on God

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

            Time Magazine recently carried an article about sixteen-year-old movie star Hailee Steinfeld, who plays a leading role in the new movie, Ender’s Game.  The movie is based upon the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card, and it is set in 2086, when the very future of the planet and civilization itself are threatened by extinction.  As such, it joins a long list of movies made in the last few years about the end of the world as we know it, most of them made to scare the life out of you and to keep your heart in your throat over how certain and how terrifying the threat of our destruction is.  Just a quick look at movies made in 2013 so far includes these titles of apocalyptic, end-of-the-world, scare-you-to-death movies: The World’s End, World War Z, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, After Earth, Warm Bodies, The Host, The Colony, and then two very upbeat titles: Oblivion and Contagion.  And that does not include the Seth Rogan comedy, This is the End!

            Do you think Hollywood senses that Americans are afraid, maybe even terrified about the future, and that this fear can be exploited for their ends, which is to make movies people will pay to see?!  Most of these movies are filled with the violence that haunts our planet, and most of them leave you more frightened about the prospects for our planet than when you first entered the theater.

            By contrast, our Old Testament Lesson today is not about the end of the world, but rather about the possibility of a new beginning.  The prophesy of Isaiah spans a significant period of time in Israel’s history.  It begins by foreseeing the destruction of Jerusalem, the center of the world as the people of Israel knew it.  That destruction took place in 586 b.c. and led to an exile in Babylon for seventy years.  All that time Jerusalem, which by the way, mean’s God’s Peace, lay in ruins.  The Temple of Solomon, the great symbol of Yahweh’s presence with them, was utterly destroyed.  Yet after seventy years in exile, through historical events that the prophet understood and saw as the very work of God, the exiles returned home.

            Faced with a ruined city and a ruined Temple, a mood of pessimism and despair took hold of the people.  But in the face of this fear and gloom, God spoke a word of hope to the prophet.  I cannot think of a more fitting word for us to attend to in 2013:   “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”  In other words, Isaiah is saying that human sin and sorrow are no match for Divine joy.  Three times in these first two verses Isaiah, speaking for God, uses the word “create.”  The Hebrew word for this verb is “Bara.”  This verb occurs in the Old Testament only with God as the subject.  Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the creator God.  And by the Word of this God, creation was called into being.  This God created all that is out of nothingness.  But even better for us, this God promises to create new things out of the old.

             It is one thing to be able to start things anew from scratch.  There is a certain romantic illusion to the novel and the new.  A new job in a new place with new people always has its appeal, because we all get tired and weary of the life we already have at times.  And the myth of a brand new life, or a brand new job, or a brand new marriage, or a brand new church, for that matter, always has its appeal.  But this is not the promise of Isaiah.  This God is capable of doing the most difficult thing of all: Creating something genuinely new out of something that is very old.  This is not creation out of nothing.  The medieval church called this creatio ex nihilo.  God did that once and only once.  This is creation out of the chaos and failure of human endeavor.  If the Old Testament teaches us anything, it teaches that we make a mess of things over and over again.  In the face of this sad truth Isaiah offers the promise that God can make old things new.  That is Good News today if your marriage or your work or your family feels tired and  weary, and in need of renewal.  It is good news for this old church, the oldest worshiping congregation in Nashville, because it is the promise that God can make old things new.  It is why I am so excited about our church’s strategic plan and vision, because it assumes that this Creator, creating God is not finished with us yet.  And I need to add that this is why I do not despair over the future of America or for that matter, over the future of our planet.  Oh, I know we have complex problems, and I know we are faced with huge challenges and besought with obstacles and perils on many fronts.  But I also believe along with Presbyterian minister Maltbie Babcock that “This is My Father’s World” and “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.”  I don’t buy the apocalyptic fear and terror traded on by so many in this culture.  I believe in a sovereign God who promises redemption and hope, healing and peace.  I believe in a God who promises to make old things new, and “whose Word accomplishes what God purposes.”  You don’t find that kind of hope in the movies or in most modern novels, and you sure don’t find that kind of hope in newspapers or in the media.  But the Bible, the Living Word of the Living God, offers that hope on every page, and the Bible has a lot of pages!  Rob Bell asks the question in his best-selling controversial book, Love Wins, “Does God get what God wants?”  I love this question, for it makes me want to proclaim an emphatic “yes!”

             “Before they call I will answer,” says the Lord, “while they are yet speaking I will hear.”  This God of hope, this creator of new things out of old ones, answers prayer!  So this passage tells me that I need to pray more, that we all need to pray more, not less.  And Jesus tells us how we are to pray: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  God can make it happen, I tell you.

             And I absolutely love Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom to a people who only knew war and the destruction of it in their lifetimes.  Listen and picture it!  “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox; but the serpent – its food shall be dust!  They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.  Peace is the promise that God makes to us, a peace we can scarcely imagine, much less describe.

             My father’s favorite work of art was Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, which was based upon this grand vision of Isaiah, found here and in Isaiah 11.  It does not surprise me now, looking back, that this was my Dad’s favorite artwork.  Captured in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in north Africa in February of 1943, my father spent the next twenty-seven months as a prisoner of war in Germany.  My Dad was not enamored with war, because he knew firsthand the hell and brutality of war.  So did Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister who actually painted sixty-one versions of The Peaceable Kingdom.  In most of his paintings you see a lion and a lamb, a wolf and an ox standing together in peace, with an infant in their midst, utterly safe and secure.  You also see William Penn signing a treaty with the Indians, the true Native Americans, that Hicks hoped and prayed would lead to a real peace.  Like Hicks, Penn was a Quaker, a Christian sect committed deeply, quietly, passionately to peace.  The longer Hicks painted this vision of the peaceable kingdom, the more ferocious the beasts in the paintings were made to look.  It was Hick’s ways of acknowledging his fear in what he saw in the world around him, and his growing conviction that only God could ever bring about such a world.

             Only God can, of course.  But thankfully, God promises that He will.  In Luke this morning Jesus prophetically announces the sure destruction of the second Temple, a destruction that came in 70 a.d.  But Jesus knew that even Rome would not have the last word in human history.  That word belongs to God, and nothing is over until Jesus says so.  And in the worst of times, Jesus said, “Not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  That, dear friends, is a promise.  The last word always belongs to Jesus, and it is the best word of all!

                         Amen.

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