Our reading from Isaiah today begins, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” The passage comes after 64 chapters that speak both of God’s judgment upon Israel – upon her leaders, both religious and political, and upon the people as a whole, for their failure to worship God rightly, but so too of his mercy upon them after exile, with the final promise that he will create this new heaven and new Earth.
Following the work and wisdom of one of my mentors who wrote a theological commentary on the Book of Revelation and on ‘the last things, heaven in particular, I don’t think the idea heaven involves our ‘going up’ to some place in the sky. Rather our psalm, psalm 98, says that it is God himself who will come to the earth to renew all things, heaven and earth: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
To whom are these passages of judgment, of mercy and of redemption referring? Well Jesus would seem to indicate that what has been said here about God coming to create a new heaven and a new earth is precisely about his own coming into the world and the effect this will have not just at one particular point in time, but across all of history and for all things. He says in our passage from Luke, “you will face personal tribulations for various reasons, you will face disasters of natural and man-made events with no explanation for why, you will be abandoned by loved ones and you may even experience violence and persecution because you proclaim my name. But by your endurance in following me, you will gain your souls.”
But if we bring the passage from Isaiah about God creating a new heaven and a new earth together with Jesus’s exhortation to persevere in following him, this is what I think he is saying to us: I will make all things new through a return: a return to a restored life, a restored worship, a restored service and life with him. A restored life brought about by Jesus, who in binding all of creation to himself through his life, death and resurrection, utterly transforms this world and each of our lives in all their diversities and particularities, their trials, tribulations, and sufferings; all things past and present, being reordered in light of his coming down. And we can grasp hold of this transformation by holding onto – or in classical terms – clinging to the one who, in a figural sense, walks the earth to bring this about, Jesus Christ himself.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I look around at the world, it can seem rather hard to imagine that God has made anything new, that he has restored things as they’re ‘meant to be.’ All you have to do is turn on the news or read your facebook feed and you’ll immediately be inundated with stories of violence, war, murder, corruption, natural disasters, all wreaking havoc on peoples’ lives. We could recount any of the stories of hurricanes we’ve had this year; school shootings all over the United States; acts of terrorism and civil conflict all across Africa; the violence between the military and protestors in Hong Kong.
Last week, I went to visit a young woman in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. At seventeen, her world, for reasons only really understood fully by her, came crashing down. After months of struggle, of refusal to eat, of refusal to accept the help of her parents and friends, she tried to take her own life. She woke up the morning after taking 50 antidepressant pills covered in and choking on her own vomit. After being admitted to the hospital she recounted to me that she had to tell her story over and over again until it was beginning to sound like she was telling someone else’s story and not her own. Her desire to disassociate from and diminish the circumstances that led her to a suicide attempt are understandable; but they formed a reality for her that she is beginning to realize she is going to have to face and address if she wants to be healed. Her perceived reality – regardless of her actual reality – is rooted in a complex set of social, cultural, psychological, and circumstantial dynamics. And it is this perceived reality that she wanted to talk to me about. I grew up in the Church, she said to me. My parents are faithful Christians. I think I believe in God, but I’m not really sure. How, she asked me, can I go on from here? If God is who the Church says he is, will he abandon me because I tried to take my own life; because I denied that my life is his own?
I reckon that many of us have struggled with the chaos life seems to throw at us in various ways, maybe not to the extent of this young woman, but in ways that have brought a sense of confusion that makes it seem as though the very fabric of reality is being pulled out from under us as is talked about in our gospel reading today. “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." Beware that you are not led astray ... "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Into the midst of life that seems ordinary – adorned with all we think is right and orderly and beautiful – can come a tornado of chaos, or perhaps a rip tide that slowly sucks us out into the deep sea further and further from the safety of shore.
And for us, maybe this has come about by the death of those we love, by illness, by successions of failure and broken hopes, by our own sin even – dishonesty, selfishness, greed, hard-heartedness, indulgence – all of which has pulled us into the pit of our own misdoings. Who among has not felt this? Who amongst us has not questioned whether God really exists; let alone whether he has and is now renewing all of creation through this supposed ‘God-man’ Jesus Christ. It is easy enough – when we look around at the world and at our own circumstances – to seek solace in withdrawing from a relationship with God that by its very nature, by God’s own drawing us out of ourselves, presses us to witness to him. It is easy enough to become discouraged or even to lose desire to cling to Jesus in the face of the various types of calamity and chaos that seem to encompass our lives either directly or indirectly. Thus Jesus warns in Luke today, “do not be led astray by the calamities you’ll face.” But just as did the early Christians we hear about in the gospels or in Paul’s letters so too we might ask: What’s the point? Where is the restoration he has promised? How could I convince others that he is restoring the world if I myself can’t even see it?
And yet oddly, it is in the midst of these circumstances of seeming personal chaos of loss and fear, of depression, of day-to-day struggles with our jobs, or spouses, or children, or relationships of all sorts, that we are opened up. That we’re in a sense, forced to take stock; to question whether our circumstances are all that reality is; and whether the person we’ve become in light of our varied circumstances is all that we really are. And it is just here that we’re open to realizing that we are participants in something beyond our contingent circumstances and to living in light of this new reality, this, new earth.
But how can this possibly be so? As contradictory as it may seem and as completely abhorrent as it might feel in the midst of it, suffering that usually comes with holding still in the midst of chaos – of facing into it without running – can serve as a form of mercy, of renewal. Not suffering so as to be tortured. But so as to allow ourselves to be opened up to God. Opened up that comes through obedience, patience, waiting, perseverance and journeying with. The fullness of dedication to what we cannot always believe or see or hold in mind. Indeed the very thing, or the very person, or the very circumstance that seems to be the cause of chaos, however we experience it, can in fact press us to ‘go up’ and cling to God himself; to take stock; to be moved to examine our lives from a viewpoint beyond the limited scope of current circumstance; to confess and open ourselves to be drawn into the reality where we gain our souls and have true life: God’s own life, won for us through the suffering servant himself, Jesus, who bore the sin that separates fallen creation from him. So we can endure in ‘going up’ over and over again – in spite of experience and evidence that seems to contradict God’s coming to restore and make things new – because God fulfilled his promise to do this by sending his Son into the world for our sakes. AMEN