Your future is too small
The bad news is God doesn’t promise to make anybody young. The good news is that God promises to make all things new, says Richard Lischer.
December 7, 2010 | Isaiah 65:17-25
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was delivered on Nov. 17, 2010, in Duke’s Goodson Chapel.
Let us pray: Dear God, grant us a vision of the future of your kingdom, and, if it be your will, give us the blessing of holy speech, that all who hear may live and die in hope. Amen.
The most dangerous thing about having a dream is the achieving of it. For as soon as your dream comes true, it begins to look small and ordinary. You had a big dream, and as long as you had it, you were filled with energy and hope. It drove you forward, kept your eyes on the horizon.
Once upon a time you dreamed of coming to Duke, and then you came and discovered it is a fine place. A lot of work, but fine. OK.
In a few months or years, some of you will experience the inspiration of a baccalaureate or perhaps an ordination service, but these may be followed by a protracted job hunt or by the ministry itself, with all the routine deflations that come with a high calling.
Two years ago the nation was bursting with excitement at the thought of electing its first black president; now we find ourselves not in the promised land, where we expected to be, but on another plateau, it seems forever looking over.
There’s a lot more energy in Isaiah 40 (“Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God”), written while the people are still in exile yearning to breathe free, a lot more energy than in chapters 56 to 66, which were written after they had come home. As it turns out, only a few returned, and what they returned to was a temple and an economy in shambles.
“Your holy cities have become a wilderness, [the prophet laments]
And Jerusalem a desolation ... all our pleasant places
have become ruins.” (Isaiah 64:10-11)
This chapter begins with some of the saddest words in all Isaiah, perhaps because they are written after the liberation, after the celebration, after the dancing in the streets: “O that you would rip open the heavens and come down” (64:1). The people of Israel were free at last, but they were still afraid. Does anyone know how they felt?
If you’ve ever been hiking in the mountains, you know how it is. You see that ridge or that knoll over yonder and say, “If I can just get to the top of that, I’ll have a spectacular view of all that lies before me.” So you haul yourself up, and what do you see? Another ridge and other set of mountains. Even the church year dreams of the definitive mountaintop and longs to say, “The end.”
This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year -- an odd name, considering another Sunday will surely follow. We call it Christ the King. The Gospel we read will be from the Good Friday Gospel in Luke 23. We’ll hear a dying man say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus will answer him with a dream. The man cries out in desperation, and Jesus will dream him into paradise. Where in our dreams we would settle for so little -- a few adjustments in the economy, the academy or our personal lives -- God replies with so much, as if to say, “Stretch your imagination. I am God. Look to me. I am the future.” As the psalmist says, “Look upon him and be radiant” (Psalm 34:5).
Here in this university we study the past, but we major in the future. This whole place, from the Law School to the Business School to the Divinity School, is a launching pad to the future. Everybody is on the make for something “out there” that hasn’t quite materialized. The future is a career, a little respect, a condition of life in which we are no longer under the thumb of authorities, teachers or an institution. The future has a wheel, and we want to drive. But our future is too small.
The prophet Isaiah sounds like one of those old-timey preachers when he says, It seems to me I can see ... I can see a community where young people aren’t cut down in the prime of life, where a mother won’t have to fear that her baby will die of malnutrition or some easily correctible disease; I see a society in which people’s labor actually comes to fruition, where workers aren’t discarded like trash at a moment’s notice. It seems that I can see neighborhoods, not with empty houses and boarded windows, but homes filled with the sounds of children.
So far, what the prophet sees is not all that exceptional. It might be found in any political platform: our children should not die; our workers shouldn’t be laid off; our homes should not be foreclosed.
But he goes on to a larger picture, one that lies outside the competency of politics or history itself, that of the wolf and the lamb feeding out of the same trough, as if to say to Israel and to the nations: Seems that I can see miracles of peace; you don’t have to crush your enemies to get to the new Jerusalem. Annihilation need not precede redemption. Winning does not constitute the sign of God’s favor, but rather reconciliation does. If anyone is in Christ, that is the new creation: the old has passed away; behold, the new is come.