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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.

We live in a culture that confuses newness with youth. The world belongs to those with the biggest future. And a divinity school in which the median age is 24 may make the same mistake. Who needs to yearn for the vitality of the new creation when you’ve already got it, or can buy it over the counter at your local pharmacy? The poet Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” But I think many would say, “Hope is the thing with wrinkles.”

The bad news is God doesn’t promise to make anybody young. The good news is that God promises to make all things new.

Earlier this year I was walking through an airport terminal and passed one of those huge advertisements you see in airports. It was an ad for a spa featuring a buff-looking young guy glistening from a healthy workout. It read, “The human battery -- infinitely rechargeable. It was the sort of ad that gives one the tremendous urge to deface public property. Why? Because it is a lie! The human battery is not infinitely rechargeable. Who will tell us the truth? What politician, professor or pharmaceutical rep will tell you that their theory or product does not come with the guarantee of eternal life? Who will tell us the truth that is available in any church on Ash Wednesday: You are dust, and unto dust you will return?

It seems to be a law of human nature that those who understand the dust and ashes part get the hope part, too. For who were the people who responded to Jesus’ ministry? The ones who were down, looking up. The ones who were fresh out of future. And who are the ones who can learn from them? Who are the ones who will benefit from looking to God’s future through their eyes, hearts and lives? That would be us; for, to be candid, you and I belong to another group. We have options. Not that we have everything nailed down. I talk to people every day who have no idea what they will be doing five years from now. But I never talk to anyone who thinks that in five years they will be in desperate need of rescue. I never talk to anyone who believes that they will be the one crying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” We are the ones with options.

If you drive about a half-mile from our Gothic launching pad, you actually arrive at the future. It is a very nice nursing home filled with yesterday’s people; many of its residents are former Duke professors and employees; not a few were stars in their day. Some are incontinent; some are given to whimpering or simply staring out the window. On each resident’s door, there is photo of that person in his or her prime. Those photos are an education in the clothing styles and coiffures of the 1950s. So on the outside of the door, the visitor sees an attractive, commanding presence; inside, in the room, the future.

The photos are the nursing home’s way of saying: Have a little respect. This is who she used to be. She was once beautiful and accomplished; he was once handsome and powerful. Have a little respect. It’s a lovely gesture but slightly off-target in that it implies we should love people because of what they once were. I think that when the thief on the cross said to Jesus, “Remember me,” he wasn’t saying, “Remember what a nice guy I used to be.” I think he was saying, “Take me as I am. Receive me.” And when Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, I don’t think he saw a clean-cut kid who had made a few bad decisions and squandered his potential. I think he saw a thief -- on a cross. And he dreamed him into paradise.

To see the future through the eyes of those brought low requires imagination. But not to worry; help is on the way. At the MIT laboratories, scientists have developed a device, a sort of electronic jacket filled with wires and electrodes, that when you put it on it does weird things to your physiology and you actually feel like you are 75 years old. They call it an Age Suit. It’s a miracle. Even if you’re 25 it can make you feel like you are 75. Your stimulus dollars at work!

My point is, you don’t have to go to MIT or put on the Age Suit to imagine the hopelessness of the old creation. Just look around your neighborhood and notice who never gets out. Just notice the folks in your own church -- you know them -- they arrive late, dressed a little different than the others; they don’t carry themselves as the rest do. You look up during the third stanza of the final hymn, and they’re gone. Or just spend an afternoon at the nursing home, the one with the pictures on the door. Walk into the sunroom and just say the name “Jesus” and watch the spirits flutter to attention. Be there with a little bread and wine, time, and human sympathy, and notice the power of that hope, how large it is, how it refuses to die.

My wife and I know a Duke oncologist who specializes in some of the worst kinds of cancer. He is a world-class physician with a string of degrees and fellowships after his name. Like all professionals, he has a card. It has his name, but where you might expect a list of his degrees and even “I’ve been on ‘60 Minutes,’” he has only this in boldface type: “THERE IS HOPE.” I have a feeling it’s the card that keeps his patients going. It’s the card that brings them and their relatives back to his little clinic again and again. It’s the card that lifts their spirits when nothing else can. It’s the message on the card that keeps you and me marching forward and climbing upward. If I had the resources, I would have a stack of them made for each of you to take into your ministries, workplaces and daily lives. Only I wouldn’t mention Duke or list your degrees -- only your name, the name of Jesus and THERE IS HOPE.

That’s all.