A Sermon for the Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day
Year C – 31 March 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
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.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD–
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.
When my two older children were about 5 and 8 years old, we moved into a new house. We were literally tripping over each other in the one upstairs bathroom and small kitchen of our old house and it made mornings stressful and hectic as we all got ready for either school or work. And in the evenings, we were on top of each other in the one room that we all spent time in after dinner and before bedtime.
I dreamed about the day we would have a larger home with rooms to spread out in, rooms with spaces in which to keep the children’s toys and rooms with special purposes such as a library or study. I was filled with hope that it would make a real difference in the quality of our lives.
Well, it didn’t. Initially it did until the excitement of being in our new house wore off and our old patterns of behavior returned. We all still rushed around in the mornings, and nights continued to be stressful in terms of getting dinner on the table, helping with homework or getting everyone to bed on time. Despite my hope that things would be different in our new space, nothing had changed fundamentally about our family dynamics to cause that to happen.
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, there is also hope that things will be different. At the time that Isaiah was a prophet, the Israelites were feeling the agony and remorse of separation from their God – the God who had chosen them to be His special people. They had been taken away from their beloved Jerusalem and exiled in Babylon in what seemed to them to be God’s punishment of them.
They had been warned that this would happen by Isaiah and other prophets – and they had been warned in time to change their wayward behavior. But they didn’t. Old habits were just too hard to break.
But that’s not to say that there were beyond hope. Through Isaiah, God also spoke words of comfort and reassurance while the Israelites were still in exile. He told them that they would eventually return home to a new Jerusalem, a new place, a new space, and when they did, they would be given a chance to start over and to get their relationship right with each other and with God. “The former things will not be remembered or come to mind” promised God. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people” (Isaiah 65:17-18).
It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? It’s what we might call the honeymoon period of any relationship; and as much as we’d love that time to last forever, it doesn’t. Despite the best of intentions, old patterns of behavior creep back in, unnoticeable at first, but then becoming reinforced by habit.
It’s more than a pattern; it’s really a cycle. Circumstances can change like a new house, or a new school or a new job or even a new baby, but that usually doesn’t change the fundamental cycle of human behavior for long.
We don’t have to read far into the Old Testament to find stories that confirm this to be true. Moses was one of God’s prophets, too, and it was under his leadership that the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. It was under his leadership that they didn’t starve in the desert. And it was under his leadership that they were to receive God’s commandments to help them live together as a faithful community of people. They had every intention of doing just that.
Yet while their leader, Moses, was on top of the holy mountain receiving those commandments, the Israelites became impatient for his return and in betrayal of both God and Moses, found a way to pass the time and pacify themselves by making and worshiping a golden calf. So much for good intentions.
We can relate to what the Israelites did because their nature to become fearful and distrustful and impatient and ungrateful is our nature, too. We know that about ourselves and our behavior is certainly no secret to God.
The amazing thing is that God doesn’t give up on us. He works in us and through us and around us, giving us hope that things will be different next time – that we will break out of our unfaithful cycle with Him and finally get it right.
But as time and experience have proven, we need more than just a new place or new space such as Isaiah’s description of the new Jerusalem. We need something new that fundamentally changes the way we relate to God.
And maybe that something new is what we hear about in the New Testament as the Kingdom of God. But what is that? Is it an actual place like the new Jerusalem, or is it an idea or even more like wishful thinking? Is it somewhere up there, or out there? Is it something we look forward to when we die or is it a present reality? Is it reserved only for the righteous among us or for everyone? What’s life really like there, anyway?
It was Jesus who showed us what life in the Kingdom was all about which means that we don’t have to wait until we die to experience it, nor is it just wishful thinking. It also means that it’s not up there or out there, but more like in here.
I think it’s what we experience when thoughts of ourselves are completely suspended; when we are aware of ourselves as being part of something much greater and grander than we could ever imagine; or when we see ourselves not as separate beings within God’s creation, but as connected beings. And as amazing as those moments can be, those glimpses of God’s Kingdom require a response from us that leads to an alternative way of living and thinking.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, few people were willing to consider that alternative, even subversive way of living that Jesus was offering. It went against everything that was politically, socially and religiously acceptable at the time. It was dangerous and the person delivering the message about it needed to be destroyed. And so he was. Jesus was put to death on a cross because still nothing had fundamentally changed about human nature or how we related to each other and to God.
Until the morning when Mary saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb where Jesus had been buried and as John’s gospel tells us, when Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty. Their hearts burned with the realization that Jesus was somehow still with them. And that, more than anything else, was the beginning of that fundamental change that they and we so desperately need in our relationship with God.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t still experience pain and suffering or fall back into idolatrous, unfaithful ways so typical of human nature. It also doesn’t mean that we won’t hope that things could be different about our lives or that we won’t grumble instead of being grateful for all the blessings that we do have.
What it does mean is that we now have Christ as an abiding presence in our lives, removing our fears, even fears of death, and empowering us to live in a way in which we can think of others instead of ourselves, serve others instead of being served and love like there’s no tomorrow whether it’s considered by conventional wisdom to be acceptable or not.
God did more than create a new heaven and a new earth as Isaiah described Jerusalem. Through the death and resurrection of His son, God created a Kingdom – but not like any earthly kingdom that we know, but a Kingdom where our hearts are set afire with the realization that being in right and joyful relationship with each other and with God isn’t merely something hoped for, but rather a present and future reality.
“Christ is alive, let Christians sing” wrote Bryan Wren in his hymn about the Kingdom. “Not throned above, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains but daily in the midst of life, our Savior with the Father reigns.” (The Hymnal 1982 #182). Alleluia!!