“A New Earth...”
Luke 21:5-19 Isaiah 65: 17-25
November 14, 2010 Season after Pentecost
Several years ago my friend received a rather interesting gift from her father. It was an enormous carved wooden spool of thread and a long, large wooden needle to match. She was delighted with the gift and left it out in an obvious place for quite a while so that guests to her home would see it and perhaps ask about it. I was as curious as the next person, so of course I asked about it when I was over there, and she told me it had to do with a Jewish principle called Tikkun Olam, which means the mending of the world. Her dad was a wood turner, and had come up with this unique gift as a way of reminding the recipients of the importance of doing their bit toward making the world a better place. The principle runs through many veins of Judaism and has to do with people taking responsibility for doing whatever they can, large or small, to mend the world. The variety of ways people might respond to this call are broad - social justice, acts of kindness, political action for social, environmental or political change.
The principle of Tikkun Olam comes from this morning’s Isaiah reading as well as other places in the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of a world that is unmarred by the kind of brokenness we see all around us. What is interesting about this concept is that the people who first heard the prophet speak about a new earth assumed that it could not happen without them each doing their part. They believed that each of them had to take responsibility to make it happen, to bring about the world of which they dreamed. This is a powerful legacy that comes down to us through the generations of Jews and Christians who inherited this prophecy and many more like it. We are to take on our role in making the world we want to see actually happen.
Isaiah was speaking quite a while ago, and some folks might read his prophecies, take a look around at all that is wrong with the world, and wonder if maybe God didn’t follow through on those promises. But the reality is that the work of making a new earth, of mending the earth, is never-ending. There is always something else to do, because we don’t live in a perfect world yet. Ironically, this is perfectly in keeping with Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of heaven is already here in our midst. The kingdom is here, but it is evolving and becoming more and more what it should be as we each pitch in and add our hands and hearts to the process. The beauty of this is that we also have the opportunity to shape the new earth in terms of what we value and in terms of healing the brokenness with which we have firsthand experience.
Think about it for a moment, if God asked you what should be true of a new earth, what would you respond? What are the elements you need in order to be happy, in order to feel satisfied with your life? It is interesting that many of the things Isaiah mentions in this reading, where he is speaking about a new heaven and a new earth, have to do with what will not happen in the new earth. There will not be death at an early age, there will not be weeping, there will not be sowing seeds that others reap, there will not be hard work with nothing to show for it. You can tell that Isaiah is preaching to a crowd of folks who have been dealing with some pretty difficult situations. Their lives up until now have not been easy, and so the thing that will catch their attention is not actually sweet promises of what could maybe happen, but rather clear words expressing what will not happen in this new earth. Isaiah seems to know how to speak a language the people will understand and respond to. In terms of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, it seems to be important to people that they know what is to be mended, what is going to be different as a result of the change that God is promising. I think this is similar to what is true for people who have come through very difficult circumstances in any age, such as women who have been the victims of domestic violence or soldiers who were prisoners of war. Offering new positive possibilities sometimes does not make as much sense to them as the promise that negative circumstances will change or will not be repeated. Their prior bad experiences demand that the events of the past will not be repeated, and that each of these situations be spoken to directly and specifically. “You will not be hurt here. No one will force you to do anything you do not want to do.”
A final image from Isaiah’s prophecy that stays with me is that of the people of God growing and having long lives just like trees. I have always found there to be something about trees that attracted me and made me want to spend time in their presence. When we were in Ireland and Wales, we came across several impressive Yew trees. Yews were often planted in graveyards because they were understood to be the gatekeepers between life and death and the next world. They were recognized as sacred by christians as well as by the pagan people who predated them. Some trees at a small chapel that we visited in Wales, and then another one at Muckross Abbey in Ireland, were said to be over 2,000 years old. It was impressive to be in the presence of such ancient beings, and almost impossible to grasp just how old they were. But one thing that was even more intriguing about them is we were told that Yew trees are able to hibernate for long periods of time. They shut down all of their systems and do not grow, sometimes for hundreds of years, especially when conditions are not good for them. Yew trees also often hollow out as they age, which actually makes them more flexible and sturdy when blown by the winds. And, even more intriguing is the fact that a new, young tree will sometimes sprout up from the roots of the ancient tree, right in the center of the hollow space, finding protection so that it can grow up strong. It strikes me that trees such as these are actually good models for us, not only because of their longevity, but also because of their adaptability. They have staying power and they do it well, adapting to the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is not surprising that Isaiah used trees as an image of a long and sustained life, an image of hope.
It is the image of hope that we are left with this morning, an image that reminds us of what is possible with God. The people of Israel were facing almost insurmountable odds, trying to rebuild after the destruction of their lives and homeland and so many years of exile. They looked around and saw destruction and brokenness, and yet into that very place the word of God came, promising that all of that would be turned around and made right. God promised more than just “good enough,” God promised a life in which all of the wrongs were righted, all of the brokenness mended. God’s promise is still alive for us today. The world may still show signs of brokenness, but God is present, and with God the possibility for healing is always present as well. We just each need to pick up our over-sized spools of thread and needles and start doing the slow but sure work of mending the world. It is a big job, but God thinks we are up to the task, so who are we to argue?
Mending God, you draw together the broken edges of our lives, sewing them seamlessly together once again. Help us also to heal the broken places we see all around us, whether with words or acts of kindness, or some other gesture of compassion and care. May we help you to create the new earth for which we all long. Amen.