Text: Isaiah 65:1-2, 17-25
William Miller grew up in upper Vermont at the turn of the 18th century. Convinced Jesus would soon return to issue in God’s Kingdom on earth, Miller went on a national tour to make this announcement. Aided by popular fear at the arrival of a comet, Miller read the Bible and set the date in 1843 for the return of Jesus and the end of the world as we know it.
Miller’s popularity lagged after missing his first prediction and even more after he made two additional unsuccessful tries. Yet, out of his attention to the coming of God’s Kingdom, a more permanent religious movement emerged, which is known today as the Seventh Day Adventists.
Predicting the end of time and the timetable of God has been a popular pastime for Christians long before Miller. As early as the disciples of Jesus standing before the Jerusalem Temple, believers have speculated on the question, “When, O God, when?!”
In the midst of the angst and tumult of the Civil Rights era in our land, there was steady speculation about the end of time. Hal Lindsay’s, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a best-seller in which he made his own 20th century prediction about the end time.
Miller and Lindsay took predictions of God’s coming reign on earth to new levels, but in all fairness, Christians of every stripe, including you and me, pray every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom Come.” And, the last words in the Bible are “Come, Lord Jesus.” Now, I will confess that the coming of God’s Kingdom was not a hot topic of conversation at the Charles Thanksgiving table, but perhaps it should have been.
Visions of God’s coming reign on earth were a part of the religious imagination long before Jesus. For prophets, such as Isaiah, the coming reign of God was a much-discussed topic. Jews in Jerusalem in 480 BCE longed for the glory days of David and Solomon, for a booming economy with no national debt, political stability, priests to bless the status quo and prophets to forecast only happy days ahead.
Instead, Jews of that time lived in a country that had been devastated by the world power of the day. They lived in a weak economy dependent on international handouts, worshiped in a Temple that when compared to Solomon’s Temple looked like the Motel 6, and their priests and prophets called for isolation from all non-Jews.
The sermon Isaiah preaches in today’s text opens with words his congregation did not expect or want to hear. Speaking a word from God, Isaiah preaches, “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices” (65:1-2).
I promise you that is not the way my preaching professors taught me to open a sermon. After all, these folks worshiped every Sabbath, prayed several times every day, put their trust in God. How could Isaiah say that they “. . . did not call on my name”?
And the sermon only gets worse. Pleased with themselves for the costly sacrifices they offered to God and anxious to hear God speak a word of thanks to them, instead Isaiah goes on to preach, “These (sacrifices) are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.” How rude?! Doesn’t God want followers to give generously, even sacrificially? How does telling them how far they fall short help anything?
Isaiah’s sermon especially riled the religious right of his day. In the name of God, this powerful movement in Israel led them to close their borders, to deny immigrants basic human rights, to care only for their own kind because the world was literally going to hell in a handbasket and their job, they thought, was to await the Messiah to lead them into the promised Kingdom of God.
Isaiah stands in the pulpit and invites them to imagine an alternative vision of God’s Kingdom on earth, a vision as old as the foundations of creation. He asks them to imagine that God is building a world where people refuse to accept the broken and battered and hopeless present as the final vision of God. He invites into a vision of God’s Kingdom on earth where sorrow will have no shelter and despair will have no seat at the table, a world where infants will not languish from substandard care, where violence will find no cheerleaders, where early and tragic deaths will give way to long and fulfilled lives, where nuclear powered destroyers will be used as cruise ships for families of the poor to know some unrestrained joy.
Preaching from the pulpit in the Jerusalem Temple, Isaiah fights to reclaim the religious imagination of Israel, to invite them to live out the spacious grace of God. Later, Jesus would stand on the same Temple steps and wage the same battle. Neither Isaiah nor Jesus had overwhelming success in their day. Too many religious folks then saw and too many religious folks today see the world as broken and beyond fixing, so why bother.
Fortunately, from Isaiah to Jesus to faithful folk today, some have seen the world through Kingdom eyes. A few years back, Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson wrote, “The medical missionary in Haiti laboring in the midst of endless need, perseveres not by scaling down objectives to saving one infant out of ten but by working indefatigably out of yearning for the world in which there shall no longer be ‘an infant that lives but a few days’.
“The relief worker in the Ukraine steers the food-laden lorry up a dangerous mountain pass in commitment to the world in which ‘no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it’. Albert Schweitzer left the limelight of the cathedral and university for the villages of Africa, Dag Hammarskjold kept landing his United Nations plane in dangerous spots . . . not out of programs designed on the basis of human pragmatics but out of a vision of a world in which ‘they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity’.”
In 1960, Baltimore’s white and black Baptist preachers came together to discuss the role of the church in a time of racial unrest. You could taste the tension, but these preachers managed to agree on the food to be served at the conference and even on an order of worship to follow. A white preacher began the day preaching that Jesus’ death bought our salvation and guaranteed a place for us in God’s heavenly Kingdom one day.
Vernon Johns, a brilliant mind and troubled soul, the predecessor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, was one of the preachers that day. He did not wait for his introduction but went straight to the pulpit after the white pastor had finished. Vernon spoke, “You didn’t do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus. If that were the heart of Christianity, all God had to do was to drop him down on Friday, and let the world kill him, and then yank him back up on Easter Sunday.
“That’s all you hear. You don’t hear so much about his three years of teaching that true religion is revealed in love of others. The one who says he loves God and hates others is a liar . . . that is what offended the leaders of Jesus’ own established church and the colonial authorities from Rome. That’s why they put him up there.”
Vernon Johns continued Isaiah’s sermon. For Isaiah saw a world not in some distant divine future, but a world, in the later words of Jesus, where God’s Kingdom is at hand. Jesus told disciples at the Jerusalem Temple that God’s Kingdom brings with it, tumult and change, but also enduring hope. Jesus directed their gaze beyond beautiful stones to a beautiful world, God’s world, beset by ugliness, evil, greed, and yet still embraced by the outstretched arms of God.
Some look at the sorry state of the world today, shake their heads, and head inside the church to get away from the world for a few moments. They have made their peace with the way things are in the world and they rejoice in their own salvation. Not those with Kingdom Eyes. Those with Kingdom Eyes look at the same world and see signs, albeit blurry, of a lion napping with a lamb, and they hear the muffled sound of a recurring refrain, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” They take to the streets not to save the world, but to help usher in a new and redeemed world that God has already saved.
Turn and look out the window to your left and then to your right. What world do you see? When you pray next, take care if you ask God for a set of Kingdom Eyes. For not only will they change your vision, they will change your life. And, in God’s time and through God’s mercy, they will change the world.