A City on a Hill

November 13, 2016/Isaiah 65:17-25


Every Sunday, in churches around the world, the faithful pray together the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.  “Our Father,” we intone, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Do we really mean it?  Do we really long for God to break in to our everyday existence and to transform it from its averageness, its mediocrity, and to make of it something … heavenly?

The prophet Isaiah revealed that in those days when the people of Israel had suffered through long exile from their land, the heart of God was to create something new of heavens and earth, to put the former things behind them, to wipe them from memory.  God envisioned creating Jerusalem as a joy and the people as a delight.  For those who were obedient, God would transform all that had been “old, former, previous, failed,” into something that would be “wondrously new and life giving.”[1]  God would offer a new Jerusalem – Jeru-Shalom – a city for singing and dancing, a “city marked by peace, justice, righteousness, and faithfulness.”[2]

Yahweh, the generous creator, would provide a quality of life marked by long life, economic stability, and blessing.  In this city, the people would enjoy the immediate availability and attentiveness of God.  God would be present in their human condition, answering them before they called out, hearing while they were yet speaking.

God would transform the original creation into something new.[3]

When we read these verses, we tend to think that they speak to us of some far distant time – maybe the end times – when Jesus returns to bring all things to their perfect conclusion.  But the incarnation of God in Jesus opens the door for us to claim “the new creation, not as a goal to be looked for off in the distance, but one to be realized here and now.”[4]  With the creation stories of Genesis ringing in our ears, we acknowledge that God has the capacity to create.  Isaiah reminds us that “there is nothing in all of creation, or in all that we imagine beyond creation, that is beyond the capacity of God to change.”[5]

If we believe the words of Isaiah, what would that mean for our own communities – or even for our country?

“What would human community look like with no one weeping?”[6]

What would community look like if we followed the counsel of the prophet Micah to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God?

Close to Isaiah’s vision is the idea of economic justice, a justice that understands prosperity not as personal wealth, but as communal harmony.  Dr. William Buchanan, preacher at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, says, “There is enough wealth in this world for no one to go to bed hungry!  There are enough resources in this world for no one to be homeless and without decent housing!  There are enough resources to provide a quality education for all people in this country.  Thou shall not steal!  God created the earth and everything in it to be shared by all of its inhabitants.”[7]

Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, puts it in simpler terms: “A house isn’t a home until a stranger feels welcome, and … the best meal wasn’t the one that filled my stomach but the one that satiated the hunger and soothed the soul.”[8]  When we focus our attentions on the needs of others at least as much as we focus on ourselves, we find our perspective changed.  Stealing becomes taking what we do not need, destroying what we no longer need but could be useful to another person, or depriving others in the community of their basic needs.[9]

If we focused on the other rather than ourselves, we would transform our community from a place of isolation into a haven of justice.  “Taken collectively with those of other believers, single acts of serving God and neighbor illustrate God’s kingdom breaking into the world today.”[10]  We have been “gifted” by God and invited to participate in the formation of the new Jerusalem right here.  “We are able to give one drink of cold water at a time.  We are able to bring comfort to the poor and the wretched, one act of mercy or change at a time.  One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God – these acts accumulate with God’s grace.”[11]

The oracle of Isaiah in these verses speaks of “Jerusalem transformed from a city of wickedness, injustice, false worship, and ruin heaps, into a glorious new city.”[12]  What would an oracle for our nation sound like?  Can we hear an oracle of our country transformed?  “Are we identifying our God-given gifts to figure out how it is we can participate in the kingdom of God here and now?”[13]

In 1630, as John Winthrop prepared to disembark in what would become the English settlement of Massachusetts, he called the travel-weary Puritans together to encourage them to build a community that would be a “city upon a hill” that later settlers would want to emulate.  Listen to his challenge:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. …For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man.  We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.  We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.  We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.  We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.  So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our way.[14]

The settlers’ experiment in New England quickly fell apart, because they were unable to keep their attention on the needs of the many instead of each one’s particular desires.  Winthrop’s words seem somewhat idealistic to us, but from Isaiah’s perspective, they make perfect sense.  Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.  Our very humanity depends upon our compassion.”[15]  Isaiah calls us to imagine a world in which compassion rules, “a mysterious reality fully within God’s capacity to create new heavens and a new earth.”[16]  To imagine, and to participate in the transformation God offers.

What would your new earth look like?

What would you be willing to do to make it a reality?

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 246

[2] Ibid., 247

[3] Mary Eleanor Johns, Feasting on the Word C/4, 290

[4] Ibid.

[5] Martha Sterne, Feasting on the Word C/4, 291

[6] Ibid., 293

[7] Dr. William Buchanan, “The Lost Language of Sin,” 5th Avenue Baptist Church, Nashville, Oct. 4, 2009

[8] Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, African American Lectionary, Feb. 28, 2010

[9] Buchanan

[10] Johns, 294

[11] Johns, 292

[12] Jack R. Lundbom, Feasting on the Word C/4, 295

[13] Johns, 294

[14] John Winthrop, “The City upon a Hill”

[15] Abraham Heschel, Prophets, xviii

[16] Sterne, 295

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