Scenes from the Philippines this week almost look tragically familiar–they look all too much like other pictures we’ve seen–from hurricanes in Haiti, from an earthquake and then tsunami in Japan, from the Christmas tsunami in southeast Asia, too much like bombed out areas in Kabul, Baghdad, Dresden, London, Hiroshima. Not one stone left standing on another, unless thrown on top of each other by earth’s upheaval or the ravage of wind or wave. Utter devastation.
Two weeks ago, the houses and buildings in Tacloban, Philippines simply made up the street scene of home for thousands of people; they were part of the landscape seen everyday, giving structure to their lives, sheltering them from rain, gathering their family and friends around tables and celebrations. Inside babies were born, illnesses were endured…or not, and people died. In other words, life as they’d come to know it. Until the storm came. Then, in a matter of hours, nothing was the same.
“Look at these beautiful stones and memorial gifts, Rabbi,” they said to Jesus as they talked in the Temple courtyard. “All this you’re admiring so much–” Jesus replied, “the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.” It was unthinkable– this massive edifice and complex, the very symbol of power and authority, the seat of the Holy One. Unshakeable. Guarded with ruthless power.
And yet, Luke’s community knew that Jesus’ words had come true. Scattered far from Jerusalem, probably sometime around 80 or 85, after the Judean revolt against Rome from 66-70, Luke’s community knew that both the city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself were in ruins, “a heap of rubble,” not unlike the rubble that the exiles had found upon their return from Babylon, 500 years earlier. Luke’s community also knew that many of their number were being arrested and brought before governors and magistrates. Family members had turned against them; many had been put to death.
So, in fact, these predictions on Jesus’ lips were actually good news, comforting even, for he knew what they were going through. He had gone through it himself, and even now was giving them words and wisdom to speak in court, assuring them that every hair on their heads was counted and known by God and more than that, that their very souls were held in the power and protection of God.
In the midst of every upheaval–of cities and temples and churches, through storm and wind and bomb and fire, even the upheaval of death–God remains, with intimate knowledge of each cell and bone and hair of our bodies, loving us, body and soul, and infinitely beyond us, with knowledge too deep and wide for us to ever fathom. John Riddle and all of us who grieve Cindy’s death are held in that infinite knowledge and love. And because it is infinite, that knowledge and love also embrace Cindy, and all our loved ones, all those swept away and buried by typhoon and tsunami, hurricane and fire and disease.
“For I am about to create–or, even now I am creating–new heavens and a new earth,” God says through the Third Isaiah, speaking to a people who have lived in the midst of the rubble for a while and are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of rebuilding and getting back to any sense of life as they’ve known it. “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….no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…”
Naive words? Pie in the sky by and by? Is this just airy fairy theology, holding out hope for the next life because this life is so unbearable? 2500 years ago, and then 2000 years ago, just promises, promises? Look at the mess right now, not only in the Philippines and other storm- and war-ravaged places, but in our own country, our government, as some would say, in ruin, millions of people without adequate food, shelter, or employment; our own community wounded with poverty and hopelessness and substance abuse.
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” Any time now, God, any time. “Bad news is easy to believe,” writes one commentator. “It’s the gospel that’s unimaginable to most [of us].” (Kyle Childress, Ekklesia Project blog, 11-13-13) Gospel–”good news.” Is it just four little books in an ancient and dusty tome? Are there any images or sounds or tastes or smells associated with it? Is the gospel to be believed or trusted?
Jim Wallis tells the story from some years ago of volunteering in a church homeless shelter around Christmas time. The church basement was decorated with banners and Christmas decorations, “Good news! Christ is born!” “Glory to God in the Highest” and so on. One of the men who lived each day out on the streets looked around the room and asked, “What is the good news anyway?” Jim said there was a long pause; no one knew what to say. Finally someone spoke up from the back of the line, “The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.”
(Childress, op cit.)
It doesn’t have to be like this. What the prophet Isaiah and Jesus were both doing was painting the picture of what an alternate reality might look like. If it doesn’t have to be like this, what might it be? “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” God says through Isaiah. “Not one stone will be left upon another,” Jesus says through Luke. But of course, he also painted so many other pictures of the new heavens and new earth–”the kingdom/reign of God,” he called it….where no walls would keep people away from God and where, in fact, God couldn’t be contained in a building. The kingdom is in you, he said, in your midst, still coming. Leaders are servants in this kingdom. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female–all have equal standing. There’s a banquet table with enough delicious, healthy food for everyone. The choir’s made up of birds and angels and all God’s critters; sun and moon and stars even sing. All the variety of skin colors and dress and music and dance glorify God. Death does not end life–it transforms it into new life–and Love continues to hold us and connect us to loved ones.
This is not a shuffling of the pieces on the board. This is a whole new board and brand new pieces. From death shall come new life, not just the old life resuscitated. “Doxology [or praise] is the ultimate challenge to the language of managed reality,” Walter Brueggemann writes (Prophetic Imagination), and it is only when we are open to the possibility of a truly new reality that we can be re-energized, given the strength and hope to even become part of God’s new creation. “By your endurance,” Jesus said, “you will gain your souls.”
And despite what the powers that be would have us believe, truly experiencing our grief– our grief over the loss of loved ones, our grief over the poisoning and poaching of our planet, our grief over the loss of the dream we may have had for our country–truly experiencing our grief can break through the numbness that would keep us powerless and merely reactive. Our discouragement, our despair, our “what difference could I possibly make?” only serve the status quo, not God. We must not be afraid of the upheaval, of our world’s being turned upside down. It just may be God’s Holy Spirit stirring things up, shaking things down so that we will finally empty our pockets of all the stuff that’s weighing us down, that we will let go our grip of all to which we so tightly cling as being essential for our lives, and finally let go into God, whose radical freedom and creativity are in fact our hope, here and now, as well as in the future.
Imagine! “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Might we begin by an act of imagining new heavens and a new earth? “Any church that stops leaning toward ‘new heavens and new earth,” writes one sage, ” any church which no longer keeps taut the tension between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be, is a sadly compromised and accommodated church.” (Childress, op cit.)
What if we were lean into joy? Into a whole new earth? What if we were to invest our money, our time, our imaginations into this new “thing” that God is bringing to birth, even now, in our midst, even through us? Imagine!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark