Bill Carter: Living the Dream

When I told someone about the text that I selected, he sniffed and dismissed it saying, “Isaiah 65 smells of funeral lilies.” I have to agree; this ancient poem resides on the Top Ten list of readings for a memorial service. It ranks up there with the 23rd Psalm, the 21st chapter of Revelation, and the promise from Jesus to “let not your hearts be troubled.” And if I’m honest, someday far in the future, I want someone to read it at my funeral.

Yet I don’t think for a minute that this is a poem about death. Isaiah gives us a vision for life.

It comes near the end of his collection of writings, after many chapters full of pain. Suddenly there is the promise of healing and restoration. God describes a flourishing life for all. If there was trouble, it’s interrupted by joy. If there was despair, the burden has been taken away. If anybody was robbed of life, life is given back – with abundance.

For the first time in the Bible, Isaiah offers the vision of new heavens and a new earth. Why are they new? Because the old ones are worn out. The Creator of all things promises a new creation. It’s a preview for the season of Advent, which begins for us in a few weeks. More than that, it’s the promise of a new life that is an alternative to the life we have known. Imagine a world, says the prophet, where everything connects, like a puzzle where all the pieces fit.

With vivid colors, Isaiah paints a picture where heaven and earth are one. No more weeping or distress. Life will never be cut short. People will live out the full length of their days. There will be continuity between human dreams and their fulfillment. Families will build houses and live in them. Farmers will plant vineyards and taste the wine. Every worker will enjoy their daily labor, and every soul will be thoroughly alive. That’s the picture.

At the center is an astonishing vision of peace: predators do not consume, and the prey doesn’t hide or run away. The wolf and lamb coexist. The ravenous lion has become a vegetarian and steps up to the feed bin next to the ox. Imagine this, says the prophet Isaiah. Imagine a life where everything fits.

This is what God dreams for the world. This is the dream that God implants in the imagination of the prophet Isaiah. This is the dream that emerges to be written down in the Bible, where it is waiting to be rediscovered by every generation and lived with fresh energy.

It is a powerful dream, because it is an alternative to most of the stories that actually appear in the Bible. God created a new earth once before, and by page three in the book of Genesis, Cain has risen up against his brother Abel. Not long after that, Pharoah enslaves a whole race of people as his work force.

God comes again to break Israel out of slavery, offering a number of commandments to guide the nation’s life – commandments that are regularly broken. The people cry out for a leader, a good leader. Soon, most of their kings (and a few of their queens) are maneuvering and manipulating their way to greater power, climbing over whoever is in the way.

We can’t ever dismiss the Bible as a book of fairy tales. No, it offers honest observations about the human animal. We live in a world where good work is met with resistance and the innocent are crucified.

And we are reminded of the recurring problem with the human race: God implants within us a dream of peace, yet we keep choosing something less than the dream. We don’t need to blame the devil or anybody else for this. No, we are the ones who choose. Every day some people are demeaned as something less than the image of God that they bear. The weak are plundered, often to increase the profits of the arrogant. Those who are deemed different are dismissed. And everybody is shouting over one another.

This is why so many of us regard the Bible as truth: it tells the truth about real people.

Yet the Bible also speaks the truth about God. We live because God is patient, “slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love.” And every day, we have the opportunity to live out the dream that God has for us. Imagine the wolf and the lamb feeding together. Nobody gets hurt. On God’s holy hill, there is no destruction, only peace. And God speaks up to make the promise, “I will rejoice and delight in my people.”

One of the reasons why some of us listen to sermons is to catch a glimpse of this grand vision. We connect to one another in faith communities to amplify this dream, which has been planted in our hearts and minds. Left to our own devices, we would merely slide back into the mud and muck of chaos, and act like wild animals. All progress would be lost. Yet Isaiah 65 says there is an alternative.

The alternative is peace – peace within ourselves, peace between one another. The Hebrew Bible calls it “shalom.” Shalom is the balance between all the forces of life. Shalom holds the continuity between past and present. Shalom is a life lived without aggression or its ensuing damage. We can welcome one another as neighbors, and not competitors. We can live in harmony with everybody we meet. This is God’s dream, and it is given to us. We can work on it now or wait until God makes it happen. Either way, it comes as a gift from a new heaven for a new earth.

One summer day, I hopped the bus to New York City with one of our daughters. She was a college student, studying art, and we wanted to visit a few galleries. It turned out to be a major disappointment. The Metropolitan Museum was closed, the Frick collection was shut down, and the Guggenheim was undergoing renovations.

Every few steps, we heard another siren in the distance. By the Central Park boat pond, a little kid was screaming at his mother. A couple of panhandlers tried to shake us down. We were just about ready to call it a day when suddenly we stepped into a quiet grove of elm trees. Three paths intersected in the shape of a teardrop. Before us was a mosaic of black and white stones, covered with bouquets of flowers.

To our surprise, we had come upon the memorial to the songwriter John Lennon. It’s right there by 72nd Street, right across from the apartment building where he had lived. In the center of the mosaic is the title of one of his most famous songs, “Imagine.”

You probably know that song. Lennon sang of a world as Isaiah saw it: a globe without borders, a world without greed or aggression, a community of living beings dwelling together in peace. Right across the street is where an assassin took Lennon’s life one night when he returned from a recording session. We paused, drew our breath at the pain of the memory.

But there, in that mosaic, is the invitation that remains: imagine. It is a holy invitation.

It leads me to make a modest proposal – that we live the dream that God has for us all. That we live as generously and graciously as Jesus. That we set a high standard of how to respect one another, serve one another, and love one another. It’s not enough to have the dream; it must also take flesh in what we do with our lives.

The first Christians forged the church by living like Jesus as best they could. They didn’t take any orders from the Roman empire. They lived the Isaiah 65 dream. People outside their circle were drawn inside it. They caught a glimpse of how all of us can take part in God’s shalom. Even the fiercest critics looked at the church and said, “See how much they love one another.”

What if the people in your community could say the same thing about you? What if each of us could treat one another with such respect and compassion that our neighbors said, “We want to be part of a group like that?” Now that would be living the dream.

Maybe it starts with small, steady steps that benefit the lives of others, like taking a meal to the woman who just came home from surgery. Or introducing ourselves to the neighbors whose names we do not know. Or reading a story to a child. Or listening to the stories of those older than ourselves. Or planting a grove of trees that could outlive us. Or offering a safe haven to someone in danger.

Shalom always begins by offering an act of kindness. I think of the woman who heard a strange noise in her neighborhood. It had been a difficult week in her town, an election week, full of all the political bluster of November. A loud noise erupted outside her home, and she went to see what it was. It was a man with a leaf blower working his way down her street. He doesn’t live nearby, but he was clearing all the leaves from everybody’s yards.

Somebody asked, “Why are you doing this?” He replied, “It’s been a difficult week, and this is a way to offer some goodness and blessing.”

Imagine that. Imagine shalom.

Let us pray.

Holy and loving God, do not allow us to be so consumed by the aggressions of this world that we cease to see what you imagine for us all. Implant within us a vision of your peace and well-being. And make that vision so attractive, enticing, and beautiful that we will work for it until the day when you make all things new. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.