SCRIPTURE LESSON: Isaiah 65: 17-25

You probably don’t know the name Cally Terrell. On the verge of turning 100, Cally was recently profiled on CBS.

Hitting the century mark is a significant thing, but what makes Cally’s milestone all the more noteworthy is that Cally is still practicing her profession–fussing over people’s hair–something she’s done since 1945.

Watching Miss Cally in action—shampooing and styling and talking about the satisfaction her chosen profession still provides—I found myself thinking about all the changes this woman has seen over the decades.

And not just in terms of styles. I mean the innovations in shampoos and conditioners, the wide array of mousses and gels on the market now, the blow dryers and curling irons and flat irons, and the vast improvements in chemistry that have resulted in safer, more effective perms and higher quality hair dyes (not to mention the wider, wilder array of colors).

Back when Cally started, there is no way this beautiful beautician could have guessed all the changes that would come along in her long, lovely career. Heck, even if Miss Callie had kept her thinking cap on for a full week after she got her license, she could never have foreseen the coming innovations.

That’s true for all of us, and not just professionally but in general. Now there are hundreds of TV channels to choose from, not just the three many of us grew up with. Remember when you used to have to crane your neck when you were backing up? Now little screens on our dashboards tell us what’s behind us when we shift into reverse. Powerful but tiny computers sit in our pockets ready to answer any question and able to help us communicate by phone, email, or text with anyone near or far.

These unforeseen changes we might categorize as improvements. But not everything that’s come our way over the years is, of course. It’s unlikely that way back when you and I would have guessed a day would ever come when we would find ourselves wondering if our great experiment in democracy might have an expiry date on it. Or that history—which I think we imagined was a series of improvements—would start repeating itself in so many concerning and tragic ways.

Science fiction writers aside, most of us have a hard time imagining things being much different than they are today.

Even several millenia ago, God’s people had a hard time imagining a future that was more than a degree or two different than the reality they were living in. Left to their own devices, they projected onto the coming years more of what they already had.

And what they had, in the case of our reading today, was an overabundance of discouragement and cynicism. Why? Because they were decades into life in exile in Babylon and saw no hope of a homecoming.

Exile in Babylon wasn’t horrible. At least not in the way life in Egypt was. The people weren’t enslaved; they weren’t overseen by a cruel ruler who demanded more and more of them.

In Babylon, the people lived lives not all that different from life back home—they were free to practice their faith, speak their native tongue, and retain the rhythms of life back home.

But Babylon wasn’t home. And it wasn’t home because God’s people had been victims of a violent conquest. They were in exile—and they’d be the first to say this–because they had chosen to stray from God.

Even on a good day, it’s hard to peer into the future and imagine the beautiful, blessed things God has in store for us. But when we are hurting or have made mistakes, we largely imagine that the days and years ahead will be just as challenging, and probably even worse.
Think about the disciples who holed up behind locked doors right after Jesus was crucified. Even though Jesus had assured them many times that he would rise, even though he told them repeatedly that after he rose again he would come find them, his closest friends simply couldn’t imagine things being different than they already were.

Because God’s people generally don’t excel at peering into the future with accuracy, and especially when God’s people are enslaved, in exile, or are oppressed outwardly or inwardly, God sends prophets to speak with confident clarity about the future God intends.

These divinely appointed men and women have their fingers on God’s creative, compassionate pulse, and they paint pictures of a future the people cannot conjure on their own. And that’s the case with our lesson today.
God sent a prophet into the midst of a people who’d been too long gone from home, to a people who had suffered the humiliation of being removed because they’d been unfaithful to God, to a people who—when they looked ahead—could only imagine more of the same.

And through this prophet, Isaiah, God tells God’s people: I am going to create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will be forgotten. So forgotten, in fact, that it will be impossible to project your old experience onto the future.

Without God, without God’s daring dream, without prophets who carry into our midst good news about God’s desires for the days ahead, it’s nearly impossible on our own to imagine a better, more just future.
When the news beyond these doors has our attention, when it fills our eyes with tears and our veins with terror or fury or disgust, who can imagine a better day? Or maybe what I mean is this: who can sustain a vision of God’s better day? That’s a tall, near-impossible order.

I am no advocate of ignoring the news. But I will say that, especially in this dark and depressing time, we would be wise to exercise discernment. No so that we can be ostriches or Pollyannas, but so that there’s a greater chance that the prophet’s voice will find us and stir us.

We each must assess how much news we are going to consume, how many commentators we will listen to, and how many exposes we will read.

Especially now, we must treat the news like we do food. Just as a steady diet of too many unnourishing things is not good for the body, so too spiritually with the amount and quality of news we let ourselves consume.

Perhaps the greatest gift we could give ourselves right now, perhaps the wisest gift we could give God, is to let go of our news cycle hypervigilance (addiction, even) so that God and God’s dream for the human family can gain purchase.

If we’re drowning in overwhelming news and all that goes with it, if our heads spin and our hearts hurt, how is God going to get even a little wiggle room within us? How will we hear the prophet’s voice (within or beyond) singing songs of God’s peace, wholeness, and justice that God dreams we’ll one day embrace and enjoy.

I have long found it interesting that often when Christians think about the future, they regularly retreat into the passages of the Old and New Testaments that promise vengeance, a war on evil, a turbulent time of tribulation where those who aren’t on God’s side will have hell to pay. Just about any time I tune into Christian radio, these are the promises the hosts are preoccupied with.
I get it. It’s often easier for believers to imagine this than it is for people of faith to take hold of the promises in a passage like the one we hear today.

We who know too well war and violence, who have lived through atomic bombs and nuclear meltdowns, who have seen too much on too many fronts, we can and do easily project upon the future more of what we already know. And so naturally we imagine God behind it all, willing it all, managing it all.

But a God who dreams of other ways? Our imaginations regularly fail us.
Maybe part of the challenge we face is that God’s dream in Isaiah might seem too pedestrian. Too wholesome. Too unlike what comes out of Hollywood these days. Listen again to the new heavens/new earth promises God makes:

I am about to rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people.
No more will the sound of weeping be heard in it. Or the cries of distress.

They shall build houses and inhabit them.
They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They will not labor in vain or bear their children for calamity.

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

All this, says the Lord.

The times in which we are living are filled with countless reasons to feel hopeless, to despair, to believe that all may truly be lost. Many of us walk around holding our breaths, waiting for the other shoe to drop, concerned that nothing we might say or do can make much of a difference.

Or, we may be reluctant to set down our devices and remotes for a time to listen to a different channel, the divine channel, where we are helped to hear: maybe you can’t see it, but I can. Maybe the future looks bleak but I am full of hope and possibility. Maybe in a complicated world you can’t imagine a simpler, more wholesome way. But I can. And I do.

And, God continues, I’m not leaving you to your own devices to get there. I will lead you there. But first, you need to want to go. And second, you need to be able to see what I see—people living peaceably, enemies giving up the fight and befriending one another, fruitful pursuits supplanting the unwise ones.

There’s nothing wrong in looking ahead. But if in our looking, we are not looking first for God’s word, for God’s way, for God’s dream, then we risk injuring ourselves and others with our anxious thoughts or pessimistic prognostications. And when that happens, we are of little earthly—or heavenly good.

There’s nothing wrong in looking ahead. But if in our looking, we are imagining that we alone can or must save ourselves, then we risk exhausting ourselves or even, I’m sorry to say, we risk making things worse.

In exile, God’s dream for God’s people was far richer, far fuller than the people themselves could ever imagine.

Here and now, too.

There is never a time when God is not hopeful, never a time when all is lost, never a time when God is not sending prophets to remind us that God can and will create new heavens and a new earth. Not by destroying but by building up everything that is good and life-giving, by leading us away from the precipice and into places that are wholesome and just.

May our spirits, especially now, be attuned to God’s vision and may we hear the voices of prophets who call us forth.