YEAR C: EASTER SUNDAY (alternate reading)
The theme of a new creation, of a new Jerusalem, of joy replacing weeping, of life overcoming death abounds in this reading from near the end of Isaiah. The passage is part of the closing sequence not only of the third major section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66, known as Third Isaiah) but of the book of Isaiah itself. Some writers have drawn comparisons between Isaiah 65-66 and Isaiah 1, seeing these chapters as “book-ends” enclosing the whole and bringing it to a conclusion. Today’s reading echoes the restoration of Jerusalem in Isa 1:26-27, and the image of the strong tree in Isa 65:22 recalls the oak in Isa 1:30. Other points could be added to enhance the sense that in Isaiah 65-66 not only do the last 11 chapters draw to a close but that all the themes of the previous 66 chapters, judgment, salvation, and further judgment, have their conclusion here with the promise of a new creation.
Today’s reading also needs to be set in the context of Isaiah 65-66. Verse 17 begins “for, because” indicating that it is a development of what has gone before. The whole of Isaiah 65 needs to be read to see what the import of vv. 17-25 is. The chapter begins in vv. 1-7 with a statement by the Lord that the people have rejected the Lord, worshiped idols and participated in all sorts of foreign practices. The Lord’s statement bears all the marks of frustration at the people’s rejection (v. 2a), of anguish over their foolishness (v. 2b), and of suffering their abuse (v. 3a). It ends with words that are both just and angry as God contemplates the punishment of the people (vv. 5b-7). The Lord no longer calls them “my people”, a covenant term (cf. Isa 40:1), but “a people” or “a rebellious people” (Isa 65:2-3). In the midst of this rebellious people the prophet Isaiah had once responded “Here am I, send me” when the Lord sought to call this people to repentance (Isa 6:8). It was to prove almost a fruitless task (Isa 6:10-13). We learn in Isa 65:1 that throughout this task the Lord had all along also been saying ‘“Here I am, here I am’ to a nation that did not call on (the Lord’s) name.”
However, in the central section of the chapter (vv. 8-16) a change occurs in the Lord’s plans. Even if this people do not know what repentance is about, the Lord does and that is their hope. Building on a popular saying, the Lord decides to leave off executing his punishment for the sake of those servants among the people who do remain faithful. Compare also the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30). For the sake of the ones the Lord calls “my servants’, “my chosen’, and “my people who have sought me” (Isa. 65:8-10) the prophet says the Lord will delay his just anger and reserve its outworking for those who continue to rebel against him. The central section then ends with the Lord called “the God of faithfulness” (v. 16).
The outworking of the Lord’s faithfulness is then described in today’s reading with its emphasis on newness and joy. The Lord will now delight in “my people” (v. 19). All that destroys life will pass away – weeping, distress, premature death, unfulfilled hopes, injustice, robbery, pillage, even genocide. The imagery of vv. 19-23 comes from the ancient context of peoples caught up in the atrocities of war as foreign armies march through their land decimating the countryside, its crops, herds, villages, towns and cities, and slaughtering the population. The prophet is speaking about the most horrible of experiences, some of which we see repeated on our nightly news. Even these things will be overcome by the faithfulness of the Lord.
The passage ends with the Lord declaring that this “good news” will come about even before the people call or speak (v. 24). This stands in sharp contrast to the beginning of the chapter when no matter how loud the Lord said “Here I am” the people did not bother to call on him. Now before they even call he answers. Moreover, this new creation, which will overtake the former things – which include the anguish as well as the rebellion – will epitomise the peace for which the Lord works. In a scene recalling the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2), the death and violence that were once the result of rebellion against the Lord, are overtaken by harmony and peace (Isa 65:25).
On Easter day we celebrate this “new creation” in the way we now understand it in and through Jesus Christ. The proclamation “He is risen” encapsulates the sentiment of the Isaiah reading – be glad and rejoice, no more need there be the sound of weeping, no more shall there be premature death, wasted lives, senseless destruction and killing. This is the message of Easter, a message that repeats, and in a special way embodies, the call that has been there all along: “Here I am, here I am”. Even though we have been unable, or reluctant, or too rebellious to call upon the name of the Lord, in Jesus’ resurrection we have God’s answer to the call that has not yet even been formed on our lips for whatever reason.
Of course, in this season of joy the preacher needs to take into account the fact that the “new creation” has not as yet fully caused the “former things” to be forgotten. There still is anguish and rebellion, weeping, premature death, and senseless destruction etc. The “former things” persist alongside the “new”. But the “new creation”, epitomised in Jesus’ resurrection, is the witness that those “former things” have been judged and rejected by God. We have heard the Lord’s cry “Here I am”. We have heard his answer, even before we have called. Such is the overwhelming nature of the Lord’s faithfulness.
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