This sermon was preached at Briercrest College chapel on November 9, 2010, by my good friend, colleague, and partner in theology, Dr. Dustin Resch. With his permission, I post it here for your edification!
I want to introduce to you three fair maidens. They are the ladies Optimism, Cynicism and Hope. Now, I suspect that the first two maidens will be quite familiar to you. You can see them anywhere—on the street, in your dorm, in churches, on TV—anywhere. The third one, however, is hard to find. She is the kind of woman you you’d want to bring home to your mother. She is beautiful, virtuous and kind. Unless Disney has totally misrepresented princesses, little birds land on the palm of her hand and sing to her. There is a problem, however. Lady Hope is so hard to find, that many a person have settled for ladies Optimism and Cynicism instead. But when you meet Lady Hope—really meet her in all of her glory—the other two just don’t compare. Our passage from Isaiah today describes for us a beautiful vision of Hope, and one that can lead us to a truer understanding of what Christian hope is all about. Before we gaze into this vision, let’s consider what the other two ladies are like.
First, let’s think a bit about optimism. Optimism is one of Hope’s cruel step-sisters. If Optimism had her way, the maiden Hope would remain locked in the basement forever. Lady Optimism sees Hope’s beauty and tries to copy it, but she can’t. The radiance of hope does not come naturally to her. Lady Optimism says, “In spite of what looks like evil in the world, things are still really good. And, if they feel bad right now, it’s only temporary and they will soon get better.” Optimism, you see, suffers from poor eyesight. She cannot accurately perceive reality. She distorts her vision of the world in order to cope with difficulty. Lady Optimism is the sort of woman who nervously sweeps the difficulties of life under the carpet, or stows suffering in the broom closet when guests come over. She doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, so she makes sure that no one sees the filth in her house. “Don’t worry,” Optimism says, “things are not as bad as you think, and they will only get better.”
Sadly, Christians have often mistaken optimism for hope. When Christians ignore the evil in the world and refuse to acknowledge human suffering and sin, they have courted Lady Optimism instead of embraced Hope. The same is true when they try to escape from their own guilt by dreaming about the ideal world or the ideal heaven. It was against a Church enamoured with mere optimism that Karl Marx wrote his scathing critiques. He charged that the Christian view of heaven was used by the church as a way to justify all of the wrongs done on earth. It was a Church in the embrace of Lady Optimism that caused Marx to see this garbled treatment of hope as opium that sedated oppressed peoples and allows the domination of the oppressor. Marx believed that people were made docile to evil and to suffering because they were blinded by the myopic vision of optimism. In fact, optimism actually participates in violence and evil because it removes real human suffering from our view, and certainly from our sense of responsibility. By dulling us to evil and suffering—even our own evil and suffering—Optimism shows herself to be an imposter.
Hope has another step-sister. This one, however, does not come close to bearing the same sort of resemblance to Hope. If you were to see Lady Optimism from a distance, it is quite possible that you may mistake her for Hope. This is not the case with Hope’s other sister, Cynicism. Cynicism sees Hope’s beauty and does not try to copy it. She already knows she can’t and Optimism just looks stupid when she tries. Instead, Lady Cynicism has rejected entirely all that looks like Hope and plunges herself into rebellion. Whereas Lady Optimism avoided sin and suffering because it made her queasy, Cynicism prefers to see nothing but. She has given up on looking for the good in things and has retired to the comfortable, even if pathetic, life of wallowing in a mire of darkness. Now, to be truthful, I didn’t really find Lady Optimism to be all that tempting. In fact, she kinda got on my nerves. Lady Cynicism, however, is quite the looker. How easy it would be to resign oneself to the idea that the world continues to spiral into the toilet and we can’t do anything about it. Besides, it is a lot more fun and a lot less work to sit back with Lady Cynicism and joke about the stupidity of the optimists, as they scramble around trying to avoid all of the garbage. It was probably one of Lady Cynicism’s German lovers who wrote the proverb, “Hope is a ship with a mast of straw.” This is saying that even those who intend to be hopeful will have their spirits broken as soon as affliction arrives. Hope is a vessel just waiting to sink. True hope was so rare that she didn’t often fare well in German proverbs. But Cynicism shows herself to be a fraud when we see her ingratitude. She cannot bring herself to be thankful because she cannot acknowledge the presence of God in the world. To do so would presume that there was something good to hope for. That she cannot be thankful proves that she is a fake.
Biblical hope is not like either of these imposters. Instead, she is something radically different than both. Our text from Isaiah today paints this wonderful portrait of hope. As we will see, her beauty puts her step-sisters to shame. As we approach our text, it may be helpful to remember that Isaiah 65 presents this vision of hope as given to Israel in exile. Israel went into exile as God’s punishment for their continued and obstinate rebellion. Israel sinned, sinned, and then sinned some more, and rather than returning to God in repentance and contrition, Israel dug its heels in even deeper. And so, off to exile they went. And yet, even in their exile God repeatedly left hints of the promise of their return. Even amidst the clear denouncement of their transgression, God tells them of a time of forgiveness. Isaiah 40:1-2 reads, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” When we get to the vision of hope in Isaiah 65, we encounter a vivid description of Israel’s life back in the land of promise after the restoration has taken place.
Essentially, the vision is one in which Israel and God will finally live together in total peace—Shalom. Isaiah 65 is a portrayal of that peace—that Shalom. It describes life as “the way it’s supposed to be.” The people are back in the land, their sins are forgiven and they exist in holy fellowship with God, with one another, and even with the natural world. As verse 17 says, there is a “new heavens and a new earth.” The waste and spoilage of the way things were will give way to the way things ought to be. Isaiah’s is a vision of Eden re-visited.
Let’s look a little closer at some of the elements of Isaiah’s vision of Shalom. The first thing we note is that “the former things shall not be remembered,” verse 17. Isaiah’s vision of hope is one in which the forgiveness of sins has done away with the animosity between Israel and God. Israel’s sins did not simply slip his mind for a time only to be remembered later; rather God has actively chosen not to remember them. All things are truly made new! Next, verses 17 and 18 describe this new work of God as one in which Jerusalem will delight and be delighted in. Not only do the people of God rejoice in God, but God himself rejoices in his restored people. This circle of mutual delight is astounding. We think often of human beings rejoicing in God, but here God is also rejoicing in his people! In this vision, God’s creation has become what it was intended to be: a partner in a fellowship of mutual delight!
Also note Isaiah’s description of the sort of robust and vibrant life that will characterize Israel in the restoration. There are no more pre-mature deaths here (verse 20); rather, as verse 22 explains, “like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.” We get this sense of the people of God as a rooted and stable tree that doesn’t topple over with just any breeze through its branches. Even Israel’s labour will flourish and bear fruit: “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (verse 22). With the vivid memories of being uprooted from their homes and their livelihoods by the exile, this vision addresses the hope for meaningful work. This is the sort of work that flourishes and bears much fruit for the worker himself. There is no longer such a thing as being alienated from one’s labour! Rather, the people of God now get to enjoy the work of their own hands!
What is more, this human flourishing occurs in direct connection with Israel’s intimacy with God. Rather than Israel begging and pleading for God to help them, Isaiah declares that even “Before they call, I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (verse 24). This robust life does not take place outside of relationship with God. Rather, it is precisely in the life of prayer that the abundant life occurs. There is no longer a wide gap between sacred and secular. Finally, like icing on the cake, the vision of Isaiah depicts the restored life of Israel in perfect harmony with the natural world. Verse 25 reads that “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox” but “the serpent—its food shall be dust.” Unlike Eden, in which the serpent seduced Eve to temptation and was cursed by God, in Isaiah’s vision of the restored Israel, the curse upon the serpent renders him entirely harmless! This vision of Isaiah’s is of a time and a land in which those elements that encroach upon human thriving are done away with. Violence is transformed into peace. This picture of Shalom, this picture of hope, is one in which human beings and God live in a wonderful, vibrant, robust fellowship with one another. Life becomes what it should be.
This is not all. Isaiah’s vision is not confined to restoration from the exile. The writers of the New Testament looked to Isaiah to provide them some of the imagery and substance for their versions of hope. Listen to how the writer of Revelation describes the hope of Christians:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. For the first things have passed away (Revelation 21:1-5).
Isaiah has made us familiar with the idea of a “new heaven and new earth.” Revelation, however, bumps up the imagery even more. In addition to human flourishing in perfect fellowship with God, Revelation shows how even death itself will be done away with. If Isaiah’s serpent gets a mouth full of dust, Revelation’s serpent gets tossed in the lake of fire! If Isaiah’s babies grow up to lead fruitful lives, Revelation’s kids never shed a tear! Life is the way it is supposed to be, but this time there is no end in sight!
So what can we learn from here about the contours of Christian hope? How would we compare her to her two step-sisters, the Ladies Optimism and Cynicism? I offer the following points. First, Christian hope is all about proper life with God and with one another. It is about righteousness—Shalom. This means that Christian hope is not “other-worldly.” Christians who hope do not need to take their eyes off of what is in front of them. Christian hope is for the renewal and transformation of the earth. It is earthy and earthly. Because Christian hope does not need to look away from the earth, it can afford to call “a spade a spade.” It sees evil and calls it what it is. It does not hide behind a veneer of optimism to try to avoid the truth about the world. Christians who hope call out injustice and work toward reconciliation in the world, in their churches, here at Briercrest, and even in their own lives. Christian hope makes Lady Optimism face the dirt.
Second, Christians who hope acknowledge that only God can bring about the Shalom they wait for. They know that life won’t be the way it is supposed to be until Christ returns. So, even though Christians who hope work for Shalom every day, they know that there is no one-to-one correlation between their work and the arrival of their hope. Rather, they work IN hope, waiting for and knowing that God will come. Christians can have no part with Lady Cynicism because lady cynicism does not recognize God working in the world.
Third and most important, Christians who hope do so because God HAS already established Shalom on the earth. In righting the supreme evil of the murder of Jesus by his resurrection, God has already established peace and righteousness. We look to the return of the resurrected Christ to finally realize the Shalom established in him. However, it is precisely because God has established Shalom in THIS world, in the Christ who took on OUR flesh, that we can have hope during this time while we wait for his return. As Karl Barth explained, the great hope of the coming of Jesus Christ allows us also to have “little hopes” day to day. Christians can have a realistic hope about ordinary life precisely because the Son of God assumed our ordinary flesh and raised it up with him, making right all that is wrong with it. The light of hope of the resurrected Jesus shines into our lives even today. It gives us “little hopes” as we wait for the big hope. Not only will Jesus come back to make all wrongs right, but maybe the God who raised him from the dead will heal our bodies of the illness we face today; maybe he’ll address our loneliness today; maybe he’ll right the injustice in our society today; maybe he’ll reconcile us to our estranged family member today. With this great hope, and with these little hopes, we can work, serve and live without fear.