The God who sends this message to Israel via the prophet wants to be known for creating. Like a young child who trots out of their room, showing off their latest Crayola masterpiece, this God wants Israel to delight in what God is creating. God may have rested on that first Seventh day, but apparently God’s Sabbath is over. God is going to create again (new heavens and new earth–not a bad start).
As pastors know all too well, grieving people rarely want to hear about something new. Churches busy lamenting the loss of members, money, and memory probably aren’t that interested in taking time to revise the mission statement. Yet God looks at ragged little remnant Israel, returning from exile, and says, “Let me tell you about a new creative work that I’m going to do.” Somehow, despite our stubborn addition to feet dragging, we intuitively know that there’s immeasurable hope in God’s proclamation of new creation. Will Willimon opens his book Don’t Look Back with a prayer, which includes this stanza: “Give us room to mourn, but don't let grief get the best of us. Remind us of Wesleyan history, but let not our love of the past keep us from being part of your future.”
I was discussing this very text with six saints from my community, when one of them announced: “This is an election day text!” Delightfully surprised, I asked him to say more. “As we get closer to an election, politicians keep making bigger and bigger promises—”
“None of which they intended to keep,” I cut in.
“Exactly!” he said.
Do yourself a favor and watch the 2020 documentary Boys State. Every summer, the American Legion sponsors a week-long event that brings teenagers together to form a mock government. The Texas-set film focuses on the race for governor that takes place over the first few days, and you watch these young men go from “I want to serve people” to “The only way to win was to tell them what they wanted to hear, even though it’s not what I believe.” (Watch the trailer here: https://youtu.be/E1Kh_T5ZBIM) In just one week they learn to make promises they do not intend to keep. This kind of politic stands as the perfect juxtaposition to Isaiah. God’s promises are a different breed.
“Don’t hold your breath,” they say. This little phrase means that whatever you hope for is not likely to happen. With this God, however, you can hold your breath. You are quite able to hold your breath longer than God is able to go without creating. Followers of this God are never blue-faced, hoping fools. Instead, they are those who bear witness to a God who does keep God’s promises, does intend to do what God says, and will create new heavens and a new earth. During our conversation about Isaiah, that same election-minded saint’s phone buzzed. He looked at it, held it up in his right hand, and grinned, “I just got a political text!” he said. Gesturing to the Scriptures, he added, “Don’t worry–we’ve got a better message.”
Being a Christian is not a permission slip to ignore the darkness of reality, but it is a license to believe that the future of our story is that which sounds too good to be true. That’s what I’m wrestling with these days, in my own faith. I echo Charles Wesley’s hymnic question: And Can It Be? Can it really be that God is going to make a new heavens and earth? Can it really be that God is going to eliminate the need for weeping or the cry of distress? Can it really be that the length of human lifespan is on the table for negotiation? Can the news ever really be as good as new heavens and a new earth? Can our message really be that hopeful?
Yes, we hope for God to do something like this, believing (against all odds and contrary to most of the evidence) that God has another creative act rehearsing in the wings. However, this text is not only eschatological. In fact, many Jewish interpreters do not read it that way at all. In Christ, the new creation has been glimpsed, and by our new birth in the Spirit we begin to see more hints that God is perhaps capable of making this reality.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they say. God plans to change the very nature of wolves (though I would be more impressed if God keeps my church alive over the next two years). Dogs are easier to train than humans after all, and we humans are the real problem anyway. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” is about people. The pattern in v.25 is predator/prey (wolf/lamb), predator/prey (lion/ox), predator/no prey (snake/dust). The wolf and lion represent our need to satiate ourselves at the cost of another and the concrete actions in which we do that. The snake, naturally, is the image of the great evil, every impulse to bite and tear and devour and to accuse. In God’s future, we won’t feed that slithering impulse anymore. It will only have dust to consume and will starve to death. God plans to woo us back into Eden, to uncover the image of God in us. This is wildly good news for me, as I received seventeen scam calls this week alone and six in one day last week. In God’s future, the folks calling to scam me will have something beautiful to build or plant (v.21) and I won’t want to devour them like I do.
But we are also crazy enough to suggest that God doesn’t plan to wait for the eschaton to begin this work in us. We who follow Jesus are on the hook now. Our brobdingnagian list of excuses for our sin is useless. God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth leaks into the life of the baptized, transforming us here and now. Isaiah’s vision is a postcard from our homeland, and we who have lost our taste for the blood of our enemies and loved ones discover that we are living in two worlds, that we are, as Hauerwas and Willimon called us, “resident aliens.” In this strange land, our watchword and song becomes Jesus is Lord! After all, he’s the only lord whose promises amount to a hill of beans.
This Sunday is the penultimate of the church year. When I was a kid, I played tee-ball. This Sunday is like the tee that sets up next week: Reign of Christ the King Sunday. Wondering how God can make such audacious promises? Wondering how God can begin to fulfill them in God’s people? Come back next Sunday to find out (spoiler alert: it’s because Christ is King of the universe)!
As pastors, we are preparing for Advent and Christmastide while kids are still picking out Halloween costumes, orange leaves clog our gutters, and turkeys are lovingly (albeit hastily) basted for Thanksgiving dinner. Christian time keeping is barely heard above the sound of Reese’s wrappers and rakes and ringing kitchen timers. The tug of war is strong in these coming days. Besides, if we can’t even get along at Thanksgiving dinners, how will God convince wolves and lambs to be on the same team?
Isaiah reminds us: there’s better news than our homey autumn holidays. The prophet summons us to a better vision than pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. We aren’t going to get to the place Isaiah envisioned by perfecting the American experiment. By all means, hold free and fair elections, pass legislation, bleed and sweat and weep for justice in our structures and policy, but don’t forget that whatever good we have in mind for our community or our country or our planet, God has a plan to do something even better. And apparently, Christians are audacious enough to believe that God has only begun to roll up God’s sleeves. New creation is coming, and (whether we like it or not) it has begun in us.
I, for one, would like to temper Isaiah’s expectations:
“Don’t get your hopes up and you won’t be disappointed.”
But the prophet ignores my advice altogether:
“Wake up, little preacher! Get your hopes up!”
 Will Willimon, Don’t Look Back (Nashville: Abington Press, 2022), xiii.
 For example, 12th-Centuary commentary Ibn Ezra: “Those that refer the passage to the future life of man, are wrong; for it cannot thus agree with the context of the chapter, since in the future life there is neither eating nor drinking, as our sages have taught us.”
 I have considered counting these as pastoral calls.