There exists in scripture and Christian tradition a certain tension, the tension between what God has already done and what has not yet come to pass. We see that tension in the words of the disciples right before Jesus ascends to heaven in Acts, they ask “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” Even though they have seen him resurrected they aren’t quite sure of what they’ve witnessed. It is obviously an amazing thing, but even at that point he hasn’t done what they expected the Messiah to do. This incredible thing had occurred, but their day to day lives hadn’t particularly changed – Israel was still occupied by Rome, Herod’s family were still the rulers – if we put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples, forgetting all that we have been taught about what the resurrection means, we would have also been hard pressed to explain the events. Something had obviously happened, that was clear. But there was something that hadn’t happened yet, something that was still to come.
This tension between already and not yet shows up a number of times in Paul’s writing. He talks about things that have already happened – Christ has conquered death, for example, but people still die. Christ reigns as king, but there are still worldly authorities that have to be followed. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and yet we find in his writings ways to deal with issues of ethnic differences, the relationships between masters and slaves, and Paul’s view on gender roles in those early churches. Something has happened, but there’s still something that hasn’t happened yet.
Just so you don’t think it’s a New Testament phenomenon, there’s something of this in the Old Testament as well. God declares to Abraham that he has been made a great nation even before Isaac is born. God has done something, establishing a covenant with Abraham, leading him into a new land, but there’s something else that hasn’t happened yet.
This is a reality we have to deal with as the people of God, there are realities of the Kingdom of God that we experience already, and there are those that have not happened yet. And that impacts our present. With this idea of newness that we’ve been focusing on, we have access to new life in Christ because of what has already happened. That new life brings with it a new hope, new joy, new rules to follow, all the things that we’ve talked about in the past couple of weeks, but in addition to the things that are already present in this newness there are the things that are not yet, there is in addition to these present things a new future.
This new future is spoken of in Revelation with John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth, but this text from Isaiah shows us that the idea was not new to John, God’s people had a vision of a new future for hundreds of years already. There was a tradition of belief that God would do some king of mighty act in the world, that there was a future worth looking forward to.
And what a future it is, right? It’s a future where there is no more weeping. Where the things that bring us pain and sorrow and cause us to cry out will no longer happen. It’s a future where there is life, life that is long and full and abundant, life where no one is taken advantage of or sees their work taken over and abused by others. It’s a future of peace. The lion will lay down with the lamb. In other areas of Isaiah we see visions of all nations coming to the new Jerusalem to worship together, this is a future where peace is not just something for people to write songs about but the reality of life on earth.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that is great future, that that is something that is worth looking forward to, but this already but not yet reality that I mentioned earlier means that it is not enough just to look forward to it. At the heart of this idea is the notion that although God’s kingdom has not yet fully come to pass and won’t do so until the future, believers are actively playing a part in that future kingdom in the here and now. We are playing a role in bringing it to fruition, the things we do now make an impact on the reality of that future. If we like what we hear then we cannot just sit back and think “oh yeah, that sounds really great,” if we like the sound of the future that God has planned then we have a call to work towards making our present a little more like that future.
We can work towards this image of the future by treating creation like it matters. Now that might sound like it doesn’t make sense to some of you, after the text is pretty clear that God is going to create a NEW heaven and earth. This whole month we’ve been talking about new things, and here I am ignoring the new thing to talk about the old. Not quite. When the Bible talks about “new” creation it doesn’t mean new like we think of a new car or a new house or a new 64 inch tv (just in case any of you were thinking about presents to get me), the idea of new is much closer to the idea of being redeemed. It is similar to the way that Jesus talks about being born again and Nicodemus asks a dumb question about going back into his mother’s womb. People aren’t physically born again and the earth is necessarily physically recreated, it is made into what it was in the beginning, what it was always meant to be. If we want to make our present reality more like this promised future then we have to treat our world like the paradise it was meant to be. Tending to creation is the first task that humanity was given. Taking care of the area where God had placed them was the first thing they were called to do. Our call remains the same. You don’t have to tree-hugger to see a video of a dolphin trapped in one of those plastic six-pack rings and know that that’s not how God has called us to care for creation. One of the results of the fall was that humanity and nature came into conflict, to make the promised future more of a present reality we have to change that, we have to treat all that God has created with the respect that comes with God’s creation, not as a collection of resources to be used up.
We can work towards this image of the future by treating others like they matter. What is present in any picture of the future that we find in scripture is that all people are treated equally, all people are held up as the same by right of being created in the image of God. And too often that’s not the present reality. That’s not the way we actually think. If we’re honest then a lot of the time we assume that we’re God’s favorites and other people are somehow less than. We put “us” first and to heck with “them.” Until we recognize that all people are made in the image of God and worthy, not only of love from God but of love and care from us as well, we’ll never see the kind of future that is promised in scripture. In this vision of the future we see people having access to long life, their material needs are met, and they are able to live in peace without fear. If we want to make that future more of an already and less of a not yet we have to seek out ways to make those things more of a reality for all people, not just people who look like us or live in the same country or speak the same language or whatever division we want to make. In this future Isaiah reveals there’s no room for us to decide who’s worthy and who isn’t, judgement belongs to God. Our task in following God is working to make sure that all people are treated with the dignity of people made in the image of God.
We can work towards this image of the future by treating ourselves like we matter. The reality is that how we view ourselves determines our views on everything else. If we don’t think we matter, if we don’t think that we’re worthy of this future that God has planned, then we’ll never be able to work towards it. There’s a reading of the story of Adam and Eve that sees the source of their sin not in the fact that they considered themselves equal to God or wanted more from God than what God gave, but that they had to little regard for themselves. They believed that they were not worthy of all that God had given them so they sought the knowledge from the tree of good and evil because it would make them better, and if they could just be better then they would be worthy of everything they had gotten from God. And isn’t that often the way we live? If we could just lose weight, if we were just funnier or smarter, if we just got that promotion or bought that house or drove that car or were in that relationship then we’d be good enough. When God created, God looked on all that was made and said it was good. But when God looked at humans, made in the image of God, God said that they were very good. Until we’re able to look at ourselves and see the same thing, until we can think of ourselves as very good in the eyes of God we’ll never be able to work towards this future that we see revealed because we’ll never believe we deserve it.
Paul writes that in Christ there is “a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come.” Paul writes that this has already happened, but we know that too often it has not yet become a reality in our lives. Being made new begins with us, it begins when we accept who we are and celebrate that God has saved us anyway and move forward into the life that we are called to. We’re made new when we embrace newness, when we seek the Kingdom of God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is prayer, but it is also a challenge. God’s kingdom comes to earth a little bit every day when we decided to pursue a new future. What can we do today to make that promised future more of a present reality?