One of my favorite recording artists is the singer-songwriter (and armchair theologian?) Josh Ritter. His music was the soundtrack to much of my young adult years: to joys, heartaches, self-exploration, friendship, and vocational searching. I still love his music—he has a gift for putting his finger on the rawest nerves in the human experience, finding diamond-sharp articulations of them, and still turning to deep joy and gratitude. When I get down—all too often—about the state of the world, his albums are a place of refuge and renewal for me.
His 2006 album The Animal Years includes a song called “Thin Blue Flame.” It’s a sprawling nine-and-a-half minute song; poetic, literary, dense, epic. I think it’s an exploration of what it means to work through the divine promise of a better world given what we see around us. I know it’s a bit yawning to listen to someone go on and on about why a piece of art they love is meaningful to them, so I’ll get to the point. In the nearly 800 words in the song, here’s the lyric that gets me every time:
Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares
The young women walking in the portals of prayer
And the future glass buildings and the past an address
And the weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless
And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right
The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night
The future descending like a bright chandelier
And the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer
In Royal City I fell into a trance
Oh it’s hell to believe there ain’t a hell of a chance
I picture that scene in Sleeping Beauty where the fairy godmothers float around the kingdom gently putting the people to sleep, except the targets of the fairydust are the things that bring us so much pain. Gently, quietly, without a fight, the “suffering verbs” find themselves out of commission. Now, the Bible does not generally speak of God’s new world coming about gently—far from it—but it has always struck me: what if those things were just—*poof*—gone?
Something about this week’s reading from Isaiah 65 strikes a similar chord:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind…
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime (Isaiah 65.17, 19-20a).
In the wake of the Babylonian exile, the prophetic word does something really interesting with the people’s memory. It both makes reference to their historical memories (“the former things”) and says, “remember that? It’s happening again, but bigger!” Isaiah’s vision—as recounted in the second major section of the book (Isaiah 40-55)—of the people being brought back from exile is one where the defining salvific act of Israel’s God (Exodus 20:2; Leviticus 25:38; Numbers 15:41; Deuteronomy 5:6, etc.) in the exodus event is surpassed by this restoration.1
The section of the book Isaiah 65 comes from is associated with the next major moment, the return to the land and the end of exile. Naturally, this restoration will include the material concerns of human life and community: security, prosperity, fertility, longevity (65:20b-23). But it also points to the current moment and says, “this pain, this dislocation, this mourning that is so all-consuming won’t even be a memory.” These basic aspects of the human condition—the things so many of us spend our days trying not to think about until they break into our lives and shatter us to bits “shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). In the midst of crushing disruption, disappointment, cynicism, and hopelessness, the word comes through Isaiah, not only this suffering but all suffering you have known—gone. As if put to sleep in the night.
I think a lot about how we become so familiar with certain biblical images that we lose sight of how profound they are. A new heavens and a new earth—wow, cool; no more will the sound of weeping be heard–sounds nice. Maybe fresh language, like “the suffering verbs put to sleep in the night” is close enough and yet just different enough that it allows me to imagine my way into this promise from a different angle. And what a bold promise it is–can you even wrap your mind around it?
I think we might know what it is like to live through suffering, to incorporate it into our narrative and theology, and to find life—hard-won, but perhaps permanently re-formed—on the other side. But even when our minds manage to do that, our bodies keep the score, as those who study traumatized persons remind us.2 There’s so much beauty in the strength it takes to live out a human life, and to live out a life of faith. I don’t mean to suggest that the scars we carry with us from just making our way through our days, months and years are not meaningful to God. I have to believe that God loves me and my banged-up heart, my aging body, my tumultuous mind just as they are today—that is, not new but still here. Like the Japanese artform kintsugi, this vessel is more beautiful and stronger as a whole because of where it has been broken.
Doubtless, the community returning from exile knew what it was like to be broken. But here in Isaiah 65, in this time of restoration, we find a text that reasserts the allure of the new. It’s easy to discount this, to react as though it is a basic desire—reducing this text and its powerful images to our shallow cultural scripts (“new and improved!” “new formula” “like new”, etc.). But it’s a big deal in biblical literature as well, the root appearing nearly 350 times—new heart, new covenant, new spirit, new song, new thing. This speaks to something deep and true.
As we see in the later prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, texts contemporaneous with these chapters of Isaiah, restoration—a return to former glory, even under the most exacting circumstances—is ultimately a disappointment. In the end, the return from exile doesn’t replace the exodus, but the hope for newness—something really and truly and profoundly different—persists in weary hearts and minds. There’s so much of this newness threaded throughout the sections of the book generally referred to as Second and Third Isaiah (see also Isaiah 42:9, 43:19, 48:6, 66:22). This promise of the “new thing” that God is doing is that it will change the very order of the natural world, of the human community, and of our sense of what God is up to. In this vision, rather than responding to suffering, God will answer before we call (65:24); there will be no waiting for a divine word, it’s already here.
There’s so much to be weary about, so much that feels tired and worn and played out and intractable. I know you feel that, dear Working Preacher, as I do. And so this week, I encourage you to start by paying attention to where you need to be reminded of God’s ability to do a new thing.
- Where do you need renewal?
- Where do you need that deep-in-your-bones, can’t-remember-the-old-way kind of newness?
- If not now, when have you needed it?
- Who in your community needs it right now?
It seems to me that telling the truth about why newness is such a pervasive concept in our sacred texts means we need to reckon honestly with why we long for it so much. God gave a word of that kind of to the prophet Isaiah in a time of genuine crisis. What if what it meant to be known by our God is to be known by one who meets such a moment with something big, something bold, something new? May it be so: the world just beginning and the guests in good cheer.
- The recall of this event (“for I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…”) becomes central to God’s identity and God’s relationship with the people Israel throughout the Torah and Historical Books, appearing well over a dozen times.
- Bessel Van der Kolk. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and the Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014).