The Isaiah Vision

In 1992 Raymond Fung wrote a little booklet called The Isaiah Vision. It was based on Isaiah 65:17-25, a text that countered the dominant view of the world and human nature, showing it up as illusion, as disinformation, and not the only possible course into the future.

In summary the vision is that:

  • children do not die
  • old people live in dignity
  • those who build houses live in them
  • those who plant vineyards eat the fruit.

That is, the key issues of inequity in society and the poverty it gives rise to. Then and now.

It was one of the texts for Easter Day this year and I’d been asked to fill in when the minister’s household went into Covid-19 isolation. What a gift for this very occasional preacher. What an opportunity to explore what the tomb being empty might mean in practice for the vocation of living faithfully and hopefully in this time of huge challenges.

This text from Isaiah 65 is what Jesus reads when, as Luke 4 tells it, he goes to the synagogue in Nazareth. After reading from the scroll he delivers the shortest sermon ever: “Today these things are coming real.” Then and now.

From vision to reality.

This is poetry that can trigger practical action.

This is the Jesus manifesto.

Good Friday effectively says “no” to Jesus and his manifesto. Disinformation holds sway; control by any means rules. The future will be just more of the same, with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and the Isaiah Vision. Not dead, but living and continuing to turn vision into reality. Christ is alive and the universe can celebrate.

I remember a Bible study back in my first ministry appointment that looked at this Isaiah text and I recall clearly a participant’s reaction to the bit about the lion and the lamb. Impossible! How’s the lion supposed to live? I knew that it one sense it is impossible, and yet I also knew that there was something here that was offering an opening, an alternative to how things could be. It was, I would discover, “imaginative construal” and an act of “prophetic imagination” that changes the way we live.

The key to hearing the Isaiah Vision is that it is poetry. Not scientific description. Not literal, but metaphor. A metaphor points to truth. It puts an image into our minds that carries something meaningful, at the same time knowing that, as metaphor, it doesn’t fit exactly. Like the classic example of snow blanketing the ground. Yes, covering and wrapping, but definitely not warming. Take the image a bit deeper and it evokes ideas of hibernating, protecting, and healing as the cold knocks back harmful diseases.

So the lion and the lamb lying together: an image of no violence and no harm. Which, going deeper, means no fear.

Our fears are easy to name right now. The big three: climate change, viral pandemic, and war. And plenty of regular fears – having what’s needed to get by – shelter, food, health, e.g. all exacerbated by the big three. The Isaiah Vision dares to imagine these things not being a problem: children not dying of preventable diseases (measles, illnesses caused by unhealthy homes), old people living safely, valued and respected, not slave labour but people’s work bearing fruit for themselves, including having their own homes and accessible sources of food.

This is not to deny how bad things are; rather, it is refusing to take existing world-ways as the only option and presents an alternative of life-giving ways. This, not our fears, can then be front and centre to our view of the future.

We can make this vision the horizon that, following Jesus’ example, we are living towards. It is a case of believing it is possible, despite appearances, despite current events, and acting accordingly. It makes a difference.

This, to me, is the tomb emptied. Emptied of everything that deals death. Which means we can focus our hearts and minds on what is life-giving.

Mike Riddell, who has been living in Ōturehua and died unexpectedly very recently, had just written an article for the latest Tui Motu magazine.

He wrote:

The time of Easter is a celebration of transformation. In the midst of darkness, loss and disillusionment comes the resurrection – the shining light of hope sidelining death and despair. Through Christ, we look backwards on history from the other side of all that would distort life and joy.

As I write, there is ample cause for despair. The Russian invasion of Ukraine haunts us with nightmares of 1939. Whatever the situation might be by the time you read this, many innocent people will have lost their lives in the crucible of power politics driven by insatiable narcissism.

A virus runs rampant through our society, and our Parliament has recently been occupied by disaffected citizens – a disturbing though sometimes amusing sideshow.

It would be easy to feel bleak and powerless. But that would be to give too much weight to forces we have no hope of controlling. My own strategy has been to focus on beauty.

Mike then describes the beauty around him – his wife Rosemary’s music, the creative projects he’s been engaging in, his family nearby. His strategy for living is to give towards a good future, poignantly commenting that he may not be around much longer to enjoy it.

Quoting again:

Too often I suspect we regard the resurrection as some sort of magic trick to be applauded from the sidelines. It is so much more than that. It is the recognition that… whatever may befall any of us along the path, all will be well. The challenge becomes to live as if this is true, rather than drowning under the stormy swells of doom and gloom.

“To live as if this is true.” Grammarians, note well. Not as if it were true, but as if it is true. That is Jesus’ gift – showing us God’s future made present.

God – the love and energy that pervades everything that was, is, and will be – has said a resounding “Amen” to Jesus and his making real the Isaiah Vision. This lives on and is the core of our living as followers of the Way.