a_tamarind_tree_seedlingIsaiah 65:17-25 & Luke 21:5-19

Preached FCCW, November 13, 2016

There’s a place you’ve never heard of called “Next-Year-Country”
It isn’t a place that has a zip code.
There isn’t a GPS device on the planet that can get you there.
That’s because, “Next-Year-Country” is not so much a place as it is a state of mind.
It’s an expression that was born in the 1800’s when Kansas farmers and ranchers struggled to survive against natural disasters like droughts or hailstorms that destroyed crops; or man-made disasters like mortgage foreclosures or unstable markets that wiped out family farms.
When misfortunes like these struck, instead of talking about pulling up stakes and seeking greener pastures in some other territory, folks would talk about things being better in “Next-Year-Country.”
As in: next year … rains will come at the right time.
Next year … winter won’t set in before I have my hay hauled in for the winter feeding.
Next year … life will be better … life will be easier.
“Next-Year-Country” can be found anywhere that hope for a better future persists in spite of adversity.
It’s where people who have lost everything don’t lose their sense of God’s presence, or of their awareness of who God calls them to be.

The Israelites in Isaiah’s time had dealt with plenty of adversity.
Their nation had been laid waste by the armies of the Babylonian Empire and many of them had been taken to Babylon as exiles.
For the Israelites who had been captives in Babylon for so very long, “Next-Year-Country” probably looked like going back to Jerusalem.
A return to a past when life seemed as solid and permanent as the great walls of Jerusalem and the stunning magnificence of the Temple.
But when the Israelites were finally allowed to go back home, the beautiful city of their parents’ memory was a mere shell of its former self.
The Israelites soon learned that their “Next-Year-Country” could not be rediscovered by going back in time.
But the prophet Isaiah had a word of hope to deliver, a message that God was soon to create a new future for them out of the rubble of the past.
The “Next-Year-Country” God had in mind could not be contained in a Temple, a city or even a nation. God would create a whole new heaven and a new earth as their “Next Year Country.”
Because only a new heaven and new earth would be big enough to include all people in the new dawn God that was breaking.

Edward Hicks was a Quaker farmer in colonial times who was also one of the great American painters of that era. His signature painting was “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
It was based on Isaiah’s vision of a time when “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
The foreground of the painting shows animals who were natural enemies co-existing in peace, as young children play fearlessly among them.
In the background of the painting, European settlers can be seen
peacefully interacting with Native Americans.
The painting conveys a sense of hope – that the peaceable kingdom promised by God and glimpsed by Isaiah – was breaking through into human history wherever people chose  peace and righteousness over violence and oppression.
Over the course of his lifetime Edward Hicks would paint other works on the theme of the Peaceable Kingdom. Most of them were much less hopeful than the first, as if the optimism he once felt about the future was dried up by world events.
Like Hicks, we may grow jaded about Next Year Country.

Isaiah promised that in “Next Year Country” there would no longer be heard the sound of weeping or the cry of distress.
But those sounds still reach our ears every day from places where innocent people are caught up in and uprooted by war and violence.

Isaiah foresaw a day when children would not be born for calamity.
Where there would not be infants whose life spans were measured in days instead of years.
But high infant mortality remains a tragic reality where good food, clean water or medicine are unavailable.

Isaiah’s vision was of a “Next Year Country” where people would not build houses only to have them taken by others.
Yet refugees are still forced  to live as exiles.

In “Next Year Country”  people shall not labor in vain.
Yet families in “This Year Country” who work for less than a living wage struggle to keep a roof over their heads or food on the table.

One day, as Jesus’ disciples were admiring the grandeur of the Temple
Jesus shocked them by saying that the time was coming when it would again be reduced to rubble. He warned them about chaotic times ahead,
of wars and insurrections, natural disasters and great human suffering.
It would be a time of deep divisiveness, when family members and friends would turn on each other.
His followers would be persecuted and imprisoned for what they believed.
As intimidating as those times would be, Jesus said that the end was yet to come.
In other words, something better, something worthy of our highest hopes, lay on the other side of those dark times.
And that hope could encourage Christians to use those times as opportunities to testify to God’s truth of a better, “Next Year Country.”

This Presidential election unveiled the true depth of division in our great nation.
More than any other campaign in memory, this was more than a contest between to candidates.
It was a clash of visions for the future. One that has polarized our citizenry.
I don’t know if you saw this story on the news just two days after the election –
but two bald eagles (our national symbol) were trapped in a storm drain and had to be rescued.
People wondered how they got there. It is thought that they had flown into each other’s territory, locked talons in a fight to the death, and ended up in the storm drain.
A number of people took to Twitter to suggest this strange incident could be interpreted
as a metaphor for the current, divisive state of our country.
I guess the moral would be that if the two sides of this great national divide cannot find a way to WORK together, we all might end up IN THE GUTTER together.

Just as the “Next-Year-Country” of desperate farmers and cattlemen in the 1800’s
could only come by God given, life-giving rain; the route to our “Next Year Country” of peace, justice and security would seem to be a hopelessly forked road apart from some sort of divine act of intervention.
That is not to say that men and women do not have an important role to play.
Farmers depend on the weather but they do not sit idle.
They must still do the groundwork of planting and fertilizing.
And, Jesus’ words call us to faithfully do the same groundwork for “Next Year Country” that he has always called us to do.
The groundwork of planting seeds of grace, fertilizing fields of justice and harvesting hope for the future.
We will continue to do these things we have been doing and even more, because the truth of them has not diminished.
And, with God’s presence to sustain us, we will not grow weary of doing the good we are called by God to do.
We will do these things in the faith that God, who in “Next Year Country” will bring even wolves and lambs to lay down in peace with one another, can also heal the painful divisions that presently divide our nation, in “This Year Country.”