Isaiah 65: 17-25 November 13, 2022
“I am creating a new heaven and a new earth.”
What goes through your mind when someone says, “We are going to try something new!”? Some of you will jump with excitement, “Bring it on. This will be fun. Let’s eat Kimchi. Let’s try interpretive dance in worship!” Others will say, “There is nothing new under the sun. Meat and potatoes, please. New does not mean improved.” Most of us are not adventurous innovators but prefer routine and comfort. As one church consultant said, “The only people who want change are wet babies.” We don’t pursue change until our discomfort level is intolerable. Our response to new situations depends on where we stand. Will this make our life better or worse? If you hear the Magnificat, where Mary sings, “God will lift up the lowly and scatter the proud,” it could be good or bad news.
Embracing change is hard. Malcolm Gladwell created a bell curve of the innovation cycle that looks like this:
2.5% innovators. These are the creators, innovators, and revolutionaries. On June 29, 2007, Steve Jobs shook the world by putting a camera, computer, calendar, record player, and everything else except a kitchen sink; into an iPhone. Industries and empires rise and fall in its wake. Jesus brought a fresh interpretation of the divine-human relationship that made religion more inclusive, loving, and less legalistic. Even death could not stop him.
13.5% early adopters. These folks have owned at least seven versions of the iPhone and already have version 14. In Christianity, it is the 12 disciples. Early adopters want novelty and get in on the ground floor of the trend.
34% early majority. These people wait a few months until the bugs get out of the new version. They are pragmatic and wait to see if something is working. These are the 70 followers Jesus sends out to spread the good news in Luke 10, Mary and Martha, various supporters of Jesus.
34% late majority. This group wants to be safe. They want to make sure cell phones don’t cause brain tumors. These are the 5000 people Jesus fed with five loaves and two fish. They have finally come around.
16% laggards. By the time this group comes around, you can be sure the trend is dead. Rotary phones are fine. They have a flip phone only for emergencies, which they never turn on to reach them. Laggards are the group who became Christians when it became an official Roman religion in the fourth century after Jesus.
Think for a moment where you locate yourself on this spectrum. How do you respond to change and innovation?
I land somewhere in the first half, depending on the situation. Occasionally, I have a new idea, but more often, I read a lot and glean from other innovators. Usually, I wait and see how the project is moving along. I tend to get excited by innovators and figure out how to spread their ideas to others. I am better at helping people get comfortable with change than always looking to jump on the next bandwagon. Most of us move around in the big middle of the curve depending on the idea, our energy level, and our stake in the situation.
This curve can help us understand how we adapt and grow as a congregation. We all have interests and emotions as change moves through a church, which must be taken seriously. If we don’t change fast enough, we become stagnant and decline. If we change too quickly, people get anxious, tune out and eventually leave. It takes trust and communication to make it through this curve.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized this curve in his book “The Tipping Point” in 2000. I would love to hear what he thinks 22 years later. I believe this process has become faster with new technology, and COVID forced us to compress a decade of change into a few months. Now we are all exhausted, and even the early adopters and saying, “Give me a break.” Forty percent of clergy have left the ministry, and a big reason is the innovation curve broke them. Either they couldn’t keep up, or the congregation didn’t want to follow. I wonder if we have all moved somewhat to the right on this curve and change is moving faster than we can handle.
Every institution is struggling with the breakdown of this cycle. Magen, our church school director, shared with me how kids are all running about three years behind standard social development patterns, so you see middle school behaviors in high school. People are prone to feeling left out, more susceptible to conspiracy theories, and more likely to harden their positions as they face the unknown. We long for stability and safety. This challenge is vitality requires innovation to flow, yet the change we need feels like too much or a frightening leap into the unknown.
What can we learn from Isaiah’s hopeful imagination in Isaiah 65? Biblical scholars trace this scripture to around 520 to 500 BCE. People are returning from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, and their hope is flagging. The people who live in Judah are not throwing them a welcome home party, they are new settlers trying to establish themselves amid hostility. It’s like the winter of 1621, and the pilgrims are starving on Plymouth Rock. It’s 1950, and the new nation of Israel is tossed into a hostile environment. The future is uncertain, and this new enterprise now seems like a mistake.
Hope is getting a reality check. Isaiah is attempting to rally their spirits with the creative possibilities of God. (Remember Isaiah also says, “I will raise you up on Eagle’s wings.” He is an encourager!). Where do you think Isaiah is on that innovation curve? Clearly, he is an innovator. Can you take his words seriously? Lions aren’t designed it eat straw. Lambs will never be safe. We may have made progress in 2500 years on infant mortality and longevity, but if this is a prophecy, we are still waiting. This poetry sounds like a promise that goes beyond human history. What are we supposed to do with the challenges of the unknown present?
Here is how I read Isaiah. He is not an engineer or a political prognosticator, he is a poet. Poets inspire us to think outside the box. They bring us into the realm of imagination, not blueprints. Isaiah shows us a new heaven that inspires a new earth. Infant mortality will cease, you will live long and prosper, enjoy the fruitfulness of your land, snakes will eat dust and the lamb will rest easy by the lion. This is a mission statement about how life can be, but don’t rush it into a strategic plan. We first must enter the poetic imagination and be inspired by God.
I hear Isaiah telling us three things about who God is.
First, God is a creator who is not done with the universe. As 21st-century people, we have absorbed the idea of the Big Bang. Millions of years of evolution have brought us to this point. But we often relegate the work of God back to the beginning, and we will take it from here. But what if we believe God’s creative work is a continuing process? God is still speaking; therefore, creation continues. Isaiah’s council in the teeth of challenges and uncertainty is to embrace creativity. We won’t move to the goal by holding on to what we have or repeating the past. In disruptive times, we choose to create rather than our instinct to protect.
Second, Isaiah says God takes joy in us and wants us to find joy. Think of the energy released when you know someone takes pleasure in who you are and what you do. If we think God is judging us and waiting to punish us, we will have difficulty finding joy. Just as God finds joy in us, we are called to live with joy. If our religion makes us angry and miserable, what God are we following? If the church becomes a slog, we are doing something wrong. We are called to weep with those who weep, but tears get wiped away, and we are also called to rejoice with those who rejoice.
Third, Isaiah tells us that our work matters. I translate “you will live in our own houses and enjoy our own vineyards” to mean economic justice and fairness and also that our labor matters. The world often tries to tell us that all our effort is futile because the forces of hatred, injustice and suffering are just too big. Isaiah answers, “No way!” When you work towards the good, you are met by the creative force of the same Spirit that created the universe in all its wonder. Trust the process. Sometimes you feel like an ant dragging a bread crust up the ant hill. But God sees you, knows the number of hairs on your head, and the Spirit infuses your labors.
How do we live in the promise of a new heaven and earth? Embrace creativity, take joy in the work, and trust the process. Sometimes we will get stuck somewhere in the innovation curve and feel discouraged. That is human nature. But if we believe God is still creating, still working in us, hope will return.