When I was in my twenties, I developed a full-blown phobia about flying. I could barely go to an airport, let alone get on a plane. On the occasions when I couldn’t avoid it, my muscles would cramp, my stomach would knot up, and I’d find it hard to breathe. I hated being limited by this fear, so I took several steps to free myself from it. The first was to go to a psychologist who was something of a specialist in dealing with phobias. My time with him didn’t completely solve the problem, but one technique that he taught me was helpful, not only in getting rid of my intense and irrational fear of flying, but in many other situations as well—both good and bad.
What my counselor taught me was how to use my imagination to train my thoughts and expectations. In each meeting, he would guide me through an imaginary airplane trip. In these imagined journeys, I looked forward to the trip. I was calm as I went to the airport, waited at the gate, and then boarded the plane. When I reached my seat, I was relaxed as I opened a book or magazine. In fact, once the plane was in the air, I imagined myself so relaxed that I could fall asleep—and sometimes I did doze off for real, right there in the counselor’s office! Eventually, I began to believe that my actual airplane trips would look and feel like my imagined trips and, in fact, the actual trips did did come to be more like what my imagined trips.
Using my imagination started me on my way to being a fearless flyer. But it also proved useful in many other situations. When I had a big sales presentation to give, I would imagine the room, the audience, my own performance, and the satisfaction I would feel when the customer said yes. When I was expecting my daughter and anxiously awaiting labor and delivery, I imagined a safe and smooth process with a healthy baby in my arms at the end. When I heard my call to ministry and anticipated returning to school decades after graduating from BGSU—well, I did a lot of imagining then. Imagining the desired future gave me confidence and assurance that it was possible.
Imagination often gets a bum rap. “You’re imagining things!” we tell people whose ideas don’t match the current reality (as we see it). But, our imaginations are a gift from God. They enable us to envision a world and a future that does not match the current reality. And, that’s a good thing! Because the current reality is far from being the reality God intends. When we compare the world today with the kingdom of God, it would be easy to despair of the kingdom ever coming on earth in all is fullness. Truthfully, many of us don’t expect to see the kingdom fully realized in our lifetimes. We just look forward to some hazy day when Christ will come again and make all things new. In the meantime, we just accept things as they are.
But the power of our God-given imagination lies in its ability to make what seems unattainable more attainable. If we can’t imagine something, we can’t really believe it’s possible. But if we can imagine it, we can believe in it. And, as we imagine what is possible, we begin to see how we can participate in bringing it about.
We might say that the prophets did for the Jewish people (and for us) what my counselor did for me. They helped God’s people to imagine something that didn’t yet exist, but could exist and, more importantly, would exist, because God promised it would. God spoke through the prophets so that God’s people could see a new world, a new kind of reality, a new vision of what God intends for the world.
The future that the prophets imagined wasn’t simply something they made up out of whole cloth. Their imagined future was based on the word God revealed to them. Isaiah and the other prophets used God’s word to help the people see the future God saw.
Sometimes, this vision of the future was a terrible one. It was a vision of destruction and loss that were the result of faithlessness and unrighteousness. These imagined futures were designed to move the people in a different direction. If they could imagine the terrible consequences of their actions, in all their grim detail, they could also imagine living in a different way. They could see what they needed to do to prevent the terrible things from happening.
This is what we find in Chapter 1 of Isaiah, which comes just before our passage. This was before the exile, although the Assyrians were making their military power felt. But, the problem in Jerusalem and, in fact, in all of Judah, wasn’t an enemy from without, but an enemy from within. The people had rebelled against God. Their worship was unacceptable to God, because they were evil and corrupt in their dealings. God speaks a stirring indictment against Jerusalem: the city “that was full of justice, with righteousness lodged in her, is now in inhabited by murderers! Your silver has become dross, and you water down the wine you sell. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t even come before them.”
“Look at yourselves,” God says, “and imagine this. Imagine your land, your city, yourselves as a sick body, with a splitting headache, and a palpitating heart, weak from head to toe, covered in bruises and sores and open, bleeding wounds. Or, imagine being the oak tree you’ve been worshipping instead of me. Imagine all the leaves withering. Imagine yourselves as a garden that is dying from lack of water. Imagine your land, your city, yourselves being as dry as tinder that will be set aflame by the sparks of your own behavior, with no one to put out the fire. Imagine this,” God says.
Can you imagine this in our day and age? Can you imagine hearing these words about ourselves and our own country? Imagine hearing God describe us as a tinderbox, just waiting to burst into flames that will destroy everything. Maybe your imagination is helped along by the images of wildfires we’ve seen on the news. Maybe God would use images of overflowing hospitals as during the worst of the pandemic, or vast tracts of farm fields parched by drought, or cities destroyed by hurricane. If God described our future in those terms, would it be enough to make us ponder the way we live, to consider our turning a blind eye to injustice, to make us think about whether we have turned away from God?
God is a master poet, providing image after image that should have seized the imaginations of the people. Their imaginations should have moved them to repentance and change. But, sadly, with few exceptions, this has not been the case in the history of God’s people. They could not, or more likely would not, picture the consequences of their sinfulness and respond.
But, the good news is that God offers more than visions of judgment and punishment. God also provides pictures of what the world can and, one day will, be. These are beautiful pictures—powerful visions of a future where God’s law rules in the world and God’s love rules in people’s hearts. These are visions of justice, and righteousness, and peace.
“Now imagine this,” God says in our passage. “Imagine the day when I am revered above all others gods—the gods of selfishness and power and materialism. Imagine the day,” God says, “when the people of all the world will want to know me and to walk in my ways. Imagine them, together with you, learning from me. Imagine disagreements between peoples and nations being considered and decided, not in courts of human law or fields of battle, but by me. Imagine a time when there will be no need for the implements of war—no swords, no semi-automatic rifles or guns of any kind, no missiles or bomb-bearing drones. Imagine the day when these instruments of death can be melted down and remade into tractors and irrigation systems and silos for storing life-giving food. Imagine a time when children will no longer learn that might makes right, and nations don’t learn war any more. In a word, imagine peace.”
This is the alternative that God offers to the people of Jerusalem and all of Judah. This is the alternative that God offers to people of every place and every age, including us. The way things are is not the way things have to be and the way things will be is not the way things now are.
The challenge for us is the same as it was for the people of Judah. Can we imagine peace in the world as God describes it? Can we see it, and can we believe in it? Can we believe that such a world is possible?
There are two common responses to these questions. One is, “No way. That’s a pretty picture, God, but you know us humans better than that. People will continue to want as much for themselves as they can get, from the personal level to the international stage, and that means there will always be social unrest, political division, and violence in our homes, on our streets, and between the nations. We can imagine the picture you paint of a world at war. But the world at peace? It will never happen. So, I’m going to keep living exactly the way I have been so that I’m not the loser in this game.”
The second response is this: “Sure, I can imagine that. I believe it can happen. After all, all things are possible with God. But, I can’t imagine it will happen in my lifetime. That kind of peace can only happen when Christ comes again, and I don’t really think that’s about to happen anytime. So, I’m going to keep living exactly the way I have been so that I’m not the loser in this game.”
The first response is identical to the response of the people of Judah and Jerusalem, and we know how that worked out. They didn’t repent, didn’t change their ways, and they suffered the consequences. The problem with the second response is that it’s not so different from the first. It’s based on the notion that the peace God envisions may be coming, but it won’t be coming soon. We can envision it, but only as possibility for the far-distant future. Both result in a lack of repentance, and repentance is what God is seeking.
Today we begin the season of Advent. It’s a time of anticipation. But our anticipation takes two forms. One is our anticipation of celebrating Christ’s birth. We decorate our houses, buy presents, bake cookies and make candy, and plan parties. That is all perfectly appropriate, given all that Christ’s birth means to us. But it is also a time of anticipating his return. It is a time of reflection. We reawaken our awareness of just how unprepared we are for his coming again. And so, we heed God’s call to repentance.
Repentance is not only feeling sorry or regretful. It means that we allow our sorrow and regret to turn us in a new direction. The literal meaning of word in Hebrew of the word “repent” is “to turn.” To turn away from the way things are and turn back to God. It means to go in a new direction, to repair and restore what is broken in us and the world. It means to turn toward the future that God has revealed to us.
This is the reason that God shows us God’s desired future. When we imagine the reality of that future, we can come to believe in its possibility—not as a distant dream but as something we can look for at any moment. When we believe wholeheartedly in its possibility, we can envision it as reality. If we envision it as a reality, we can trust that God will use us to bring that reality about. And, if we trust that God will use us, it’s our job and our joy to do what we can now to make the world look more like God’s intended future.
Where might you be able to make inroads of peace, right here, right now? We may not make speeches to the world’s leaders about the need for peace, but we can be willing to talk with and listen to our own family members and neighbors in order to foster closer ties, especially those from whom we are estranged and with whom we disagree. We may not be able to seize the implements of war and reshape them into farming equipment, but we can be careful when we shop to buy fair trade products that strengthen communities all over the world. In God’s intended future, God will do the judging between nations, but we can judge which policies and candidates will work to make our world more just and more compassionate. In God’s intended future, God will do the teaching, but nations will begin to learn war no more when individuals are committed to living in peace with others.
When I was in high school and college, I was involved in my community and university theaters. I even took some theater classes at BGSU. There is one thing that I remember from those classes. It was the idea that the success of every performance depends on the audience’s ability to “suspend their disbelief.” They have to be willing to believe, for the length of the play, that what is happening onstage is real—that the walls of the palace are stone and not plywood, that snow is falling from the sky and not from scaffolding above, that the food on the table is not made of Styrofoam. The audience must be willing to believe in love at first sight and that good will triumph over evil.
God challenges us to suspend our disbelieving that the peace Isaiah describes is possible, and that it is possible at any time. Jesus himself spoke the words in our Call to Worship: “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Keeping awake doesn’t mean simply standing by, with your spiritual eyelids propped open, so that you’ll see the Lord when he comes. Being awake means being active and doing the things that prepare his way. It means doing the things that make for peace.
Our imaginations are powerful gifts from God—gifts that enable us to see beyond what exists right now to what will exist when God’s promised future is complete. We must suspend the disbelief born of jaded skepticism and imagine the time when many peoples will say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” We must imagine a world where disputes between nations will be settled, not by warfare, but by God. We must imagine the time when death-dealing weapons will be transformed into life-giving tools. We must imagine the day when nations will not make or even threaten war, for they will learn war no more. We must imagine that that day can come at any time, and that we can be part of its coming.
This day of the Lord began when Jesus was born, and it will be completed on the day when he returns. That day may be long in coming, or it may be tomorrow. But, for however long the wait is, we can participate in God’s vision for a peace-filled world. We have only to imagine it, believe it, and be makers of the peace the God intends, until Christ comes again. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young