A friend of mine recently returned from a trip to France, one of the highlights of which was a tour of Chartres Cathedral. The first cathedral was built in that town sometime in the fourth century.
That original cathedral was destroyed by the Vikings in 858. About 20 years later, Charles the Bald gave the remnant church a cloth believed to have been the very swaddling clothes in which Mary wrapped the baby Jesus.
Because of this relic, a new magnificent Cathedral was built in Chartres, and it became a popular destination for pilgrims. But on June 10, 1194, fire broke out and threatened to destroy the building.
Three priests took the precious relic cloth and went into the crypt beneath the cathedral, deep into the earth. They locked themselves into a room and let the fire rage above them.
Three days later, to the astonishment of the people, the priests emerged with the relic intact. The people rejoiced and with the leaders of France, pledged to build a new church on the foundations of the old.
The new church was not to be an exact replica of the old. It was to be bigger, and taller, with more windows.
Built on the old foundations, but larger, more expansive, letting in more light.
The people of Chartres all those centuries ago could have identified with the people of Israel who the prophet Isaiah addresses in today’s Old Testament reading.
The Babylonians had destroyed much of Jerusalem, and killed many of its people. Those Israelites who survived were forced into exile in Babylon.
Now the Israelites have returned to Jerusalem, but the city is a pale reflection of what it once was. The Temple, the very lifeblood of Israel, has been destroyed. The town has no city walls; where houses and markets once stood there is only rubble.
Even though they are back in the Promised Land, it is a time of hopelessness. Then out of the rubble and despair, the prophet speaks for God with a voice of hope.
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” God says. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”
Just as the people of France pledged not to restore the old cathedral, but to build a completely new one – so God promises not to restore the old Jerusalem but to create a new one, in which there will be no weeping or mourning, but only cries of delight and laughter.
The new Jerusalem God has in mind transcends the marvels of mere bricks and mortar. In God’s new creation, the very order of existence will be turned on its head.
In the new Jerusalem, there will be no infant mortality, or premature deaths of any kind. In the new society, there will be no invasions or exiles. Everyone will live in the houses they build, and harvest the crops they plant.
In the new earth, all creation will live in harmony. The wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox will live together in friendship and peace.
Like the new cathedral in Chartres, the new Jerusalem will be established on the foundations of the old, but will be bigger, better, more expansive, more glorious than anyone has dreamed possible.
The new cathedral was built in Chartres and now, more than 900 years later, pilgrims still come to marvel at its wonders.
But the world still waits for God’s promise of a new earth to come to fruition.
Infant mortality still strikes grief into the hearts of thousands, even in this rich nation. Children and adults die every day of causes that could be prevented. Every year, refugees are forced into exile around the globe, while millions die of starvation.
In far too many places on this earth, including in parts of this country, the air is filled with the sound of weeping and cries of distress.
Like the people of Israel, we experience a disjunction between the way things are and the way God intends them to be.
Against such a backdrop it is easy to hear God’s promise of new heavens and a new earth with more than a touch of cynicism.
As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “In our fatigue, our self sufficiency and our cynicism, we deeply believe that such promises could not happen here.”
But Isaiah urges us to put aside what Brueggemann calls “our inability to imagine beyond our present reality and our deep commitment to the known,” and instead invites us to entertain new possibilities that open up our world to God’s creative promises.
In other words, Isaiah is inviting us to dream with God, to imagine how we can work, empowered by God’s spirit, to help make God’s kingdom a reality here and now.
Isaiah is calling us not to be content with the status quo, not to give in to the powers and principalities that profit from oppression and injustice.
God’s dream of a new earth is not meant to engender cynicism, but to spark hope, to spur us to a commitment to compassion and justice, to call us to be agents of a love that restores dignity and wholeness to all of God’s people.
If we look carefully, we can see those sparks of hope in places of great despair.
I saw one such spark in a story about malnutrition in the West African nation of Niger, one of the most desperately poor countries on earth.
In a world where 5 million children starve to death each year, one every six seconds, Niger is the epicenter of malnutrition.
Many of its people, particularly in rural areas, have no access to milk, clean water, or refrigeration. Among the seasons of the year there is one called “the hunger season,” the time before the harvest. Almost every mother in the country has watched at least one of her children starve to death.
It is hard to imagine a more desperate place on earth. But now there is hope in Niger, thanks to a nutritionist from Doctors Without Borders, who has developed a food called Plumpynut, a tasty paste of peanut butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, minerals and vitamins.
Plumpynut needs no refrigeration, water, or cooking. It costs about $1 a day per child. And it is bringing children back from the brink of death. In rural Niger, where mothers walk for hours each week to get a supply of Plumpynut for their children, there are now empty hospital beds, where once every available space was filled with dying children.
A gravedigger who says he once buried at least seven children a day, now averages only one new grave.
The situation is still dire, says Dr. Susan Shepherd, a pediatrician who surely could be leading a more comfortable life in her native Montana.
“It breaks your heart,” she says. “It can break your spirit. And it is unbearably sad. I carry memories of many, many children with me, and I’ll carry them with me my entire life.
“But you cannot indulge yourself in that kind of sadness,” she says. “We need to do something about this.”
Dr. Shepherd did not put her work in religious language, but she is laboring to make Isaiah’s vision of a new earth a reality.
So is Afroz Shah, a lawyer in Mumbai, who has spent every weekend the last four years working to save the world’s oceans from plastic pollution.
As a child Shah played on the beach near Mumbai. As an adult he went back and was dismayed to see how much it had changed. The sand was no longer visible because it was covered by a layer of garbage more than five feet thick, most of it plastic waste.
In October 2015, Shah began picking up trash from the beach every Sunday morning. At first, it was just him and a neighbor, but others began to join them. He has now spent more than 200 weekends dedicated to his mission, inspiring more than 200,000 volunteers to join him.
His movement has cleared more than 60 million pounds of garbage, most of it plastic, from Mumbai’s beaches and waterways.
We certainly don’t have to travel across the globe to work to help establish God’s vision of a new earth. All we have to do is spend the night at church to help homeless families with Family Promise, or teach English to an immigrant, or save coins to buy mosquito nets for our brothers and sisters in Africa, or even simply write a letter to our representatives in Congress telling them we support programs that save our earth and support the most vulnerable of God’s children.
All of these acts are protests against the status quo. All are a way of saying we believe in God’s vision of a new earth, one that is better, more expansive, more glorious than anyone has imagined.
Such acts are examples of what Brueggemann calls “re-deciding” our lives, refusing to give in to cynicism, the belief that the ways things are is the way they will always be.
“God will do much to bring the promises to fruition,” Brueggemann says. “But God will not do our work of re-deciding our lives.”
As Christians, we are all called to re-decide our lives, to allow ourselves to be empowered by God’s spirit to work to make the dream a reality here and now.
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” God says to us today. “Be glad and rejoice.”