Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10) (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Saturday, July 9, and Sunday, July 10, 2011
Paper and vinyl. It’s that combination of smells in the air that brings hope. You walk into a library, and there’s a smell that hits you right away, and if you’re like me, they bring back a flood of memories. It’s the smell of paper in all of those books. It’s the smell of vinyl, the plastic covers on the books. Those smells work strongly on us, tugging into a world of imagination and hope, other worlds, other stories, other voices.
I go into any library now, and the smells bring me right back to growing up, going to the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota. My mom would take my sister and me there, and it at least seemed like we spent hours there, exploring all of the books, finding new adventures, and stacking up a whole collection of things to take home. The smell of books, the smell of paper and vinyl, bring back clear memories of the children’s area, with its rows of shelves to search, with its huge chair shaped like a hand that was perfect for lying on with a newfound book.
All it takes is the smell of books, the smell of paper and vinyl, and I’m back in that place, that place of hope and promise, that place of imagination and joy, that place that could transport me beyond the cares of the world and into a new place.
Isaiah chapter 55 has that smell of hope, tugging us into imagining a new world of hope, another world, another story, another voice.
Isaiah chapter 55 is written to a people about to go into exile, written to Israelites about to be taken away from Jerusalem by a foreign empire, taken away to Babylon. Isaiah had been sent by God to warn them that this destruction was coming, that God was going to let them experience judgment for their sins. Isaiah chapter 55 is written to a people who are staring war and destruction and devastation in the face.
So how it can have the smell of hope? That’s where imagination comes into it. God is opening up a story of hope, a story of what will be, a new world that will come about through the power of His Word.
Isaiah chapter 55 wasn’t written to people who could already see God’s Word doing great things in their lives. It wasn’t written to people who were already going out in joy and being led forth in peace. It wasn’t written to people whose lives looked like thorns being turned into beautiful pine trees.
Isaiah chapter 55 was written to people who were facing the worst experience imaginable. It was written to people who wondered whether God’s Word had any power. It was written to people without joy and without peace. It was written to people very much stuck in thorns and briers.
So how it can have the smell of hope? That’s where imagination comes into it. That’s why it’s like the smell of paper and vinyl in the library. It’s the smell of a new world, a new world imagined by God, a new world that He’s opening up before the people, a new world that He’s presenting to them as a real possibility, a real possibility despite what they’re seeing all around them. When God says that His Word is like the rain and snow, that it does what it sets out to do, that it will not return to Him empty, God’s talking about the power of His Word to transform this world, to transform people, to bring about a complete overhaul of the world, to bring new life out of the old life, to bring life out of death, to bring joy out of the despair.
Well, at first glance, maybe God was just talking to the people in Isaiah’s day and to the people of Israel, maybe He was just talking to the people who would be taken into exile into Babylon, maybe God was just talking about the hope that they could have that they would be brought back from exile, brought back to Israel, given new life in Jerusalem again. Maybe.
But notice the smell of paper and vinyl. Notice the smell of hope. Notice the great wide open space of imagination, the great wide open space of God’s imagination, the beyond-this-world kind of picture, the beyond-anything-we-can imagine kind of picture that Isaiah chapter 55 describes. I mean, even when the people of Israel were released from exile, there were still thorns and briers, there was still pain and war, there was sin and death. Isaiah chapter 55’s describing something that goes beyond the return from exile, goes beyond any momentary solutions, any short-lived peace and joy. Isaiah chapter 55’s describing a wholesale change, an incredible turnabout, a complete transformation.
So we’re talking about something more than the return from the Babylonian Exile; we’re talking about something that hasn’t happened yet.
Isaiah chapter 55 has the smell of paper and vinyl, the smell of a library, the smell of worlds and imaginations and hopes and dreams, the smell of something-beyond-what-we-can-see, the smell of something-too-incredible-for-words. Isaiah chapter 55 has the smell of. . .the resurrection. The smell of Jesus raised on the third day, the smell of life raised from the dead, the smell of the promise of our resurrection, the smell of new life, the smell of the New Creation, the smell of Jesus returning and bringing us to be with Him forever. It’s the smell of hope.
That’s why Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, because it isn’t talking about any kind of transformation that we can see today, it’s not talking about something that we can sense and know and see right before our eyes. Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, imagination to see a world transformed, to see thorns become pine trees, to see briers become flowering myrtle trees, to see despairing people go out in joy and peace, to see the broken land burst forth in the songs of nature, to see the stunted trees stretch out and clap their hands, to see this despairing world become what it yearns to be—God’s restored Creation, God’s beautiful Creation, God’s Creation that is good and will be good for eternity, God’s people raised to life through Jesus.
That takes imagination, because it’s nothing like what we normally see. Normally we see thorns and briers. Normally we see a fight between humans and Creation, a push-and-pull, a plowing under and rocks hitting the plow, a dried up land, a torn apart land, a devastated land.
Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, because it’s nothing like what we normally see. Normally we see fighting and harsh words. Normally we see a struggle between people, a push-and-pull, a way of people getting plowed under by the ambitions of others. Normally we see dried up love, a torn apart compassion, a devastated peace and joy.
Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, because it’s nothing like a failing economy, nothing like continuous wars, nothing like political fights, nothing like ruthless crime, nothing like poverty and divorce and abortion and layoffs and HIV and cancer and greed and tornados and floods. Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, because it’s nothing like what we normally see. It’s nothing like the pain that pulls our world apart.
In Isaiah chapter 55, God brings us the smell of paper and vinyl, the smell of books, the smell that conjures up worlds unknown, the smell that brings about adventures and incredible destinations, the smell that causes hope and joy to rush into our lives. Isaiah chapter 55 is the smell of hope, but it takes imagination. . .an imagination that believes that God’s Word is powerful, was powerful enough to raise Jesus from the dead, is powerful enough to raise us from the dead, is so powerful that it can transform our lives and our world, an imagination that believes God’s Word will not return to Him empty, will not return as empty words, but believes that God’s Word has the power to do what He says.
In the imagination of our hearts, in the imagination of our hearts led by the Holy Spirit, we believe that God’s Word had the power to create this world out of nothing. We believe that God spoke and brought this world into being. He spoke and the world appeared. The Creation happened through the power of God’s Word.
Well, here in Isaiah chapter 55 we see that God is saying that His Word is still that powerful, His Word still has the power to do what He says, His Word can bring about things that are beyond our imagination. Smell the hope, smell the transformation, as God declares that His Word is powerful enough to transform our lives through Jesus, to transform our world, to recreate this world into the world He meant it to be, to change thorns into pine trees, to change briers into flowers, to change despair into joy, to change death into life. Smell the hope, smell the transformation, because right there on the pages of Isaiah chapter 55, right there in God’s Word, right there God is imagining for you the great things that He’s going to do through the cross and resurrection, imagining right there what we couldn’t possibly imagine for ourselves, imagining right there the one day hope of life after death, of death raised to new life, of a broken world healed, of an old world becoming a new world, imagining right there the one day hope of God’s people being with Him forever.
I sat for what seemed like hours in that Hennepin County Library, sat there reading about the Hardy Boys and the Boxcar Children and Bilbo Baggins. I sat there imagining worlds I would never see, all the while developing my sense of the world and life that could be, the world and life that I could experience.
Oh, I suppose in some ways those days in the library, those days spent among the books, those days of smelling the paper and vinyl, I suppose it was an escape, a retreat from the world. It was an escape from a hot summer day to the air-conditioned library. It was an escape from the normal day-to-day life to the adventures of characters in stories. It was an escape from whatever was bothering me in my life, an escape to a life I could only dream to live.
But in those escapes, in those stories, in those characters, I discovered something about myself, discovered something about how I wanted my life to be, the shape I wanted my life to have. Through my imagination, I discovered something true. Yes, that’s it, through my imagination, I discovered something true.
And that’s what I mean when I say that Isaiah chapter 55 takes imagination, that it’s like stepping into a library, that it has the smell of paper and vinyl, that it carries us to a new world, a world that we can only imagine. I don’t mean in any way to say that it isn’t real. No, rather through our imaginations, through the picture that God has given us, through this imagined world, we discover something true. Through our imaginations, through the imagined world of Isaiah chapter 55, through the picture of thorns into pines and briers into flowers, through that, we discover something true, discover the truth that God will give us this new life, that God will lay out before us the incredibly true, beyond-our-world, beyond-anything-we-can-imagine hope.
So smell the paper and vinyl, smell the hope, smell the transformation, and don’t be afraid of your imagination. Isaiah chapter 55 invites you to imagine, invites you to imagine something beyond what you can see, something beyond what you’re experiencing now, something beyond this world. Isaiah chapter 55 invites you into this new world—the new world that will become yours through Jesus Christ, become yours when Christ returns.