Can You See It? Prophetic Imagination for Today
A rag-tag group of misfits.
Despite my protestations, I served a congregation where our interchurch volleyball team elected me as the coach because I was the pastor. The problem was I didn’t know anything about volleyball. I had never played, and watched an Olympic match or two. How hard can it be? Call timeouts to refocus when things go wrong and give a pep speech every once in a while. That’s right in my wheelhouse.
When I called timeouts, I’d give some speech inspired by a true story about how a rag-tag group of misfits overcame severe obstacles to achieve greatness. Remember the Battle of Carthage! Midway through the season, Lori Reynolds asked, “How come we’re always a bunch of misfits?” Frankly, it was the only speech I had.
When I think about the biblical prophets, I imagine them as coaches who had more than one speech. They always knew what to say. They analyzed the situation and figured out what was needed.
Biblical prophets functioned like coaches.
They stressed the fundamentals of good behavior: pray, live with gratitude, treat people fairly, and look out for each other, especially the poor and those at the margins. Like coaches, they had to “read the room” and see how the people of faith felt and acted. When they got too puffed up, prophets knocked them down a peg, pointing out areas where they needed to improve. They lit fires under folks when they got lackadaisical, just going through the rituals of faith, but acquiescing to a system that kept people impoverished was not pleasing to God. Love God and love neighbor, take faith to heart, and live out of a sense of love and purpose.
Like coaches, their best and most important work came after a chin buried in the chest, demoralizing defeat—when you just get crushed and didn’t even see it coming. What do you say to keep them from quitting and giving up? How do you build them up again? It’s a tough challenge. Perhaps you’ve had to give such a talk. Maybe you coached Little League or soccer or beyond sports, had to help your kid or spouse or friend after some monumental defeat or failure in life. You see the pain written across their faces. They are looking at you. What have you got?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to Isaiah.
All eyes were on the prophet Isaiah when the Babylonians conquered Israel. Nearly every Israeli soldier died. Jerusalem smoldered in ruins, buildings were reduced to rubble, homes were destroyed, or people were kicked to the curb so enemy soldiers could move into their houses. The horizon was a landscape of destruction. Everywhere a reminder of the life that used to be. A third of the population was deported into exile. All the leaders and best and brightest, the artists, craftsmen, and religious leaders were forced marched hundreds of miles away. Families were ripped apart. And worst of all the Temple—the place where God dwelt and connected with the people—had been desecrated and destroyed, leaving people to conclude that God abandoned them. Some wondered aloud if faith had been a cruel hoax.
Even after some of the exiled had been allowed to return, there was bitterness and fighting, land grabs and an everyone-for-themselves mentality. Their world was a mess, getting worse daily.
It was like paraphrasing that Simon and Garfunkel lyric. Where have you gone, Prophet Isaiah? A nation lifts its lonely eyes to you. What have you got?
He needs more than a locker room pep talk. After prayer and discernment, he’s got a word from the Lord, a vision of peace and justice, a vision of prosperity where everyone has enough, and brotherhood and sisterhood, “a new heaven and new earth” with new buildings, abundant crops and people living life in peace. He was saying this is not the end; it’s a resurrection story. Things are going to get better. Start living into that promise. Do your part to help turn this thing around.
What would Isaiah say today?
As you sit here looking at me, in a messy world that seems to get worse daily, with your own struggles and disappointments, some wondering if God has abandoned you or if faith is a hoax, I feel like Isaiah. What have you got, Pastor Dave?
A word from the Lord is what I’ve got. The same message Isaiah delivered to his people: God is good. God is still creating, working to move the world as it is to the world as it should be. Live into that promise and do your part to help turn this thing around.
Isaiah had what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman calls “prophetic imagination.” Prophets are poets who use images and evocative language to envision a better society. Instead of dwelling on what is wrong, casting blame and furthering division, he invited people of faith even to this day to imagine things getting better.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…” God, through Isaiah, invites us to imagine a new day. The world as it should be. Can you see it?
- Can you see it? Young people with promising futures, unencumbered by poverty, violence, racism, and anxiety?
- Can you see it? Children having enough to food to eat, clean water to drink, and feeling safe to play and be themselves?
- Can you see it? Every person having a place to call home.
- Can you see it? Laborers being paid a living wage. Each person having enough.
- Can you see it? The traumas of the past being healed.
- Can you see it? Laughter as the soundtrack of our days, joy replacing sorrow.
- Can you see it? A wolf and a lamb feeding together. A lion eating straw like an ox.
Can you see it?
It’s tough but Temple Israel, the imam and rabbi hugged and set hearts on peace.
The God who created this wonderful world and called it “Good!” is still creating! And in our mind’s eye – we carry the blueprint of the future. Can you see it?
The power of imagination.
I think we sometimes forget the power of imagination. Our imaginations can work for or against us depending upon the nature of what it imagines. And we have some control over what we imagine.
In the 1950’s an English container ship stopped at a port to offload some cargo. One crew member went to a refrigerated container to see if all the cargo had been unloaded and was accidentally locked inside. When it arrived in the next port a few days later, the man was found dead inside the container. On the walls he wrote out in detail, the pain he endured as he was slowly paralyzed and frozen. It made no sense to those who finally found him. The temperature inside the container was 66 degrees and the refrigeration was never on. There was even food in the container that the man could have eaten. But because he imagined with absolute certainty that he would freeze to death; his body followed his belief.
“Imagination is an inner resource you can draw upon in every facet of life – a resource, if used wisely, has the power to shape who you are, how you choose to live and what you contribute to the world…Like a muscle, imagination strengthens with use and has the ability to endure as a highly effective resource you can utilize during the toughest of times.”
Our brains are wired to identify problems and risks and danger. But we can get tunnel vision and only see these things and lose hope. When we have a vision, we are working toward, our brains get creative and magic happens.
To a people, roiled in conflict, despairing about the future, God provides us a defiant way forward. God calls us to imagine, not calamity, not vengeance, not personal prosperity…but a peaceable world…
God is always working to make things better. Some folks think the blueprint is for everything to keep getting worse until the apocalypse. Spoiler alert! That’s not how it ends. God keeps bringing newness and freshness. The Revelation stuff about an apocalypse was probably code language for the writer’s current events during the Roman Empire. Even Revelation 21 says that God’s vision is for heaven to come to earth and make things better. That’s the blueprint.
Can you see it for your own life?
Can you see it for the church?
I see a group of ragtag misfits. Accepted even if your faith doesn’t fit with anyone else’s. Accepted with your doubts and flaws. No matter who you are. A vision of everyone who wants to connected in a supportive group in the church and even some who don’t want to who connect because they understand that someone else might benefit from their participation.
I see an intergenerational wellspring of energy. Kids teaching technology, grandparents attending school events.
Can you see it? The church as a hub for artistic expression, especially in music, where creativity flourishes and diverse voices are amplified.
Can you see it? The church as a catalyst for positive change, inspiring the community to strive for a better, more just world.
Can you see it? Compassion in action, with the congregation that gives people a hand up from hard times.
I see hands-on mission. Utilizing volunteer power.
A leader in the faith community helping faiths get along.
Place where the community instinctively turns to when need arises, where they can hear a message of hope and peace.
Measure by impact not numbers. Non-binary kid treated like a misfit everywhere else.
Can you see it?