- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

The following are excerpts of a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Jan Edmiston at Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.

Isaiah was a Jewish prophet in the days when the Promised Land was divided north and south. Isaiah was from the southern kingdom of Judah. …

I came across an intriguing book recently called “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places,” and upon picking it up, I had the sudden urge to look in the H’s for “heaven,” ready to accuse the secular publishing industry of calling our faith a fantasy. But thankfully, “heaven” wasn’t in there.

There was Utopia, an island off the coast of South America imagined by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century. On the island of Utopia, all cupboards are full, all houses are fireproof and all religions are tolerated. Utopia is not perfect, though. There is still slavery and war and incurable disease.

In “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places” you can find Shangri-La imagined … as a place in remotest Tibet where the climate is always pleasant and people never seem to age.

This dictionary includes Narnia and Lilliput, Oz and Hogwarts. But not heaven, and certainly not any place or condition called, simply, the realm of God. It only deals in the imaginary. Not the real.

The book of Isaiah, on the other hand, involves some heavenly imagery, but the majority of this prophecy involves great turbulence. Real life, but more importantly the realities of life with and without faith.

From the time he was born and throughout his life, the prophet Isaiah’s beloved nation of Judah was wedged in power struggles and wars and periods of profound misery.

First, Judah lived under the thumb of one of the great world powers: Assyria. About 50 years later, the Babylonians rose to power.

It was from this time period that we find today’s message — words written about 2,500 years ago. But imagine for a moment how these words would sound to people listening today in the Middle East. It’s almost as if nothing has changed.

But these words from Isaiah offer a glimpse of an alternative universe, a soothing image that offers hope: “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at 100 years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of 100 will be considered accursed.”

When the news is filled every day with stories of violence and destruction taking place today in this part of the world, can we believe this image that Isaiah still proclaims?

The truth is that not only can a wolf and a lamb not eat together, but many Palestinians and Israelis cannot eat together, either. God’s holy mountain of Jerusalem is not a place of joy and delight. It’s a place of security checks and gun-wielding soldiers.

And so how do we read this passage and take it seriously? Does his “new Jerusalem” belong in “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places”? …

With faith in God comes a vision for the future that is more about God and what God wants than what we want. …

All of us find ourselves at the place where we need to focus on an image bigger than ourselves. Faithful people dream not of personal greatness, but of a place where God rules — a place where there is no more weeping, a place where the curses of our sins might be redeemed, a place where life is healthy and long and filled with delight.

This is not an imaginary place. This is God’s promise to us of a “new Jerusalem.” And this is not merely a place that is far away. Here on the cusp of Advent, we will find in the coming weeks that God expects us to imagine this way of life now.

We have a duty as people of faith not only to imagine a life that is bigger than we are today. We have a duty to bring glimpses of this life now — to seek justice and healing and fairness — all in the name of the one who lived and died so that we might know what the realm of God looks like.

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