Isaiah | The city of joy

Good health, good work, and good relationships come together to form a city of joy, and a people of delight. (Listen.)

A city of joy, its people a delight: this is what God promises through the prophet Isaiah. Sounds wonderful! So, what are the elements of this joyful city? First, says Isaiah, health and wellbeing. No child will die young; no senior die prematurely (Isa. 65:20). And we can imagine it. There are no coal-fired power stations; no rampaging wildfires; no unprecedented floods. There are no smouldering rainforests; no record-breaking heatwaves. No children or elders are struggling for breath through air thick with particulate matter; no one is sick from herbicides or forever chemicals because these are strictly banned; nobody is collapsing from extreme heat.

Instead, in this city the air is clean, and the soil and waters, too. This is a city built for health, so it’s built for walking and cycling. It’s dotted with park benches, public piazzas, and free health clinics. Loneliness kills: so this city facilitates connection and community; this city is filled with laughter. It’s a city of conversation and choirs; a city of green power; a city of cool shade; a city of community gardens. In this city, homegrown veggies are abundant and shared, and everyone has enough to eat.

The second element to the city, says Isaiah, is good work. ‘They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat …’ (v 22). And we can imagine it. This city legislates for permanent contracts, fair wages, proper breaks, and sick leave for all. There’s no insecure, casualized, struggling workforce. Labour is not funnelled towards the enrichment of the few; wealthy corporations and individuals are limited in power and heftily taxed; and minimum wage is enough. People can afford to live: for in this city, housing and medical care are for people not profit; nobody needs to choose between rent, food and medicine.

And in this city, there are no bullshit jobs. Instead, labour is meaningful and generative: for, as Isaiah says, the people ‘shall long enjoy the work of their hands …’ (v 23). Indeed, they shall enjoy their work.

The final element of the joyful city is peaceable relations. ‘The wolf and the lamb shall lie down together …’ says Isaiah. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain … ’ (v 25). And we can imagine it. This is not a city where some dominate while others cower. It’s not a city where predators roam and the vulnerable are turned into prey. The priests are loving; the police nonviolent; the queers safe and thriving. The whites have dismantled their privilege and are committed to ongoing work; the colonizers have paid restitution and now sit at the feet of the Elders.

Nor is it a city driven by competition and envy, or fuelled by division and spite. Instead, it’s a city where a wildly diverse kaleidoscope of people live together not just in safety, but with tenderness and ease. In this city, powerful people divest themselves of power in order to serve; and people unite to make life healthy, meaningful and even beautiful for everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

More, in this city humans have learned to live in ways which are no longer destructive, exploitative or extractive. Instead, they come alongside other species; indeed, ‘the lion shall eat straw like the ox’ (v 25). So this city is renowned for biodiversity and butterflies, for regenerative farming and pocket parks, for simple living, for rewilding, for abundant bushfoods, and for vast landscapes returned to Indigenous management and care.

This is Isaiah’s vision of salvation, then: good health, good work, and good relationships between people and each other, and the animals, and the land. This is what God’s new creation entails; this is what it means to be a city of joy and its people a delight (vv 17-18).

And yes, we can imagine it: but perhaps it feels like a pipe dream. For we live in a shattered region which groans with the nightmare of genocide and its legacies; we live in a shattered landscape which has been cleared almost to baldness; we live in a shattered diocese where priestly predators long preyed upon children; we live in a shattered climate where drastic change is already taking place. And after years of underfunding and now the pandemic, our heath system is crumbling; and many of our elders are living and dying in desperately substandard care. Our politics are divisive; our media is polarizing; our churches are choosing fear not love. Many of us feel guilty about being colonizers and we don’t know how to repent. So while Isaiah’s vision is very nice and all, surely it’s a fantasy dreamed up in a more beautiful time and place.

Yet the people who first received this vision were a devastated people in a devastated landscape. A bit of history: Many years earlier, Judah had been invaded by the Assyrians. The elite had been carted off; houses and buildings laid to waste; the fruits of the earth seized; the springs salted; the fields burned.

Two hundred years later, the tide turned. Assyria fell, Persia rose, and King Darius of Persia sent the exiles home to rebuild. So Isaiah’s vision of peace and plenty was directed to a people who had been displaced by invasion and war, who had been born and raised in exile, and who were now being sent to a socially, culturally, theologically and ecologically shattered land.

The new creation emerges precisely out of the chaos of war, violence, trauma and displacement, and human and ecological devastation.

So the new creation is not a tweaking of some precious garden of Eden. Instead, the new creation emerges precisely out of the chaos of war, violence, trauma and displacement, and human and ecological devastation. This is a vision for a shattered people who are questioning what it means to live faithfully; this is a vision for a struggling people who are wondering about their place in the land, and how to live with justice and joy.

In other words, it’s a vision for people a little bit like us.

And what we see in this vision is that the joy-filled city needs God, who is pouring life into the world to create a new heaven and earth; but it also needs people who can catch the vision and help bring it about. And so it is our work to seek good health, good work, and good relationships not only for ourselves but for our neighbourhoods, our region, and all of creation; and in this work we generate hope. For if the work is good and the timing is right and Isaiah’s words are true, we shall not labour in vain or bear children for disaster: for they shall be children blessed by God (v 23).

How, then, do we get involved in what God is already bringing about?

Well, care for a child. Care for elders. Chat with a stranger, greet an outcast, build connection. Plant a manna gum; plant a garden. Lobby a bank, a politician, a corporation. Do what you can to mitigate climate change. Do other good work. Help others to do these things, too. And don’t forget to rest: because simply stopping heals all manner of social, cultural and climate ills, and the joy of the Sabbath is for everyone. And in all these things, persist. For God is creating a new thing:

A region created as a joy, and its people as a delight …
Where babies and elders will live long years …
Where labour is fair and work is meaningful …
Where all people have access to good food and green spaces …
Where former enemies are transformed into friends …
Where the fox shall eat flax lily like the wallaby,
and patriarchal domination and colonial capitalist violence
will no longer gnaw at the human heart:
those serpents shall eat dust!
Indeed, they shall not mine, hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain
— not Leura, not Noorat, not Moyjil, not Koroitj (Isaiah 65:17-25, playful approximation).

Friends, in all that we do, let us keep our eyes fixed on this beautiful vision of salvation of good health, good work, and good relationships between people and each other, and the animals, and the land: and let us work and pray for the joyful day when the vision encompasses everyone. Ω

Reflect: Where do you glimpse the city of joy here and now? How do you help bring this vision into being? Is there a next step for you / us to take towards this reality?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Isaiah 65:17-25 (Year C Proper 28) given to Sanctuary on 13 November 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Jana Sabeth on Unsplash.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, the rivers are still in flood, and there’s been a corresponding explosion in insect life: dragonflies, midges, and of course clouds of mozzies. On Tuesday we flapped them off as we watched the blood moon move across the skyway. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.


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