How do we begin to look and listen for signs of Christ’s presence in the public sphere of our community? Where is God active and how can we join him in that activity?
A place to start is with the vision presented by Isaiah in Chapter 65. The prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of the “new heavens and new earth” (v. 17) where “past troubles will be forgotten” (v. 16) and “former things will not be remembered" (v.17). It is a picture of a world where people are not “pursuing their own imaginations” (v. 2) but are entering into God’s dream. This picture of God’s sovereign reign is cosmic but it is also specific. Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what life will be like in this new heaven, new earth and city of shalom. This is not a city of holy separation but of righteous social engagement in God’s mission of peace and justice. In verses 20-23, Isaiah’s vision illustrates a change in the trajectory of all that stands against a “city of righteousness.” In this new city children are not born in “a context of terror and destructiveness” and there is not an “infant who lives but a few days” (v. 20). Man will “live out his years,” laborers will “build houses and dwell in them,” farmers will “plant vineyards and eat their fruit,” and they will not “labor in vain.” (vv. 20-23). The good news presented here extends the life of the young and the old, as well as establishing economic fairness in the labor of building and planting.
Raymond Fung, in his excellent little book, The Isaiah Vision: An Ecumenical Strategy for Congregational Evangelism, challenge us to discern God’s activity by asking: Who in the community is working on behalf of the infants so they won’t die? Who is working on behalf of the old, so that they will be shown dignity? Who is standing up for the worker so that they are treated fairly and enjoying the fruits of their labor?
He challenges believers to partnership when he states: "If the Isaiah agenda is a Christian agenda it is no less a Jewish, Islamic and secular agenda. That is the way it should be. To us Christians, while we are not naive enough to believe that everyone means the same thing with these words, and that the basic assumptions and final goals do often differ, that very fact does go to show that God’s will is not confined within the boundaries of the Christian church. And this recognition calls for partnership within the world."
For Fung, this is a starting place for gospel witness in the public sphere. It is a place that seeks the shalom of the city, that works for justice, and that demonstrates God’s mission of redemption. A continuing gospel presence in public partnership can be sustained in all churches and communities who are willing to engage the widow and the orphan, to protect the young, to offer dignity to the old, and to stand with the worker and the laborer. There is no shortage of opportunities for the church to engage public partnerships, being the Eucharist presence of Christ, the hands of Christ’s justice, and the posture of Christ’s submission. Submission to God’s activity through partnership will open up space to experience the gospel.
The vision in Isaiah requires embodied action not disembodied good will. A new world where “The wolf and the lamb will feed together” (v.25) is beyond simply metaphor, but implies an insistence on caring for the young and the old, the laborer, and economic life of a city. As a church, let’s seek to partner with all who bring justice in these areas and trust that in doing so we are giving witness to the good news of God’s reign.