We all want something to change. We’re all longing for something to be transformed.
Maybe you want to change. Maybe you wish you’d finally reach that DuoLingo streak you keep missing by a few days. Maybe you’ll be a starter on the competitive team this year or stick to your daily yoga plan. Perhaps a new school year brings a change in buildings, and friends, new clothes, freshly painted classrooms, the crisp pages of books waiting to be read.
Maybe you are wishing that somebody else would be transformed. That the neighbors would be quieter, that the folks in your house would be less messy, that your friend would be a better listener.
Maybe you’d wish the world would change for the better. As you think about the wars that rumble on and the summer’s searing heat you’re holding out for the hope that your one-day great grandkids might have a future on this planet.
Hopes for your own life, dreams for some neck of the woods dear to you, longings for the folks that surround you. Hopes for this whole precious little world. We all yearn for some kind of change. Some needed splash of transformation.
The apostle Paul’s words to the church in Rome are beautiful. The whole twelfth chapter of Romans is gorgeous – Paul writes to this church he has never been to before, encouraging them to love their enemies, to overcome evil with good, and to persevere in love. This kind of shared life is made possible by worship, it is a life nourished by Christ.
At the heart of our text is Paul’s famous line:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
How, then does this transformation happens?
Paul does not say transform yourself by working extra hard at DuoLingo or being extra committed to your running regimen or hiring the right organizational change consultant – all though language and exercise and organization, these are all good things!
What Paul says is “be transformed…. …be transformed, through the renewing of your minds.” This is not simply an individual intellectual exercise of self-improvement, but a communal practice of being transformed again and again by God’s grace.
So again, how does this transformation happen?
Paul wants us to think about the gift of being transformed by God’s grace through one of his favorite metaphors, that of the body, with its many members. As we look around the church and see all the ways people have gifts to share we grow in gratitude for God and one another.
Our text from Isaiah 51 gives us another patchwork of images and metaphors to reflect on. But first, Isaiah wants to get our attention, God is speaking here and God is insistent,
“Listen to me…Look….Listen to me..lift up your eyes..look!” God says.
What does paying attention have to do with transformation?
It means we are looking at others things besides ourselves. Paying attention to how God might be working in the world and our lives reorients us away from consuming self-absorption. Sometimes, it’s not thinking more highly of ourselves that’s the problem, but too much attention to negative thoughts.
I remember a number of years ago when I was experiencing depression, one of the first assignments my therapist gave me was to make a list, before I went to bed each night, of all the things I was grateful for. This simple task redirected me to a whole constellation of gratitude beyond myself. To see and hear the world beyond also helps us see ourselves with God’s grace and compassion. To pay attention, then, helps us notice that transformation isn’t just about us, even though it always involves us.
Isaiah 51 models this attentiveness to transformation, describing how God’s past faithfulness, abundant care of creation, and ongoing work of justice and salvation endures.
First, we have to recognize God’s transforming work in the past. “Look to the rock from which you where hewn and the quarry from which you were dug” says Isaiah.
We can learn a lot by examining those sites that made possible the structures of our lives. Don’t just look at the buildings, says Isaiah, examine the “quarry from which you were dug.” Remember Father Abraham and Mother Sarah, remember God’s faithfulness in their journey. Digging and hewing are active words. God’s transformation in the past was not clean cut, but gritty, concrete, hard work, it remains heavy with ongoing meaning for our lives.
Here at Chapel Hill Mennonite you too have cherished memories, names of those who have passed on or moved away, good quarries from which this community has sprung from. We remember those solid rocks from which we where hewn as we discern what God is up to today. A gift of history is that it reminds that we are not stranded in our struggles or alone in our faith.
Transformation goes beyond just the human community. Isaiah points us to God’s transforming, sustaining work in all creation. Prophesying amidst the dislocation of a people in exile in Babylon and addressing the devastation in the land of Israel, our text from Isaiah speaks of God comforting the land itself. The land of Zion, described as desecrated and dried out, becomes a flourishing garden. The cracked waste places will flourish like the garden where God’s creativity first sprang forth.
This work of transformation involves people and place. We’re told that joy and gladness will be found in this land, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
We are invited to listen and look for the sounds of God’s transformation in the land, where we can hear myriad sounds of singing. For the sounds of a land comforted and blooming through God’s grace, we listen. We tune our ears to birdsong and tree songs, chicken-squawks and grass rustles and turtle gurgles and the deep murmurs of good-soil and the harmonious song of humans who delight in gentleness, while living and caring for this marvelous world.
Isaiah’s vision may sound remarkably out of tune with the discordant realities of our noisy and burning planet. We humans so often cling to power through control rather than living joyfully with the creator God at the center of our lives.
This call to “be transformed” happens when we notice God at work through human history, in the stirring up of joyful song from the earth and finally, in the promise of justice and salvation.
The rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, student of the prophets and 20th century prophet and activist in his own right, wrote in the shadows of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. We still inhabit such a world. We seek God in faith, yet know ourselves as humans to be capable of tremendous evil and violence. We are manipulate and transform our material world but struggle to cultivate solidarity and peace. Heschel writes on this struggle to be human, and I quote him:
“What I look for is not how to gain a firm hold on myself and on life, but primarily how to live a life that would deserve and evoke an eternal Amen….It is not enough for me to ask questions; I want to know how to answer the one question that seems to encompass everything I face: What am I here for?”1
Heschel’s question, “What am I here for?” seems to also encompass our question today, “How does transformation happen?”
We may not have all the answers for Heschel’s question and our own longings for transformation. But we do yearn to experience God’s eternal Amen over our lives. This pursuit of righteousness, this longing for God is enough of a starting point for transformation.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” God says in Isaiah.
The vision that Isaiah gives us of amazement, of wonderment, of looking and noticing, lifting our eyes and looking to see what God is doing and placing the hope of our humanity in the hands of the mysterious, saving, and loving God.
We aren’t transformed for the better by distractions or entertainment but by wonder, by holy attentiveness. We are transformed through an everyday worship which reorients us to the miraculous and mysterious work of God.
This reorientation to God’s enduring redemption is not meant to belittle us. Set within a cosmic time-frame or the divine drama, yes, we are small. Our text describes even the earth wearing out like a garment and the heavens vanishing like a smoke. We and other creatures of the earth are described as dying like gnats.
I encounter God speaking in Isaiah here not trying to demean the small insect creatures of this earth or us humans in this comparison. We need the little bugs. But their short lives reminds us that our lives too, our short. And in the glorious brevity of our journeys on this planet, our lives gain a holy transcendence as we look for and marvel at how God’s love continues to sustain and transform us and our world.
My own journey through depression requires its own type of spiritual attentiveness. There were a good number of times that my gratitude lists wasn’t easy homework to do. But once I got going things would tumble out one after another.
Isaiah is a tumbling out sort of prophet who wants us to pay attention to all of the corners of the world and to see God’s transformation happening there.
Isaiah models for us how to cultivate a right remembering, how to live in gratitude, singing in tune with the harmonies of creation, walking by the light of God’s justice, and living our short lives illuminated by the God who holds history, holds this earth and holds eternity.
We turn our heads and look behind us because God has been faithful then – lifting up the lowly, bringing life in desolation, through the courage of countless we’ve never met making our present lives possible. We turn our eyes down to the earth and see God at work in this beautiful and troubled world. We close our eyes and hear the surprise of singing burst forth from places we’ve passed by.
We open our eyes and look to the heavens. And beyond the clouds of our own control, we glimpse a God whose justice and deliverance and salvation endures.
“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
The will of God is good. It is the amazement and laughter of an old couple bringing a child into this world to be a blessing to all peoples.
The will of God is pleasing…… it is the bursting and restoration of the earth, a garden of singing.
The will of God is perfect – shining a light of justice for all peoples, teaching us how to be human, bringing salvation and deliverance that will never be ended.
Let us listen for God’s eternal Amen that rings in all creation. Let us by God’s grace and Christ’s love, be a transformed people. Let us joyfully live our lives in ceaseless praise to the God who made heaven and earth. Amen.
- Abraham J. Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 52-53. ↩︎