Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 65:17-23) transports me to the Cambodian jungle, circa 1968, where U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard is on a mission to find and assassinate a rogue Special Operations officer, Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has established himself as something of a god among some isolated villagers. As Willard journeys toward his task, he comes across an old French plantation, where he meets Roxanne. In the midst of a conversation about when she and her family might go back home to France, she quotes the philosopher Heraclitus – you can’t step into the same river twice. Captain Willard knows why, because the river is always moving. Later, Willard talks about the soldiers who weren’t looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I’d been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist anymore. The radically changing world was a theme in Frances Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam war movie, Apocalypse Now (the plantation scene is added in the 2001 Redux version of the movie). It wasn’t simply a war crimes movie prosecuting a crazy warrior who loved the smell of napalm in the morning. It was about a new world in the making, for good or ill.
I thought of the dialogue in this added scene, and of the movie’s title, when I journeyed through today’s passage toward a land of new creation and hopes for a re-created earth. Isaiah’s vision has some surprising twists. Many of us tend to have an apocalyptic theology built on future hopes for everlasting life in a pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by heavenly realm of never-ending r & r, epitomized in old gospel songs like this – O land of rest, for thee I sigh! When will the moment come when I shall lay my armor by and dwell in peace at home? We’ll work till Jesus comes, and we’ll be gathered home. Or another, Work for the night is coming, when man’s work is done. I don’t think the prophet Isaiah was singing these songs or hearing the whistle blow for the great break time in the sky. He had a different hope, an apocalypse now vision of heavenly values invading a troubled earth. His was not a “rest in peace” vision, but was instead filled with people hard at work, collaborating with God to ensure that all babies get a healthy start, that no young person is doomed to misfortune, that all old people are cared for, that everyone has a chance to build and live in their own house and grow their own food. We know his apocalyptic vision is for the here and now and not the hereafter, because he talks about people dying. But they die a happy death after enjoying a long and productive life. It’s a land where people enjoy meaningful work and enjoy the fruits of their labor, without it going to pad someone else’s pockets in an economy of exploitation.
Isaiah’s vision of a new earth is not so crazy. Think about it; new earths are created all the time. This world is not the same as it was a generation ago. What kind of earth did your great great grandparents inhabit? Do you think they would recognize the world we occupy? It’s been part of the human project to create and re-create the earth, from the rise of agriculture to the industrial revolution to the information age to whatever comes next. Who’s to say that the “whatever comes next” won’t be closer to the prophet’s dream of a full and a fulfilling life for all God’s children? With as many people claiming to follow Jesus as we have in the world, there’s no reason why we can’t co-labor with God and fulfill the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy kingdom come on earth, which is to say, apocalypse now. As the movie soundtrack told us, we are so limitless and free. The music went on to say that we are living in a desperate land. If Francis Ford Coppolla ever does another Redux, I might suggest he add a Fanny Crosby song from the old Baptist hymnal: To the work, to the work, let the hungry be fed, to the fountain of life let the weary be led, in the cross and its banner our glory shall be, while we herald the tidings, salvation is free, toiling on, toiling on. .
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Matters of Life and Death.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.