Sunday, November 17, 2019
“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord in Isaiah 65. A new heaven? A new, better, cleaner, earth that’s more just? Who wouldn’t want that?
I’ll tell you who would want and want it right now: you, the people of our church family. Last week, the sermon was about resurrection. At the back door as people were leaving, one worshiper stopped to tell me there were times she felt “homesick for heaven.” Anyone who’s read Philippians knows Paul felt the same way. Then midweek, I was talking with another church member who said to me, “I would love it if Jesus came, the sooner, the better.”
Life can be a real struggle. That’s why so many of us long to be close to Jesus and relieved of the daily pressures that make it hard for us to thrive. God’s Isaiah 65 promise to make all things new in some ways is a return to the ideal of Eden before Adam and Eve disobeyed God. New creation is this fallen world remade, made new.
In his book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey paints a picture of struggle as he observes giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs on the beach in Costa Rica.
The turtle reached down in the soft sand, one muscular flipper at a time, to scoop out and then fling the sand behind her. As she worked her way down, each scoop required more and more effort. The sand got wet and heavy, and she had to fling it above the rim of the hole she was digging. Eventually she reached a depth of three feet, her body fully submerged in the sand. Now, each fling of sand thrust her whole body to the side, and despite her best efforts much of the sand still fell back in the trench. She scooped it up again and flung it toward the surface.
Finally, after an hour’s hard labor, the trench satisfied her and she began to drop shiny white eggs the size of billiard balls.
Her task completed, the leatherback clambered slowly out of the nest and began a forty-five minute process of filling it in with sand. … Exhausted, she lumbered off, dragging herself toward the sea. She would never see the result of her efforts. When the 60 or so eggs hatch, the baby turtles burrow to the surface and make a mad dash to the sea, with only a third surviving the onslaught of coyotes, raccoons, and sea gulls.[i]
Predators. Two steps back for every three steps forward. Limited success. Fruit for which we labor but never actually get to touch or taste. Talking about turtles, we could be talking about the myriad speedbumps and roadblocks that make life hard. Should life be this hard?
Life is hard because of sin – my sins, yours; the sins of other people; our ancestors’ sins. Humanity’s collective cruelty, jealousy, selfishness, and greed shows up in your life and mine in small ways, in our little cruelties, jealousies, selfish words and thoughts, and greedy deeds. God can see that life is tough and promises something better for us.
I don’t know if in the new earth God promises giant leatherback turtles will struggle so mightily just to lay eggs. I don’t know if there will be giant leatherback turtles in the new earth. I hope there are. Our daily struggles and pains won’t be a part of the new earth. Walter Brueggemann writes “this promised action of [God] [in Isaiah 65] is clearly designed to overcome all that is amiss, whether what is amiss is caused by [God’s] anger, by [our disobedience], or other untamed forces of death.”[ii] This is how God makes things right.
Imagine the conditions to which God is responding in this vision. Jerusalem, having been utterly defeated by the Babylonians, was a pile of rubble. The city walls were torn down, and the temple was burned and smashed; completely destroyed. Picture a city like Beirut after a bombing campaign or the trash-strewn underbelly of the poorest sections of the world’s most densely populated cities. To this wretched condition God says, “I am about to create Jerusalem – the city – as a joy, and its people as a delight. … No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (Is. 65:18b, 19b).
Because of disease, poverty, lack of education, and lack of access to healthcare, many places in the world have high infant mortality rates. This is intolerable and God is more offended and heartsick by this than we are. So, in the new earth he says, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days” (v.20a). In fact all babies in new creation grow up healthy and life spans will be long. “One who dies at a hundred” will be considered a youth. Recall the crazy old ages of the patriarchs mentioned in the early chapters of Genesis. Isaiah reaches back to that era.
Also think of places and times when people, perhaps indentured servants or coal miners or migrant pickers and farmers, work but see little to no fruit for their labor. In unjust systems, the wealthy grow fat off the backbreaking labor of powerless peasants. Not in the new earth. “They shall build homes and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and eat the fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit. They shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall be the days of my people, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (v.21-22).
The new heaven and new earth is a reversal of the pains plaguing humanity. God hears every prayer. Even the natural violence between predators and pray will cease. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. …They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain” (v.25).
Philip Yancey talks about living in Colorado compared to the time he spent living in Chicago. First he describes his wilderness home where he routinely sees all manner of animals and birds outside his window. He has a front row seat to the pristine purity of nature. Then he writes,
In downtown Chicago, my day proceeded very differently. Most mornings began with a run through the park. I saw few animals, other than squirrels and pigeons. … I saw instead winos and homeless people sleeping under newspapers and smelly blankets; prostitutes sleeping in doorways next to discarded condoms; well-dressed yuppies standing in neat lines at bus stops; foreign-born nannies pushing the carriages of those yuppies’ children; garbage collectors, janitors, street sweepers, sewer workers, and others who perform the undesirable jobs that keep a city running.[iii]
Aesthetically, the Colorado wilderness holds more appeal than the grimy inner city streets. But the image of God is not in the red squirrels, gray foxes, and brown bears Yancey admired from his warm home. The image of God resides in the yuppies, nannies, prostitutes, and sewer workers. God created nature’s most spectacular beauty to be enjoyed and admired by each of those millions of city dwellers, his image-bearers.
We know that out of His great, grace-filled love for us, God will eventually restore the world. The wretched underclass will enjoy creation’s splendor. That new creation will come at the end of history when Jesus returns and we join him in resurrection. How does God begin now the work of ushering in His eternal kingdom? God works through His body, the church.
We are the tellers of the redemption story - God in human flesh, Jesus; his tragic but necessary death on the cross, and his spring morning victory at the empty tomb; Easter! We are God’s story-tellers.
We are the inviters. In Isaiah 60:3 God declares that the nations will come to Israel’s light. The world will be drawn to the gathering of the people of God, which in our day is the church. But for the world to know that God can be worshiped and loved and know, we need to invite. We need to tell God’s story and actively, energetically, invite people to hear our telling of it.
We are the point of contact where a lost and dying world meets the Savior God. Jesus’ final command to the disciples and continuing commission to us is “go and tell.” Obeying this command, we help people see beyond the temporary world as it is to the eternal world of God’s blessing so many are currently unaware of even when they get little glimpses. We are where the lost world meets the Savior God.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright thinks of it this way. In an attic, a collector finds a faded manuscript of music written for piano. He contacts a dealer who sees it and then contacts another expert. They all put their heads together pondering this score, sure that what they’ve found is a previously unknown work by none other than Mozart.
How wonderful! A new work by greatest composer ever. Yet, as they study it, they realize it seems incomplete. There are long periods of rest, and it dawns on the collectors and dealers that what they have is indeed by Mozart, but it is written for more than one instrument. They only have the piano part. What’s the other instrument or instruments? Cello? Violin? Flute? “If those other parts could be found they would make sense of the incomplete beauty contained in the faded scribble of genius now before them.”[iv]
When God finishes re-making the world, his earth and his heaven made new and brought together, we, his image bearers, his church, the body of Christ, will become His completed beauty. Until that day comes, we lean toward it, pray for it, anticipate it, and invite each other and those outside the church to imagine it and find hope in it.
Until that day comes, we work for justice and help one another with the struggles of our day. They are real but so too is God’s promised new creation. It makes sense that we would long for it. God placed that longing in us. That longing drives us to look to God constantly and reflect his hope to the world.
[i] P. Yancey (2003). Rumors of Another World: What on Earth are we Missing? Zondervan (Grand Rapids), p.47-48.
[ii] W. Brueggemann ((1997). Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.549.
[iii] Yancy, p.53.
[iv] N.T. Wright (2006). Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. HarperOne (New York), p.39-40.