Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25 Commentary
The “heavens and … earth” that Isaiah 65 describes are clearly “new.” After all, they’re radically unlike the ones we know here and now. In fact, the prophet’s picture of them is so earthly and yet different from what we now experience that it almost makes us weep with longing for what Isaiah’s vision symbolizes.
Our text’s description of the “old” heavens and earth is very narrow. It focuses on the condition of Israel’s holy places. “Your sacred cities have become a desert,” the prophet mourns in chapter 64:10ff. “Even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins.”
Since we know more about our own heavens and earth’s condition, those who preach the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to explore just how new the heavens and earth will be by exploring with hearers what the creation is like right now. In some settings they may wish to invite hearers to share some perceptions of and experiences with the creation as we know it now.
If the setting doesn’t allow for such give-and-take, Isaiah 65’s preachers and teachers will want to mine for examples of the heavens and earth’s state as we now know and experience it. As I write this, for example, news is breaking of a treatment center for young people who have problems whose license the state of Pennsylvania is moving to revoke. The reason? A 17-year-old boy died at the center after a violent confrontation with staff members.
There’s also news of Myanmar’s security forces trapping members of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the country denies citizenship. Government forces have largely blocked aid deliveries to those beleaguered people.
Yet it isn’t just people who suffer right now. Even the earth writhes in misery. China is grappling with drought, poor industrial and water policies as well as other factors that are degrading the northern part of the country. Human activity even impacts the “heavens.” After all, images from a NASA satellite indicate the European Space Agency’s experimental lander created a shallow crater on Mars when it plummeted to its surface.
However, as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in an earlier posting on this text on this website, there’s another problem with thinking about Isaiah’s vision of “new heavens and a new earth.” When Christians think about the world to come, we often focus on the heavenly part. Ignoring some of the Scripture’s loveliest images, we sometimes think of eternity as one unending worship service “way beyond the blue.”
Yet that’s not the portrait most of the Scriptures paint of the new creation. As Hoezee notes, Isaiah’s “vision of the world that is to come looks a whole lot like the world that is.” God, insists the prophet, is going to create “new heavens and a new earth” (italics added).
Walter Bouzard notes that three themes dominate Isaiah’s description of “new heavens and a new earth.” Among them is that of joy. In verses 18-19 the Lord says, “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people” (italics added). This suggests the new creation will be a place where God rejoices in both Jerusalem and her people. This prospect allows Isaiah’s Israelite contemporaries to already “be glad and rejoice forever” (18).
On top of that, the prophet suggests the new creation will be a place of life. While we’re not sure just when things and people began to physically die, most of us can agree death has been part of God’s creation for a very long time. As Bouzard notes, “We all have a biological expiration date.”
In the new heavens and earth, however, death will have no place. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not live out his years,” Isaiah rejoices in verse 20. “He who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered cursed.”
Of course, the prophet intends the imagery of verse 20b to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In the new creation no one will ever die, much less at less than 100. There death will be as dead as everything that leads to it.
Verse 25 suggests even the non-human creation will experience abundant life. In the new creation, says Isaiah, the eaters and the eaten, the predators and the prey will somehow live and even eat together in peace. Not even the fiercest animals, adds the prophet in verse 25, will either “harm or destroy on all” God’s “holy mountain.”
The third lovely feature of the new creation to which Bouzard points is what he calls just rewards for labor. Verses 22 and 23 imply that Isaiah’s Israel experienced the kind of displacement that prevented people from enjoying what they had worked for, built and planted.
In the new heavens and earth, however, the prophet promises in verses 21-23, “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… My chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not toil in vain.” Residents of the new creation will, in other words, get to enjoy what they prepared.
Isaiah adds one more lovely promise in verse 24. “Before they call I will answer,” he quotes God as insisting there. “While they are still speaking, I will hear.” The prophet insists that in the new heavens and earth God will be so close to God’s people that God will answer their prayers before they can even offer or end them.
When and perhaps where, however, will all this happen? We know God will only completely fulfill those promises when Jesus Christ returns to usher in the new creation. Yet is God already beginning to fulfill those promises here and now on this heaven and earth?
A textual quirk leaves the door open to that possibility. When Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I will create…” (bara), we hear perhaps haunting echoes of Genesis 1. It links God’s creative work to that done near the beginning of measured time.
However, the prophet uses a participle in verse 17 to describe God’s creative work. It suggests ongoing action. However, as Steven Brock Reid notes, a participle can also indicate imminent action. So Isaiah at least leaves open the possibility that God is already creating new heavens and an earth that God will soon completely create.
Perhaps especially when we read Isaiah 65 in light of the work of Jesus Christ, we can see how God is already transforming this creation. Of course, physical death continues to plague that whole creation. Yet we profess that Jesus’ death and resurrection changes the nature of such death for God’s people. Physical death is for us now just a passage from life to Life.
What’s more, as God’s kingdom comes, God’s people work to restore just rewards for work. Of course, all sorts of sin and evil still displace and deprive people. Yet God uses God’s adopted sons and daughters to help people stay in their homes and enjoy the fruits of their labors. God also uses God’s adopted sons and daughters to ensure that no children are doomed to misfortune.
In that sense, Isaiah 65 is more than just a promise. It also serves as an invitation to God’s people. In giving us a glimpse of what God longs for God’s creation to be, the prophet invites us to partner with God in already working for God’s shalom for the whole creation.
The Adventures of Huck Finn is Mark Twain’s beloved account of the adventures and misadventures of the mischievous and (apparently) orphaned Huck Finn. Huck lives with the widow Miss Douglas and her sister Miss Watson.
Miss Douglas is convinced she needs to teach Huck some religion. So she teaches him about heaven. Huck says: “Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.
So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”
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