Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25 Commentary
Every preacher knows what a challenge it is to preach on Easter. On the one hand, it is the epicenter of the Gospel, the event that makes or breaks the claims of Jesus, as Paul says in I Corinthians 15. So, how can we mere mortals do justice to such a world changing moment in God’s great plan to redeem the world?
On the other hand, everyone knows the story and you can be certain that the huge majority of worshipers are in church today because they already believe it. So, how can we preachers make the familiar interesting, gripping, and stunning? How can we provide an Aha so unexpected that our people will gasp in surprise? Maybe we should just sing those glorious Easter hymns and forget about preaching?
Today the Lectionary comes to our rescue with a plethora of preaching possibilities for Easter. We could focus on the bare facts of the story by preaching on the Gospel readings in Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:1-18. Allow the power of narrative to convey the surprise, the confusion, the doubt, the joy, and the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection. Or we could tackle Acts 10:34-43, the first Easter sermon preached to Gentiles. Or we could zero in on the clarity of Paul’s doctrinal explanation of the cosmic importance of the Resurrection in I Corinthians 15:19-26. Just follow his logical argument to give people a clear-headed understanding of why the Resurrection matters so much. Or we could focus on the sheer joy of the Resurrection by preaching on Psalm 118. Preach a doxological sermon and invite people to respond with full throated praise.
There’s one more possibility, and that’s the one I urge you to consider. Isaiah 65:17-25, written centuries before Christ, uses the poetry of prophecy to paint a word picture of a world radically changed by a new thing that Yahweh will do. Originally, of course, it was written to encourage the post-Exilic Jewish community. They were home, but home wasn’t heaven, not by a long shot. They needed hope that it would get better. Reading this Jewish text from the other side of Easter, it gives us hope, too, hope that we can imagine.
That, I think, is the secret to preaching on Isaiah 65 at Easter. Let it serve as an imaginative picture of the long-term effects of Easter. Let God’s promise of a new thing in the history of Israel serve as an illustration of the results of the New Thing God has done in the history of the world. Often, we talk about salvation in terms so spiritual and other-worldly that ordinary folks can’t grasp them. Isaiah 65 uses pictures from daily life on earth to help us imagine how Easter changed and is changing and will change life in this world. One scholar said that this text “falls far short of Easter kerygma.” On the contrary, it preaches the Easter kerygma using the poetry of prophecy to convey the real-world difference Easter makes.
This real-world focus is thrust before us with the very first words of our text. In the previous verse, God has promised that “past troubles will be forgotten and hidden from your eyes.” How was that possible? Israel’s past troubles had destroyed life as they had known it for hundreds of years and the results of those troubles were still all around them, completely visible to the naked eye. The same is true for us. So how can we forget? How can we not see the results of sin and evil all around us?
Well, God promises, not an escape from this earth, not a home in heaven, but “new heavens and a new earth.” Verse 1 uses a verb that is very familiar to readers of Genesis 1—create, bara in the Hebrew. The God who created the universe out of nothing will create a new universe, a new heaven and earth, in place of the old one ruined by sin and evil. It will be so “good” (recall how often that simple word describes the first creation in Genesis) that people won’t remember the former things. Instead, people will simply rejoice forever in what God will create. Note the “forever,” because it points beyond the merely earthly and temporal. Though Isaiah uses that language, the new heavens and earth promised here will go on forever.
It’s hard to imagine a new heaven and a new earth. What will it be like? Well, it will be missing “the former things.” What does that mean? God explains using features of life plagued by “past troubles.” At the center of those troubles was the destruction of Jerusalem, the city of God, the center of their social, political, and, most of all, religious life. Even rebuilt, it was a shadow of its former self. Even re-inhabited, it was a place in which weeping and crying filled the air. God had once forsaken his own city and it seemed that he still wasn’t there as he had been before.
In the new heaven and earth, God will dwell in the midst of his people, as he had back in the Garden. To symbolize that, God says, “I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” God means that he will “rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people.” After centuries of conflict, during which God was often angry with his people and even sent them away from the city, God will love his people with unalloyed joy and delight. Because of that unconditional love and approval, the sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more.
That “no more” is the first of 10 variations on “no” in this text. So many of the former things that made life so sad and difficult will be “no more” in the new heaven and earth. The following verses will illustrate that.
But before we move on to those features of life after God has done his new thing, I must say a word about the promise of a rebuilt Jerusalem. Some Christians take that promise in a literal, geographical, political sense, and focus their attention on the land of Palestine as the key to God’s redemptive plan today.
I read this text through the Jesus lens of the New Testament, which replaces physical Jerusalem with the spiritual Body of Christ, and looks toward a Jerusalem that descends from heaven filled with people of all races and nations. So, I hear this promise of a recreated Jerusalem as a promise that God will dwell among his people in the New Heaven and Earth, as symbolized by Jerusalem (Revelation 21). This interpretation, of course, is highly debatable, but I had to make the point, because if Isaiah 65 is only about the Jews and their physical Jerusalem, then the rest of this lovely picture of life after the Resurrection is lost to the church.
Let’s go back to the “no’s” in this prophecy. In the brave new world created by God, “the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard no more,” because the causes of such grief will be no more—things like infant mortality or the pre-mature loss of a grandparent. “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.” Indeed, “a man who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.”
Now wait a minute. There will be no infant mortality, but old men will still die in the new world? Here’s we must read the prophecy as poetry. Using sources of grief with which we are all too familiar, the prophet paints a picture of life in which there will be no grief because, as the New Testament says, death will be utterly defeated. We may not be able to grasp the concept of eternal life, but we know what it’s like to lose a child or a grandpa. No more!
And no more futility in work or at home. No one will steal your home. No one will highjack your raise. No one will get the credit for work you have done. No longer will you struggle like Sisyphus to roll the stone of your life up a hill, only to have it slip from your hands and come rolling back down. Instead of endless, futile labor by the sweat of your brow in the midst of thorns and thistles, your life will be endlessly, increasingly fruitful as you enjoy the works of your hands and minds. As C.S. Lewis puts it at the end of The Last Battle, “every chapter is better than the one before.”
The poet/prophet sums up these two “no more’s” with these lovely words: “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune (or terror).” Then he gives the reason, which is the central blessing of the new world: “for they will be a people blessed by Yahweh, they and their descendants after them.” After centuries of living with the curses of Genesis and the wrath of God against their covenant unfaithfulness, Yahweh will once again, and forever, bless his people. Here is a dramatic reversal of history, Paradise Regained, the world re-created, because God has done, is doing, and will do a new thing.
The heart of Paradise was that God was right there, walking and talking with Adam and Eve, a constant Presence continually communing with his creatures. Then came sin and hiding and God’s agonized, “Adam, where are you?” followed by humanity’s own, “God, where are you?” When God does his new thing, paradise will be restored. “Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.” Instant, unbroken communion with the source of all blessing! Right here on earth! After centuries of apparent God forsakenness, a lifetime of seemingly unanswered prayers, hellish moments of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” “the dwelling of God will be with his people (Rev. 21:3).
The effects of Easter, that death defying and death defeating act of God, will extend even into the animal kingdom. No more law of the jungle. Traditional predator and prey, meat-eater and grazer, will live in perfect peace. Impossible!? Yes, and that’s the point of Easter. The impossible has happened. That’s the point of verse 25. It shows us Shalom, the complete restoration of peace on earth. No more sin, no more sorrow, no more futility, no more harming or destroying “on all my holy mountain.”
This is what Easter inaugurated—the peaceable kingdom God intended when he decided to create the heavens and the earth. I use the word “inaugurated” intentionally, because Easter was the big moment that began something that would get bigger and bigger. Indeed, the verb bara in verses 1 and 2 here can be translated in both the future (as the NIV does) and the imperfect. What God did once and for all in raising Jesus from the dead has immense future results, but those future results are developing now. The God who will create a new heaven and a new earth is, even now, recreating the old world into that new one. Yes, there will be a dramatic break, a moment as earth shaking as the Resurrection, when all things will experience the great Restoration (Acts 3:21).
In the meantime, the Risen Christ calls us to proclaim and promote the Peaceable Kingdom by battling death and destruction, futility and unfairness, infant mortality and senior abuse, all that brings grief to this world, as we commune with the God who has come close in Christ and accompanies us by his Spirit.
Easter is more than a single death and resurrection that gets us to heaven. It is the great new thing that inaugurates a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell.
The Storyteller is a horrific and wonderful book by Jodi Picoult. In it, a 20 something Jewish girl named Sage knows that her grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor. Quite accidentally, Sage befriends Josef, a beloved old man who taught at her high school. As she gets to know Josef better, she discovers that he worked in a Nazi concentration camp. The book interweaves the stories of Minka and Josef. Both are haunted by their pasts, by the “former things” they experienced– Minka by what had been done to her, Josef by what he had done. Could their paths have crossed somewhere? You will have to read to find out. Suffice it to say that the themes of justice and forgiveness make the book a compelling, and troubling, read. Neither victim nor perpetrator could imagine not remembering “the former things.” Neither can many of us. It will take a revelation from God and a redemptive act so stunning as to be nearly unbelievable to make us forget, stop weeping, and live with joy. That’s what the Resurrection of Jesus will finally do.
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