Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 13, 2022
Isaiah 65:17-25 Commentary
It doesn’t get any more lyric than this! Here in the 65th chapter of the sprawling book that just is Isaiah, we find the prophet sketching one huge vision for the renewal of all things. But like many such visions in the Old Testament—and indeed throughout the Bible—what is striking here is how utterly earthy it all is. We are told that God would create “a new heavens and a new earth,” but it seems that 9 times out of 10 when even Christian people ponder the world to come, it’s just the heavenly part they focus on.
Look at any New Yorker cartoon that involves someone being in heaven—or more often than not, of someone’s arrival at the proverbial “Pearly Gates”—and you can catch in an instant the clues that are supposed to make you think this is “heaven” or the afterlife: wispy clouds, people in all-white robes (perhaps with wings and a halo), and a setting that is just generally non-earthy. Or think of the final scene from the popular movie Ghost from many years back when, having taken care of the unfinished business that God wanted him to do between his death and his final homecoming to heaven, Patrick Swayze’s character walks into a brilliant white light that looks to be populated by stick people representing other souls in the felicity of the next world.
It’s just not the portrait that emerges from the Bible. Certainly Isaiah would have nothing to do with it. His vision of the world to come looks a whole lot like the world that is. There are people in that world, people who live and flourish and have dreams and do activities and carry on a meaningful existence inside cities that are free of crime and pollution and poverty. There are gardens and vineyards that produce tasty food and fine wine. And there will be animals, cured apparently of their predatory and carnivorous ways, but existing nonetheless.
The New Testament writers who composed their works centuries later would frequently use the Greek term palingenesia, which I sometimes think is like “Genesis Again” because it is the renewal of all things that were created “In the beginning.” God is not going to scrap what he had once made but is going to renew it, restore it, make possible the flourishing in his creation that he had desired to be the case all along but that had long ago been sullied by other forces.
This is how we must envision the new heavens and the new earth, and passages like Isaiah 65 authorize this. Indeed, theologian Anthony Hoekema once wrote that if we envision the next world as anything other than a realm that will contain bullfrogs, mountain brooks, maple trees, and tiger lilies, then we are conceding defeat to the devil because Satan is the one who has opposed all that is good in creation. God has long been in the business of restoring all that evil has opposed and destroyed.
The Bible is one long story of how God is salvaging the work he did in the beginning. Perhaps that is why, as Larry Rasmussen notes, religion in the Old Testament frequently seems hard to distinguish from good highlands agriculture, from proper treatment of topsoil and animals, from joyful celebration over bountiful harvests and the warm glow one gets from a goblet of fine wine. Religion and creation get all mixed up together because the God we serve in our religion is the Creator who refuses to let his creation handiwork slip through his fingers.
The Israelites, it seems, could not conceive of a salvation that did not involve some kind of throwback to the Garden of Eden. That’s why when Solomon builds his grand Temple in Jerusalem, he fills it with carvings of bulls and bears, of pomegranates and lilies, of depictions of the ocean and sprays of palm trees. Unlike our modern houses of worship which are so often devoid of the physical creation–even having stained glass windows that prevent us from even seeing the outside world–Solomon was very deliberate in creating a worship space that harked back to Eden and that pointed forward to God’s promise of a renewed earth. Similarly, the reason prophets like Isaiah ultimately predict that one day we will beat swords into plowshares is not only to end bloody warfare but also to enable us to return to our true calling: earthkeeping, tending the garden of God’s creation!
But we in the church too often forget this. The extreme of this kind of thinking can sometimes be seen in various sects and cults. Back in 1997 the media was abuzz about a cult known as Heaven’s Gate. The members of this group performed a mass suicide that year because they had become convinced by the cult’s leader that by dying in this way, they could hitch a ride with the UFO they thought was hidden in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet that was swinging past earth at that time. “This earth is destined to be recycled,” the wild-eyed leader of the cult said on the group’s farewell video tape. Since their visions of God’s kingdom had nothing to do with this earth, they decided to jump ship and hitch a ride to the next dimension.
Isaiah would take a rather dim view of such an anti-creation stance. Creation matters supremely to God. Any and all visions we have of the life to come must embrace that very world.
According to the Chinese writer Ningkun Wu in his book A Single Tear, Communist Chairman Mao Tse-tung was not content trying to control every jot and tittle of human life–no, he wanted to extend his control into the realm of nature as well. So in 1958 Chairman Mao launched what he called “A Campaign against Four Evils.” In this campaign Mao mustered the Chinese people to help him stamp out the evils of rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. Especially the sparrows, Mao contended, were an enemy of the people in that the little birds freely helped themselves to millions of tons of food each year. Clearly these pesky birds had to go–how dare they take food away from The People?!
So one day the entire Chinese populace was ordered to wage war on the sparrows. At the same hour all the people were instructed to pursue the sparrows relentlessly by banging loudly on pots and pans so as to chase the little birds into a frenzy. And it worked. Sparrows by the millions finally dropped dead of exhaustion, their winged abilities proving no match for the iron fist of proletarian dictatorship.
The next day the official Chinese newspapers were triumphantly filled with stories of marketplaces all over China being glutted with more fried sparrow than the people could eat. Alas, however, what the government-run press never reported was that as a result of this victory over the sparrows, in the next two years China experienced massive crop loss and famine. It seems that without the sparrows around to eat them, wheat-eating insects flourished, consuming massive amounts of grain and other foliage in what these bugs must have regarded as a wonderful, all-you-can-eat buffet!
A story like this one surely lends new meaning to the idea that God’s eye is on the sparrow! But it is also a poignant reminder that where evil holds sway, far more than human beings end up getting threatened and harmed. More than we know, the battle between God and the Devil takes place on the stage of the non-human creation. Also more than we know, those who threaten God’s creation sometimes get hurt right back by that same creation.
But creation is the stage for God’s great redemptive drama because the creation itself is what is being liberated from its bondage to decay.
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