November 17, 2013

New Heavens and a New Earth

Passage: Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Service Type:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I was in Ireland when I first witnessed the sport known as Hurling. At first viewing it looked like a bunch of men running around a field all carrying sticks chasing a white ball. To aficionados it is billed as “the fastest game on grass.” To understand why they were doing the things they were doing on the field you need to know what the game is all about.

Trying to understand Jesus without understanding the story of Israel is something like trying to understand why people are running around a field carrying sticks chasing a ball without knowing what Hurling is all about. It is fundamental to a Christian worldview to understand that what happened in Jesus of Nazareth was the very climax of the long story of Israel. Telling the story of Israel the way a first century Jew would see things prepares us to understand why Jesus said and did what he did, and why it had the impact it had.

Here is one telling of that story.

Note the themes that emerge from the Older Testament story; the blessings of Abraham, the justice of Moses, the lordship of David, and the voice of the prophets—all finding their climax and fulfillment in Jesus.

In a similar way N. T. Wright outlines the hope of Israel along the lines of four themes. First the king; God made a spectacular promise to David that his royal house would continue forever—a new king would come and be anointed with oil and God’s own Spirit (Messiah means “anointed”). Second the Temple; the temple was the place where heaven and earth met and the hope was that the Messiah would re-establish the place where heaven and earth met. Third was the Torah; the Torah showed Israel how to walk in company when God frees you from slavery, not to earn God’s favour, but to express your gratitude, your loyalty, your determination to live for God who rescued you. Fourth, new creation; the reason that God called Abraham in the first place was in order to put the entire creation back to rights, to fill heaven and earth with his glory.

The God of Israel is the creator and redeemer of Israel and the world. In faithfulness to his ancient promises, he will act within Israel and the world to bring to its climax the great story of exile and restoration, of the divine rescue operation, of the king who brings justice, of the Temple that joins heaven and earth, of the Torah that binds God’s people together and of creation healed and restored. It is a wonderful dream, but is it anything more than a dream? The whole New Testament is written to answer that question. And the answers all focus, of course, on Jesus of Nazareth.

1. The three monotheistic religions of the world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all agree on this point; it begins with Abraham. In the older testament when the people spoke of the “God of their ancestors,” the first among those ancestors was Abraham to whom God made this promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Please highlight that last clause; “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Through this family God promises to bless everyone.

The story of Abraham begins in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. What is the backdrop to this story? When a first century Jew thought about Abraham being called to go from his home where was that home? The immediate context found in Genesis chapter 11 is the story of the tower of Babel. The story in Genesis has gone from bad to worse; from rebellion in the Garden of Eden (Ch. 3) to the first murder (Ch. 4) to widespread violence (Ch. 6), and now to the crazy idea of building a tower—the tower of Babel—with its top reaching right up to heaven. Humanity, both arrogant and insecure, has banded together to build a tower to assert their own self-importance. The tone of the voice in Genesis 11 is sardonic as God comments on the pathetic efforts of humans to make themselves big and important.

The story of Babel is an account of a world given to injustice, failed relationships, and the creation of buildings that were to reflect human pride instead of nurturing the beauty of the earth. If you didn’t know it was an ancient story you would think it written about any modern city in our world. We may not build building to reach to heaven; our biggest buildings are built to house financial institutions. Our monuments are about wealth and its creation. We have said to God we don’t need you we can get along just fine. Indeed, Jesus said you can’t serve God and money—a look at the buildings of our cities and it is clear we have chosen money.

This is the scene when we find the turning point; Abraham is called by God to leave this land of Babel and spectacular promises are made to him. Abraham and his descendants are somehow to be the means of God putting things to rights, the spearhead of Gods’ rescue operation. God makes a binding agreement, a promise into which God and Abraham are locked forever. A covenant that God will never give up on. (The irony would not have been lost on first century Jews that the land of captivity, Babylon, was the land spoken of in the Tower of Babel story—the land Abraham was called to leave behind)

N.T Wright says it powerfully. “The point is that God’s covenant with Abraham is seen as a rock-solid commitment on the part of the world’s Creator that he will be the God of Abraham and his family. Through Abraham and his family, God will bless the whole world. Shimmering like a mirage in the deserts through which Abraham wandered was the vision of a new world, a rescued world, a world blessed by the Creator once more, a world of justice, where God and his people live in harmony, where human relationships would flourish, where beauty would triumph over ugliness.” (Simply Christian p. 74)

When the writer of Isaiah speaks of the glorious vision of “new heavens and a new earth” it is the logical outworking of God’s promise to put things right. The whole of creation is integral in God’s restoration project. When God created the humans and the world in which the human lived it was declared very good. Human life is always en-fleshed in the Bible thus any restoration of humans includes the whole of creation.

Listen again to what God has in mind in his promise to restore through Abraham and his family.
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. …
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

Now, in thinking about Israel’s history we can easily see that the covenant may have been rock solid on God’s part; it was anything but solid on Abraham’s part; anything but solid on the part of Abraham’s descendants Israel. What happens when the life boat sent off to rescue the world is itself in need of rescue? The answer of the New Testament is Jesus of Nazareth.

2. Author and professor Lewis Smedes used to ask his students if they wanted to go to heaven when they died. Everyone would raise a hand. Then he'd ask, "Be honest now, who would like to go today?" A few would raise their hands slowly, giving what they thought was the correct answer, looking around to see if they were the only ones. They were. Most people wanted a rain check. They were ready to die, just not today.

Then Professor Smedes would ask who would like to see the world set straight once and for all tomorrow: "No more common colds, no more uncommon cancers. Hungry people would have plenty; no one would lift a finger to harm another; we would be at peace with everyone, even with ourselves. Anybody interested in that?" There would be a frenzy of hand-lifting.

I suspect that we would find similar response to this professor’s questions among us today. What we really want; what humanity so longs for; what people are trying to do what they give effort “to make the world a better place; what we really long for is new world, a healed world, a world where all that is wrong is gone. This is the very world that Isaiah speaks about in the promise of God to “create new heavens and a new earth.” This is the hope that is foreseen in the promise to Abraham; the promise fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus ever moving towards that day when heaven and earth will be one.

The Christian understanding is that when we die we are with the Lord in his presence; to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But there is a day coming—the resurrection on the last day—when “new heavens and a new earth” will emerge are we will be raised to life for that new habitation. From life to life to life; this is the course promised to the believer who clings to Jesus Christ in faith.

In essence, the Biblical teaching that the hope emerging from the promises of God includes the restoration/renewal/re-creation of the world it all of its physicality arises from the character of God. The one who created it in the first place will not let its being marred by sin stand forever. The one who rescues from our sin is also our creator; he loves his creation. It is his love that guarantees this future because of what he loves. The real you is the whole of what you are—including you physical existence—and God loves the whole business.

In April of this year a news story appeared about a fishing trip that turned dangerous. What was supposed to be a fun fishing trip off Puerto Rico's St. Lucia Island turned into a high seas survival story for a vacationing brother and sister. While trying to reel in a 200-pound marlin, the boat Dan and Kate Suski were on began taking on water, and capsized. They spent 14 hours in the open ocean, clinging to life preservers, until coming to shore on a deserted spit of sand, and walking inland until they found help. The experience has brought a new level of gratitude to their lives. "We are so grateful to be alive right now," Kate Suski said. "Nothing can sort of puncture that bubble … Since this ordeal, I've been waking up at dawn every morning. I've never looked forward to the sunrise so much in my life."

It is an all too common experience that we often need some sort of wake up call to appreciate the world we live in; yet deep down we know life to be precious and surrounded with wonder. How is it that the beauty of a sunrise or sunset can hold you in wonder; or the grandeur of falls blazing colours during a walk with a forest visible in the background; or the happy experience of friendship with a pet like a dog or cat? How is it that these create such joy? And why do we experience wonder at all? Where does this sense that life would be glorious if we could only eliminate disease and hatred and poverty come from? The Biblical answer is that we were created for good and God is at work in Jesus Christ to bring about that very thing we truly long for; the gospel’s logic makes sense of this longing in a way that nothing else does.

Many are cynical about the Biblical promise of life to come; even among Christians. I point out something that may seem rather obvious, but bear with me. None of us created our own existence; we simply found ourselves in the world—didn’t we? None of us put our hands up and said I would like to have life; yet here we are. None of us were able/conscious during our time in the womb to throw all those tiny switches in the DNA of our cells that directed each one to develop into all the various organs of our body yet here we sit hearts pumping. Who made this wonder? Do you doubt that he can do so again?

This morning I have drilled down on just one of the themes imbedded in the promises of God made to Abraham—new heavens and a new earth. Jesus Christ is the climax of all that God’s ancient promises. We serve a wonderful God who has triumphed in Jesus Christ to put all things to right. It is he who has promised “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” May the joy of this hope fill you to overflowing!