The New Heaven and Earth
Isaiah 65 – Judgment and Salvation, New Heavens and a New Earth Two years ago, my wife, Sally, and I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Holy Land – Jordan and Israel. There were, of course, many highlights of this trip. One of which was visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and going into the Shrine of the Book. In this building is a permanent exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The centre piece of this display is a reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll which was first recovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. It is notable in being the only scroll from the Qumran Caves to be preserved almost in its entirety. When I hear the story of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth being handed the scroll of Isaiah to read from, I can imagine him taking the scroll and unrolling it till he came to the passage that is Is. 61 in our Bibles (no chapters and verses in those days!). We have been looking at some of the later chapters in Isaiah over these past few weeks. I thought this morning, before we look in closer detail at chap 65, that I’d just recap for us what kind of book Isaiah actually is - its scope and style. If you are like me, Isaiah has been one of the Bible books that I have dipped into and out of, it has some very well-known passages, which we as Christians mostly relate in some way to Jesus. But I’ve never really got a hold of the book as a whole – so from that point of view, it has been a bit of a mystery It is mostly a book written in grand sweeping poetry. It has lots of repetition, describing the same ideas again and again, often in different ways and from different points of view. It evokes events from the historical periods from 8th century BC, the exile period of Judah and even beyond this. It describes the very heavens and the earth participating in the grand drama of Israel’s history and that God is working his purposes out for which the whole of creation is waiting. In hidden and surprising ways, the Lord is always at work to save people. We see the Lord God saving Zion/Jerusalem, but only ever as the first step in a plan to save the planet and the cosmos, to remake it into a place of beauty and joy. And, the point is, as readers of this book, if we can know and love what God is doing, the easier it will be to trust him. The book covers the reigns of Israel’s kings Uzziah (783BC) through to Hezekiah (687BC). But it also looks forward to the exile of the people of Judah to Babylon, and then beyond that to the return of the people from exile. In the middle of the book are the main narrative passages – chaps 36-39. They describe the attack on Jerusalem by Sennacherib’s Assyrian army, and its defeat; King Hezekiah’s illness; and, Hezekiah’s dealings with the Babylonian envoys. These are the pivotal events that provide the social and political backdrop to Isaiah. Irrespective of when they were spoken or written, the words of Isaiah have relevance to people who lived through various major events in God’s dealings with his people. So, it can be helpful to think about the various audiences that might read Isaiah (and I am grateful to Kirk Patston for his commentary on this): 1. Those who had lived through the Assyrian attack of King Sennacherib on Judea and Jerusalem in 701 BC. 2. In Isaiah 40-48, the man Cyrus becomes important and there are commands to leave Babylon. So, another audience is the people living in the late 6th cent BC, after Cyrus. 3. The book of Isaiah is a major source of images, phrases and ideas for the NT writers who had experienced the coming of Jesus and were trying to make sense of all that they had seen and heard. So, the next audience is those living in the 1st cent AD. 4. Reading the book of Isaiah today – how can we make sense of what God is doing and wants to do in our lives? The language of Is. 65 and the following chapter, creates links back to the book as whole. It asserts that God will deliver the kinds of things promised in chap 40, to transform the corruption presented in chap 1, and to achieve the wonderful vision of chap 2. Is 1:27-28 Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the Lord will perish. Is 2: 2-4 In the last days The mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; It will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Is. 40: 1-5 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, That her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all the people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” So, let’s take a closer look at our reading this morning/evening. Is 65:1-7 So, who’s speaking here? In the previous chapter, it’s one of those “we” passages in Isaiah, but in chap 65, it sounds like God speaking, and that’s confirmed in v.7. So, what is God saying? Can you feel the pleading in his voice? He is longing for relationship. He is fervent, magnanimous and persistent. I said, “Here am I, here am I.” All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people who walk in ways not good . . . I’m reminded of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus told. Every day whilst his son was away wasting his life in wild living, the Father kept an eye out for him and on the day that the son returned, his expectant Father saw him “from a long way off” and ran to meet him. I am also reminded of a famous poem entitled “The Hound of Heaven” written by Francis Thompson and published in 1893. Thompson describes himself fleeing from God over the years and down the labyrinthine ways of his own mind, and yet God continued to pursue him “. . . those strong feet that followed, followed after . . . with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace, deliberate speed, majestic instancy . . . “ God had always been the initiator in his love affair with his people, Israel, but so often his advances were flatly refused. And the consequences of this rejection of the covenant with God is judgment and retribution vv.6-7. Is. 65:8-12 As is so often the case throughout Isaiah, there is a change in the direction of thought. Here it is announced in v. 8 with the phrase: “This is what the Lord says”. The change in direction is from judgment to mercy. Despite popular representations in our western culture of a party-pooper kind of judgmental God, judgment is never God’s last word. He also saves. A remnant survives the judgment. Here we have vineyard vocab re-appearing in Isaiah. There’s mention of grapes with some remaining juice. In 2013, Sally and I had the fun of travelling to NW Tasmania to a friend’s vineyard for the grape harvest. Two weeks prior to the picking, there had been a downpour of rain one night of 150mm!! The ground was waterlogged and the grapevines just sucked up the water like vacuum cleaners, causing the grapes to swell and many of them split open – ruined! Nonetheless, despite this calamity, still about 1/3 of the grapes were whole – there was some “remaining juice”. And they could be salvaged to produce a wine vintage for that year. In the OT, the preservation of the remnant is God’s doing and injects hope into otherwise dire situations, but the human dimension is not ignored. The verb “to seek” re-appears in v.10. It is the God-seekers who will belong to the remnant. Vv. 11 and 12 describe Israel’s faithlessness, they forsake God, they forget his holy mountain, they bow down and worship the gods of fortune and destiny. God takes their choices seriously and destines them to the sword. When it comes to relationship with God, people have always had a choice to respond to him or to reject him. We have the same choice today. But our choices have real consequences!! Is. 65:13-16 Here is an outline of “Two Ways to Live” – OT style! A choice between being one of God’s servants or one of the “you” group – either blessings or curses. Eat or go hungry. Drink or go thirsty. Rejoice or be put to shame. Sing for joy or cry out in anguish. Get a new name or lose your name which will become curses. Is. 65:17-25 And then in v. 17, there is another change of voice. God is speaking in first person and he announces what he is going to do . . . See! New heavens and a new earth are coming. It’s a whole new start! Transformation with a capital “T”! There is an appealing description of a future world: a delightful city, no weeping, longevity, security, the chance to enjoy the fruit of one’s labour, even an end to the dangers of the wolf, lion and serpent. Verse 24 speaks of better than perfect communication. God will answer people before they call and hear their meaning before they finish their sentences. (Wouldn’t you wish that the NBN could be that good?) This is a striking contrast to people who refused to call on God, mentioned only a few verses earlier (65:1, 64:7). Notice that there are some negative aspects to this obviously joyful passage – the vision of the future includes people dying, and perhaps people who die young and be regarded as cursed (v.20). But earlier in Isaiah there was a vision that death would be swallowed up (25:7-8). The serpent will eat dust (contrast Gen 3:14). Contrast with 11:8 and 27:1. How do we make sense of this? It seems reasonable to think that this passage with the preceding emphasis on human choice in our response to God, that whoever we are as God’s people, we can choose to make a difference in this world that is moving towards God and his shalom, or away from God and towards chaos. See vv. 13-16. It is apparent that in this description of new heavens and a new earth, not all things will have been completed – which will only come to fruition at the end of time. Belonging to the new creation connects to the choices we make about how to live in this creation right now. So, picking up Kirk Patston’s four audiences, what can we make of Is. 65? 1. The invasion of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib in the 8th cent BC destroyed many Judean cities, leaving only Jerusalem standing. But this salvation of Jerusalem was not followed by the renewal of creation and society and a gathering of Gentiles to Jerusalem. 2. After King Cyrus of the Medo-Persian empire offer to save the people of Jerusalem in the 6th cent BC, there was a mixed response. Some returned to Jerusalem, others were sceptical. The final judgment did not fall and the renewal of creation did not occur. 3. What about after Jesus? How would Christians in 1st cent AD read Isaiah? Jesus himself took on the declaration of Is. 61 as a kind of manifesto for his ministry. Many passages in Isaiah were interpreted as being fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus declared the kingdom of God had come and he commanded and empowered his followers to go out and allow the Holy Spirit to transform societies. 4. What about us today? The portrait of a renewed society and creation is beyond what we are experiencing as Jesus-followers today – there is a “not-yet” feel about it. But it does present values that should be manifest in us as we live and move about in our spheres of influence. Actively involved in God’s restoration work, and longing for the complete creation of new heavens and a new earth. We ought to be working to make the kind of peace and security that gives people a chance to live a settled, safe, and long life. We ought to be challenged by what is happening around the world today where that is not at all happening. We have in our midst here in Wagga, people who have been refugees from their own countries. We ought to be fully engaged in the world doing good, countering oppression, fighting for the marginalised in our communities, seeking equity and working for justice. This sounds a lot like “gospel-shaped mercy” that we studied last year in our home groups. Let me ask you this question? What would it look like for you to be fully engaged in your neighbourhood? Jesus is calling us out to be in the thick of it, as his people, working with him in his mission. Let’s be the kind of church that meets together to worship God and to encourage each other to get out there! Here’s an overview of Isaiah 65. Try to get a feel for what it is saying and the flow of thoughts that occur: Isaiah 65 I am the self-revealing God. I have pursued people who weren’t looking for me. Despite their obstinance, I have continually sought relationship with them with open welcoming arms. Yet they have continued in offensive habits and lifestyle – eating pig flesh and practising secret pagan rites. They are like irritant smoke in my nostrils and I will judge them for their sin. And yet, like grapes on the vine – where most have withered, some still retain juice – I won’t destroy them all. A remnant will survive and claim the promises of land and livestock. Those who forsake the Lord, who forget him (!), will be destined for the sword. My servants, on the other hand, will . . . eat, drink, rejoice, sing. Those who reject me will . . . go hungry, go thirsty, will be put to shame, cry out in anguish, and face death. See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Rejoice, be glad forever. I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. There will be no more weeping in the city. Babies will survive the newborn period. Old people will live long fruitful lives – reaching a hundred years will be no big deal. There will be housing for all and fruitful produce from the land. They and their descendants will be blessed by the Lord. I will answer their prayers, even before they make them. I will hear them even whilst they are speaking. All creation will be in harmony – wolves and lambs will eat together. The lion will become a vegetarian (just like an ox!). The snake will eat dust! They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. I, the Lord, say all of this! Prayer: Living God, our Father, thank-you so much for your persistent, unwavering love for us. You pursue us and draw out from us the response of love. We know that you love us because you sent your Son, Jesus, to this world, as a man, to enter into our experience and live amongst us. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of yourself in ways that we can understand. And, more than that, Jesus willingly gave up his life and was executed on an ugly Roman cross, in order to pay the price for the collective sin of all humankind, in order for each of us to be forgiven for our sin and be welcomed into your family as adopted daughters and sons. All we need to do is trust in Jesus for salvation and accept this free gift from you. There is nothing that we could have done to earn enough merit to satisfy your justice. Thank-you for the great words in Isaiah that reveal your dealings with people, the promise of life, and, the restoration and re-creation of the heavens and the earth – indeed, of the entire cosmos. May we live as your called-out people right now today, as signs pointing towards your kingdom, even as we long for the future where death will be destroyed, evil will be overcome, peace and harmony will be universal and you will be acknowledged as Almighty King. In Jesus’ name, Amen.