A New World - Isaiah 65:17-25
In March 1997 39 members of a group known as the Heavens Gate staged a bizarre mass suicide in an affluent community near San Diego, California. The cult members apparently believed that by taking their lives they would rendezvous with a spaceship hiding in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp, which was passing by Earth. The spaceship would then transport the faithful cult members to heaven.
At about the same time a poll was published which revealed that Canadians, who according to the UN Human Development Index, live in what the rest of the world finds to be the most desirable place on earth, are in fact in the grip of unprecedented national despair and foresee a grim future such that they have given up on traditional institutions such as government.
What these two news stories reveal in different ways is the fact that within Western society there is an increasing uncertainty about the future. As Woody Allen once said: The future isnt what it used to be. And that is so. Not all that long ago the prevailing belief of many of our grandparents and great - grandparents was that through a combination of education, technology and moral enlightenment Utopia was going to be achievable by the end of this century. So Desmond King-Hele concluded his book The End of the 20th century with these words: If war is avoided, if the hungry are fed, if the rise of the population is checked and the quality of living is improved by curbing pollution and building new towns to live in, we might advance to a marvellously fruitful era when the future wonders of science and technology will be exploited for the benefit of all. Did you notice how many ifs were in there? Well, here we are with just a few weeks to go before the century ends left with such words ringing hollow in our ears.
In many ways the song from the Musical film Paint Your Wagon is a fitting anthem for our generation: Where am going? I dont know. Where am I heading? I aint certain. All that I know is I am on my way. We still hear, don't we? talk of progress through technological advance. The problem is, we dont quite know where we are going. Our civilisation was not born under a wandering star but a shooting star, which seems to be plummeting to a sudden end. So not surprisingly we may be the first generation to be living without hope, being devoid of any belief which will enable us live in the present by having a clear view of the future. In a novel by Douglas Coupland, one character expresses such anxiety about the future in this way: Theres a darkness to the future. . the futures not a good place. (Girlfriend in a Coma. ) Maybe that is why so many people live for the now - living on easy credit, partying - dont worry about tomorrow for there may well not be one. Whereas at one time the future was rosy, now the future is merely orange.
But there is one group of people on this planet who above everything else are people of hope, and that is Christian believers. For woven into the fabric of the Bibles story line is that this world has an origin - in God and also a future - in God. The one who has made the heavens and the earth by his Word will also make a new heaven and new earth by that same Word. In fact he has already begun the process by calling into being a new race who will populate this transformed cosmos and he does this by the Word of his Gospel.
And what we are given in the passage we are looking at tonight in Isaiah 65, is a glimpse into what that future entails. Now invariably figurative language is used, how else can the prophet describe the indescribable but by drawing on aspects of our present life to create impressions of the life to come? And that is what these are ; impressions to support our faith and not details to satisfy our curiosity. It will be a future, says Isaiah in which we shall be totally happy, v19, totally secure, v22 and totally at peace v24. So what the prophet does under the inspiration of Gods Spirit is to draw upon our own present experiences and contrast them with what we shall experience when this glorious transformation takes place.
Now the first thing about this new world order is that it is a place where there is freedom from sin. We are told in v 19 that God will rejoice over his new Jerusalem and take delight in his people. And of course, God would not be able to do that if it contained any blemish, anything that spoiled or marred what he had made. Now back in Genesis 1 we are told that when God created the heavens and the earth, he pronounced it very good. But this new creation is going to evoke from God more than a positive affirmation, it is going to draw forth from his heart rejoicing, shear delight. This new city will be a delight and its people a joy, says Isaiah.
Now there is a contrast. For right at the beginning of this prophecy we have a description of Jerusalem and Gods people which is anything but. The city is a disgrace, a cesspit of moral corruption and decadence. A people selfish and rebellious. Far from delighting Gods heart they break it. Instead of evoking commendation they receive condemnation. And in many ways that city represents our world on the run from its Maker. So what has happened between chapter 1 and chapter 65 to enable the prophet to look forward with confidence to a new city and a new people being brought into being? Well, just over half way through the book God promises to send his Servant whom we are told in chapter 53 was to be led like a lamb to the slaughter, to hang on a scaffold, upon whom God will lay the iniquities of us all, as a sacrificial guilt offering to bear away our sins. In other words - redemption is promised. And what we see here is the full fruits of that redemptive work, the formation of a renewed people whom God has purchased with his own blood to dwell with him into all eternity. And of course that has already happened - Jesus was that Servant. He is the Lord redeeming a people for himself and he is the one who is yet to come to establish his kingdom for ever. So as with Isaiah we glimpse the future, we see a world in which the effects of sin are reversed, the old order of a world under the shadow of Gods curse is replaced by a new world under the light of his blessing, because that which drew the curse, sin is no more - it has been removed by Jesus.
Just look at v20 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, he who dies at a hundred will be thought of as a mere youth. One of the most poignant and painful reminders that we live in a world which has gone badly wrong is death. And nowhere is this more shattering than with the death of an infant. I have had to conduct such funerals and I tell you frankly, it is devastating, for instinctively we cry out this should not be. Of course in the days of Isaiah infant mortality was much higher than in ours, one could have four or five children in a family who would not reach adulthood. And even then to get beyond 45 was a major achievement. We live in a world terrified of death - the taboo subject of the 20th century. Understandably so, for there is no answer to it, oh, we might delay it but we cannot eradicate it. No hope you see. But that great terror will be no more in this new world. No infant will fail to enjoy life nor an elderly person come short of total fulfilment. In fact, you would be but a mere youth if you were to die at a hundred! This doesnt mean death will be present, it is simply a poetic way of saying that over the whole of life, young and old - the power of death will be destroyed.
The disharmony which characterises our world, the enmity within nature will be replaced with total unity - so as it says in v 25 what were natural enemies - wolves and lambs will lie down together. Even lions will become vegetarians. All that we can now only dream of will then become a reality.
Now there are two worrying questions which Christians often raise which are answered in this passage.
The first is this : in heaven will it be possible for me to sin again? Have you ever wondered about that one? If when the world was originally made perfect people sinned, could it not happen again in the new world? The short answer to that is : no. And I will explain why.
In v24 we read these words: Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. That means there is such complete oneness between God and his people he anticipates their needs with a constant providential watchfulness, but more than that there is such an identity between them, that while the people are still speaking, what they say immediately commends itself to God, i.e. what they want and what he wants are one and the same. This is because in the new heaven and new earth we shall be given new hearts and new minds devoid of any sin, so we shall never be out of sync with God. We will not only not want to sin but not want to want to sin because we will be so reconstituted by God that we will be incapable of it . Now this idea is totally unacceptable to the modern mind, even some Christians which thinks of freedom as the ability to choose between different courses of action, between good and evil. But that is not the biblical view of freedom. Freedom is the ability to choose according to the truth, to do what you ought not just what you want. And of course that was Jesus position wasn't it? . He was tempted and felt the struggle, but he couldnt sin, he didnt want to. Now if to have such a moral character that you cannot sin and do not want to sin means you are not free, then Jesus wasnt free, and neither is God for that matter for he cannot sin. But it is a miserable delusion and a pathetic concept of freedom to think that if only God could succumb to temptation he would be free and not otherwise. No, the glory of God, which makes him the supreme object worthy of our worship and total trust is that he is incapable of change, unable and unwilling to depart from the immaculate standards of his own majestic holiness. And when we get to heaven, we will be like him in this respect - free to do only what is right and loving every minute of it.
The second worry we sometimes have is this: if as we have seen in v 19 heaven is a place of consummate joy, will not that joy be diminished and sullied by bad memories of what we have done on earth or by thoughts of those who are not in heaven? Well, take a look at the end of v 17: The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Not be remembered refers to conscious contents of memory, come to mind, to memories suddenly aroused. Do you realise what that means? It is suggesting that not only will God blot out the past, but so shall we. All the past troubles of this life, all the failures, all the pangs of consciences which disturb us now will not even come to our minds then, let alone to Gods to accuse us.
And although we cant imagine it (and who can fully imagine any of this), such selective amnesia which applies to the old order of things must include those who, because of their refusal to embrace Christs offer of salvation, are banished from his presence in hell. Though such thoughts trouble us now, and so spur us on to pray for them and seek to share the gospel with them, they will not trouble us in the new world - such thoughts about the lost will simply not exist because such memories as they are will not exist. Instead our memories will be reshaped and minds taken up in the adoration of God, basking in the great new works of his creative power, Be glad and rejoice for ever in what I will create. - v18. For according to the Book of Revelation the one who stands in the centre of the heavenly Jerusalem is Christ, the lamb who was slain, whose radiant presence will flood our hearts with liquid joy.
But secondly, heaven is a place where there is freedom for service. - v22b my chosen ones will enjoy the work of their hands, they will not toil in vain.
What word would you use to sum up heaven? The word most people would use is boring. George Bernard Shaw in his typically pugnacious way captured what most people think like this: He said, Heaven as conventionally conceived as a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable that nobody would venture to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside. And I guess he is right. That is heaven as it is conventionally conceived, as if all we will do all day is waft around on some cloud, clothed in a celestial negligée, strumming a golden harp. And I think it has to be admitted that sometimes we as Christians have contributed to this caricature because we have not paid attention to what Scripture says, albeit in image form.
The Bible teaches that heaven will be a place of rest, but that is not the same as inactivity. Rev 14: 13 speaks of believers as being blessed, for they rest from their labours. But the context makes it clear that the labours from which they are now released is that of spiritual warfare, battling against the world, the flesh and the devil. Now it is a battle, then it will be over and we will be at peace So heaven is a rest not from work, but from opposition and toil.
So while there will be rest in heaven there will also be activity in heaven as is hinted at here with these pictures, we shall labour and unlike on earth there will be full satisfaction in them, the results wont disappoint us, either because we fail or someone else cuts in and reaps the benefits. Neither is work marred by pain or struggle. You see, in Genesis 1 and 2 it is clear we were created to work, to serve God as his vice-regents. In the new heaven and earth that purpose will be perfectly realised . There our human powers will be at full stretch, as renewed by grace and made perfect in love, they serve God in Christ. Remember the parable of the talents in Matt 13: 12? There it is hinted that our responsibilities in the kingdom to come will increase or decrease according to the faithfulness we show now. As the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards puts it so beautifully: In heaven it is directly the reverse of what it is on earth; for there, by length of time things become more and more youthful, that is more vigorous, active, tender, more beautiful. Here we grow old, there as it were we grow young. Here our powers fade, there they increase. Heaven is not a habitation of transparent spirits, it is a city of people, re - made in Gods image for his service.
Now doesnt all of this put our present in some sort of context? What is it we are investing in, putting our energies towards? What really matters? Ten billion years into eternity, how will that new hi-fi or kitchen which at the moment is your pride and joy appear then? After you have been caught up in the great celebration of the wedding feast of the lamb for 25 billion years, what will that struggle you have had as a Christian seem then? Those thoughts of giving up because it is too tough or free wheeling and trying to have the selfish hedonism of this life, spending most of our money on ourselves and throwing a few coppers into the collection plate, playing at being a Christian, how do such thoughts and actions fare in the light of eternity? So let me ask again, what are you living for? This is Gods vision of the future, how about making it ours?
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