The Resurrection of our Lord • Isaiah 65:17–25 • April 4, 2010
by Robert Rosin
That this Old Testament lesson would raise eyebrows if not draw sarcasm from some hearers is understandable. Our culture seems to be built on so much hype that never materializes, promising the moon but failing to deliver. A televised sports contest is the biggest game of the year (make that the decade), at least until next week’s. Product advertising suggests wealth, fame, and popularity are ours when we buy what they just happen to be selling. With twenty-four-hour news, networks need programming to keep viewers (to sell product advertising!), so the slightest bump in life gets blanket coverage with inconsequentials repeated ad nauseam. And politicians, well, one wonders how they could take themselves seriously were they to listen to their utopian promises. But the public demands it: security from cradle to grave. Contrast that with Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment that “democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.” And now comes Isaiah with talk of a new heaven and a new earth and all that goes with that. No wonder people are dubious. Comedian Woody Allen’s garbled allusion—the lion [sic] will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb is not going to get a lot of sleep—draws chuckles when he delivers the line because in our world, the image seems ridiculous. We know better. We’ve heard it all before. But God and God’s prophet Isaiah are dead serious.
Roots of this doubt and skepticism run deep. Proponents of the “Enlightenment project” marginalized God as the absent clockmaker, even as they claimed the ability to control and build what historian Carl Becker once called the “Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.” Although those critics of Christianity denied the source for their inspiration, their goal of an enlightened world would not have been possible without that biblical vision of the new heaven and new earth that they actively rejected, even as they tried to build an imitation of it here and now. Today we are more sophisticated or slick in how we package both the effort and the end, but so many glowing promises are still fundamentally on that same path. And they all suffer from the same fatal flaw in both method and implementation: here are creatures trying to reconstruct creation. We are hopelessly outclassed and doomed to fail. On the contrary, it takes a Creator to do this job, a God who is above and beyond the mess. Creatures are out of their league.
Acknowledging both the misguided plans and the incapable efforts is already a step forward, but it is only an admission of failure, a sign that the Law has done its work. That is all implicitly in the text, a dismal but realistic take on who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going—or not. But the explicit message is the polar opposite: never mind the failures, for God will set things right and will make all things—the heavens and earth—new. Here is the promise of success beyond our wildest dreams.
The promises are to Israel in captivity, but clearly stretch not just to, but beyond, any return. Israel should not be so foolish as to think a return to the homeland will end all troubles. This fulfillment is assured by the Messiah’s coming and success. It is difficult to imagine such a radical change given all Israel has been through, but the prophet does not leave things in the abstract. Concrete images make the point that this will be change for good, change forever. So, for example, houses are built to be lived in for generations, not taken over by conquerors. Vineyards and trees take time to develop, but no worries: there will be time and then some. Here is security. The uncertainty, the danger, the risk, and the terror of life are gone.
The picture is mind-boggling, impossible in the end to comprehend. We try to imagine it and try to describe what will be. But we rely on something concrete and certain: our identity. Isaiah reminded Israel that God heard and responded before they ever asked, and God spoke of them as “my people,” reason enough to hold fast no matter what. The same for us: God chose us and says we are his people by virtue of his grace, declared and seen in action at the baptismal font with no let-up since. Stability, security, and certainty are found in the promise of salvation linked to Christ’s name.
The cacophony of hype and overblown promises from so many quarters is not likely to end anytime soon, as our senses and common sense remain under assault. But today’s text invites us to cut through the din and fog to look ahead to a radical change God will finish in the eschaton, a change he has, in fact, begun making in and with each of us now.
The New Heaven and New Earth for Sure, for Us
I. The problems of the old
A. Israel’s world: the failings and problems; misplaced hopes
B. Our world: the failings and problems; futile promises and misplaced hopes
II. God’s solution with the new
A. Israel’s prospects: concrete images rest on God’s grace
B. Our prospects: concrete hope based on concrete promise