Sunday, November 22, 2020

Looking Forward to Heaven

 Isaiah 65:17-25

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing, And her people for gladness.  I will also rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in My people; And there will no longer be heard in her The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.  No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, Or an old man who does not live out his days; For the youth will die at the age of one hundred And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred Shall be thought accursed.  And they shall build houses and inhabit them; They shall also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build, and another inhabit, They shall not plant, and another eat; For as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, And My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, Or bear children for calamity; For they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD, And their descendants with them.  It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain," says the LORD.

Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year              11/22/20

Looking Forward to Heaven

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

How would you describe the color of the sunset to a man born blind?  How would describe the delight of your favorite piece of music to a person who was deaf from birth?  The challenge in either situation is that the words we might choose to convey a concept would have no meaning.  Our references would have no correlation in the experience of the person to whom we are speaking.  Without vision, color is a meaningless word.  Blue is not cool, or berry flavored.  It is blue - but if someone has never seen anything, and has no experience of color, the words we could use to describe the sunset or even just the single color of "blue" would be as empty of meaning to them as the incoherent babbling of an infant is to us.

That little exercise in imagination was to help you understand the difficulty confronting the Prophet as he tries to put into words the heavenly realities pictured for us in our text.  Now, Isaiah had help, great help.  God was inspiring him.  Still, the task exceeds the power of language to accomplish with any clarity.  God is describing heaven here, but He must use symbols and images that we can understand to describe a place that is largely unlike anything we have ever experienced.  This morning, through the words of Isaiah, and along with him, we will be looking forward to heaven.

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year, and so we are looking forward to the end of the world.  The odd thing about such forward glances, is that we are living at the very end of the world, so some of what the text describes is already, and some of it is not yet, because it looks past the end of this world and into the next.

It gets more difficult than that – and more delightful.  Most of what our text says applies both now and in heaven, after the end of the world and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.  What we discover, as we consider the Word of God, is that we are in heaven already!  It just doesn't feel like heaven, does it?  Nor does it look like heaven.  It looks like Minnesota.   But right now, for us, heaven is not a geographical place, entirely.  Heaven is where God is, and where His people are, and where His Word is preached and the heavenly gifts of God are handed out – gifts like Holy Baptism, the Holy Absolution, and the Lord's Supper.  So, heaven is in the Church.

Look closely at the text.  God talks about rejoicing in Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem He rejoices in is the Church.  We who believe in Him, we are what God rejoices in.  He doesn't rejoice in our sins and our quarrels.  He rejoices in our faith, and in our belonging to Him.  He rejoices in His people that they can and do accomplish holy deeds, and work the works which He has planned for us.  They shall not labor in vain, He says.  That is just like the promise He speaks about His Word, which He promises will accomplish what He spoke it to do!

He also has a wonderful promise here about prayer. "It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear."  This promise is for us, right here and right now.  God will answer prayer.  He will answer according to His wisdom - and power - and our need – so that we may pray, and God will answer even as we pray, and may begin to answer even before the words are out of our mouths.

The reason that it is hard to distinguish between heaven to come and heaven right now is that the death and resurrection of Jesus changed everything!  The old world ended and a new one began on that day.  Our sins were forgiven, and the Law of God was fulfilled for us.  Now the question of salvation, of where we will spend eternity, does not rest in our behavior, or on our accomplishing a standard of righteousness, or our repaying God for our sins, as in penance.  It is the gift of God, according to Ephesians 2:8.

Now God deals with us differently.  Jesus said it would be so; "Truly, truly, I say to you, if you shall ask the Father for anything, He will give it to you in My name.  Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.  In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father."

Now God is dealing with us as special because we are His people through Jesus Christ.  He is blessing us, and He is guiding us, and He is using us to accomplish His work here on earth.  He favors us because we are His.  He loves us because we believe in Him and in His Son.  So, all of these promises of blessing are true right now to one degree or another.  This is heaven - particularly here, and now, in the fellowship of the saints, gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive His gifts!

Of course, then there is Heaven -- the one that is a geographical place.  This passage also points our hearts and minds forward to that new world which will follow this one, when Jesus returns.  God is urging us to expect that day soon, just as He does through the Gospel parable of the Ten Virgins awaiting the Bridegroom, and as He does in the Epistle, in which Paul warns us to be on the lookout for that day, which is coming like a thief in the night!  We are to be looking forward to heaven.

It is in describing the realities of the coming age that Isaiah needs all of the pictures, and none of them do it justice.  First, God tells us that there will be a new place.  It will be a planet, and a universe - new heavens and a new earth.  When it comes, the sorrows and the troubles of the past will be forgotten.  Those who wonder how they will feel about their family and friends who do not join them in heaven can find comfort here – "the former things will not be remembered or come to mind."  We will not know, nor sorrow.  All of God's people will be there, and it will be right and seem right to us.

All of the language about the youth dying at the age of one hundred and such is just a way of describing the incredible length of life in eternity with God.  What they called youth, we call teenagers.  The prophet is picturing life so long that living what seemed to be almost unimaginably long in their time was just a short life.  That's talking about eternal life when you begin to sing "We've only just begun to live" at one hundred years of age.

The promise is that in this new earth, "There will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying."  There will be no sorrow.  The New Jerusalem is for rejoicing!  Infant mortality will be gone.  I don't know if there will be any child-bearing in heaven.  The Bible is silent about that.  But in this world, babies dying is a major cause of pain and sorrow – and it won't happen there.  Nothing will make us cry.  Nothing will interrupt our joy!

It sounds like this "new heavens and new earth" will be a place of productive labor.  We won't just sit around on clouds, strumming harps.  We won't be laying on cushions and eating delicacies all of the time.  We will be doing stuff.  God created us to participate in His creation, to manage and to develop and to garden and to shepherd and to build.  So, I suspect we will be doing so there.  Our text says so.  "And they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build, and another inhabit, they shall not plant, and another eat; for as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, and My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands.  They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD, and their descendants with them."

This is where the prophecy gets tricky.  How much of this stuff is picture language, and how much is just what it seems?  It seems we will build.   It is clear that there will be no war, no stealing.  The evils that befall men in this world will not be there.  In these verses, we are reminded again of the long life of the people of God who will be there.  You will outlive the oldest and longest-lived trees.  You will wear out the things you make - buildings and such.  And in heaven, I doubt that planned obsolescence will be part of the manufacturing strategy.  Some of the promises speak of descendants and offspring.  I am uncertain if there will be children born in heaven.  In the resurrection, Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:30, there is no marrying or giving in marriage, but [that we] are like the angels in heaven.  So, when the prophet writes about our descendants and offspring, he may be writing about those we have here, who follow us there.

In any case, it is a good place to go - and a wonderful promise.  A promise of immediate communication with God.  He will hear and answer our prayers there, too, only more immediately and more readily perceived by us there than here.  And peace shall be the rule.  Even the creatures of the wild will be calmed, and there will be no violence or death.  Lions will eat hay like cattle.  Wolves will graze next to rather than upon the lambs.  The powerful will not hurt or take advantage of the helpless.  The serpent will be no danger to anything anywhere.  The Serpent also points our minds to the great serpent, Satan.  He will be of no danger to anyone either.

Of course, we know that already.  He has been destroyed, robbed of all his power already by Jesus.  All of these wonderful promises, eternal life and happiness and peace, and joy and contentment, all of these promises are because of the cross of Jesus and guaranteed to us by Him.  He has won the battle.  He has paid the price!  He has done all that needed to be done, and made us His people, and pours out all of these riches for us.  Your sins, whatever they may be, are forgiven.  That doesn't mean that they were okay, or inconsequential.  It means that Jesus has been punished for them already so that you don't have to be.  "."  That's how Jesus put it to the woman caught in adultery.  It is the faithful response to hearing the Gospel, that your sins have been forgiven.

Because of the cross, you have been cleansed of guilt and sin by Jesus.  He has made you to be one of His holy people.  He makes these promises and tells you what lies ahead so that you will be always looking forward to heaven.  It is not an "iffy" proposition.  It is a sure thing for all those who trust in Jesus Christ.  They are the ones referred to in our text, this morning, as "My people" and "those blessed by the Lord."  You, you are the people God meant in this text, who he calls "My chosen ones."

These promises, Old Testament and New are for you.  They are not for you exclusively, but for all of those who call upon the name of the Lord with faith.  They are repeated so frequently in the Bible so that you will know that God has not forgotten, and that the promises are real, legit, valid, and that God will do them.  God knows that life is hard and that we walk by faith, and not by how things seem.  That is what faith is about, and, frankly, life hurts often.  God wants us to know what good things He has prepared for us so that we do not lose heart, and so that we are always looking forward to heaven.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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