New Heavens and a New Earth
17 “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
20 “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; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. 21 They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the Lord, they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
Luke 21: 5-19The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” 7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” 8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.
IntroductionThe Sundays in November immediately preceding Advent share a common theme—that of preparing for the End. Last week we read from Haggai and 2 Thessalonians, hearing the reminder that God’s coming at the End of All Things will shake the nations and bring in God’s reign in all its power and glory.
We said last week that the End is what gives meaning to the present, and that preparing for the End means living rightly in the present. Our texts today have similar themes. Today we build on what we said last week to explore further how we live today, when so much is wrong and God’s presence is so hard to see, given the reality that Jesus is coming again. Life is hard and full of suffering, and many people conclude that God is either not there, or God is a source of pain, not to be trusted.
Some SituationsThe year was 1986. John and Jane were expecting triplets after years of trying for children. The doctor had given Jane pills to release several eggs at one time, and she conceived triplets. Then in May they were born—too early. We learned that there were actually four babies. One was still born, and the second died that first day. I was their pastor, and together we held a brief funeral and committed the small bodies to the earth. A week later the third baby died, and two weeks after that the last baby died also.
What do you say at the committal service, as you lay the body of the last baby in the grave? I had no words then. I have no words now. John and Jane have since had three more children, and they have a good family; but the losses they experienced remain. Jane told us much later that it took her several years to stop being angry with God. I don’t blame her. I thank God she and John have come through that time with their faith in God intact.
We ask, “Why should they experience such loss?” Sometimes we try to the answer the question with logic: “Medical researchers developed the treatment for infertility; they chose to use it. If God had intervened and stopped the natural processes to avoid the tragedy, on what grounds should God intervene? If we believe in human free will, when do we decide that someone should not experience the consequence of their choice?
But the question is not really a plea for understanding. The question is a cry of pain, and a plea for mercy and strength and comfort. We respond not with some attempt to answer the question, but with our presence, grieving and weeping and suffering together.
We need go no further than this year, this month—to the Philippines and Typhoon Haiyan. At last count around 3,600 are known to be dead, with up to 9 million affected by the typhoon (one in 10 of the people in the Philippines). The scale of this catastrophe is almost beyond description, and relief agencies and governments are scrambling to make any appreciable impact on the devastation there.
Again people wonder why this happened. Again we can answer with logic: Perhaps typhoons are more serious now given the problems with overpopulation we are experiencing around the world and given the impact of human activity on the climate. But the questions are not really a search for full understanding. Rather they are our humanity showing through. We cry out in pain together and we weep together. We hurt with the people of the Philippines, and we send what aid we can, because what hurts them hurts us all. And the question of why God allows such things continues to echo in the background as we struggle to deal with the hardships of life.
Our PassagesIsaiah 65 pictures the End of all things as a time when all such hardships are done away with. He does not see the End as something to do with the Second Coming, because he does not have a picture of two comings of the Messiah in his mind. You notice that Isaiah’s language pictures a revived earth, continuous with our own history. As the picture becomes clearer in the NT, we see a return of the Messiah, which brings all things to their conclusion.
In Luke 21 the disciples ask Jesus if the coming of his kingdom is at hand. Jesus replies, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
You heard this same note last week. Paul told the Thessalonians (who thought that the anti-Christ had come) not to let themselves be deceived. We want to jump ahead to the end and skip this life. Jesus tells his disciples “13And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.”
We have a task to do before the End: To witness to Jesus in all that we say and do—in spite of the certainty of suffering that we face; and to stand firm whatever happens to us.
Living with the Pain of TodaySo how do we live today? How do we encounter the kind of loss John and Jane faced? How do we respond when typhoons and other disasters strike? Given what we have been saying, let me suggest some simple steps.
1. The kind of opposition that Jesus describes is unlikely to come our way. We are not likely to be hauled up before the courts of Winnipeg and threatened with death if we maintain our allegiance to Jesus. But we live with constant opposition nonetheless. If you read the comments on news stories on the Internet, you often see such comments as this (in response to CNN’s report on the Typhoon):
"The Biggest Threat to all Religions…………………..Da Truth! Common Denominator between All Religions………..$$$$$$."
"What do you expect from one of the most corrupt/evil organizations that has ever been?"
"Lawyers that are willing to protect pedophiles don't come cheap."
There is a concerted effort by many people—including parts of the media—to picture religion in general as the source of our world’s evil. They would respond to John and Jane by saying, “Abandon religion! There’s nothing good in it!” They respond to the Typhoon with cynicism and abuse. Jesus says in reply: Don’t fight them, and don’t give in to them. Do what is right. Speak what is right. Stand firm!
2. So much for those who have come to hate religion, especially Christianity. But those who love the Lord can be just as bad in their way. Instead of using tragedy as a reason to attack religion, they give consolation too quickly. When Jesus said, “Stand firm”, he did not mean, “Tell people that tragedy doesn’t hurt.” When Isaiah looks forward to the new heavens and earth, he does not mean that present problems are meaningless. The Bible is full of lament that shows us how to grieve; the truth of future good does not simply remove present pain.
So we avoid false sympathy or easy answers. Present pain still hurts, and standing firm does not pretend otherwise. Let me suggest two ways that we stand firm:
· In your own ties of suffering, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Walk all the way through. Don’t try to shortcut the pain that we experience. If you experience the kind of devastating loss brought by the typhoon, the valley of death’s shadow will be long and hard. The experience of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress is evidence of how long and hard the valley is. Walk the whole way through it. There is no other path that comes out the other side.
· When it comes to other people’s times of suffering, walk with them as far as you can. As Paul puts it, “Weep with those who weep. Grieve with those who grieve.” No easy answers. No false sympathy. Simply walk through the valley with those whom we know are there.
I think that you actually know all of this as well as I, perhaps better. My first Sunday preaching here was a Thanksgiving Sunday four years ago. I remember the empty seats in the middle of the sanctuary where people who had been part of one body once sat. The hurt that you felt, and that I shared that morning, was too deep to describe properly. We have experienced healing; but the path through valley of death’s shadow is long and hard.
I could name other experiences from within, but you already know them. We know within ourselves that life can be amazingly hard; and we know that the only way through suffering is the road ahead—to walk one step at a time the path God lays out for us.
3. To repeat the point from last week, we can hope, because we know the End of the story. The End of a story tells us what the beginning and middle mean. When the detective gathers the characters of the story around and identifies the culprit, everything else that happens in the story begins to make sense. As the detective unravels all the different parts of the action, you begin to see how everything fits together.
I need to know the end in order to enjoy the rest of the story, so I read the end of detective stories first—just as I watch the end of movies first. The End tells you what the rest means! When you read Isaiah 65, you see that God’s plan is for our complete health and joy. When you read Luke 21, you see that we have a hard path to walk until the End. These two realities are basic to the way that we read the story of our lives. Seen from one perspective we have the reality of suffering that so distresses us; seen from another perspective God is working out his purposes in our lives and in our world.
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year:God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
March we forth in the strength of God, with the banner of Christ unfurled,That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world:
Fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free,
That earth may filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
A Closing WordI remember once reading a conversation with some African Christians during the apartheid years in South Africa. The White apartheid government appeared to be so strong that the struggle against it was hopeless. The African Christians were asked, “How do you keep on going in the struggle against apartheid?” They replied, “We know that God is good, and we know that apartheid is evil. What is evil cannot last in the presence of God’s eternal goodness, so we know that apartheid will die, no matter how strong it appears.”
They were right. Apartheid is gone, dead, and buried. Injustice still continues in South Africa, and the valley of death’s shadow can be a long walk indeed, but we can walk that valley with courage, experiencing the worst that life can throw against us in this world. Because we know the End of the story. We know that God wins in the End.