Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Last Sunday of the Church Year (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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Last Sunday of the Church Year is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixty-fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, years ago I was told a story (and despite numerous Google searches this week, I was unable to verify it), a story about a stone church in Europe. Right outside the walls of this ancient church was a massive rock, a rock that was slowly sinking into the soft earth. Year by year, the rock, as it sank and shifted, moved closer and closer to the wall of the church. Now, I was told that a legend had grown up about this church and this rock, a prophecy of sorts, that when the rock finally touched the wall of the church, the trumpet would sound and Christ would return. When this story was told to me years ago, I heard that to this day, you can see this church and the rock that was the ‘countdown clock’ for the Last Day. The rock still has not touched the wall of that church, and if you look closely, you can see why. It’s covered with chisel marks; every time the rock came close to touching the wall, the faithful would, almost in a panic, attack the rock, chiseling it away, making sure that Christ would delay just a little longer. It seems that they were not quite so eager for the Last Day to come, for the graves to open, for Jesus to come back.

The second to last verse of the Bible gives us what should be the cry of the Church in all ages: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” If this story is true, then the cry of the faithful in that village was quite different: “Amen. Delay, Lord Jesus!” Delay, Lord Jesus, just a little while longer! I have children to raise, I have money to make, I’m planning retirement, I have this, that, or the other thing to accomplish, I’m not ready for you to return quite yet! Delay, Lord Jesus, give me some time to indulge my pleasures, to sin a little more, to take in all this world has to offer. God declares in our text: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” The former things will pass away, we are told, and that is what scares us, because the former things are what we know, what we enjoy, what we cling to. Ask a couple on the night before their wedding if they are praying with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Ask a football player the morning of the Super Bowl. Ask a businessman the day he is to take over a company. Ask yourself before a long-awaited vacation, before you graduate high school (or college), before you are planning to enjoy any of the pleasures of this world: are you praying, “Come, Lord Jesus”?

We all have reasons that we want Christ to delay, just a bit longer, we all have our hammers and chisels sitting on the shelf, ready to go. We find it hard to pray, “Amen. Come Lord Jesus,” because deep down, we’re comfortable with life in this world and we aren’t too sure about what is to come; our typical idea of heaven doesn’t entice us. We have no experience of life without sin, the unknown makes us nervous, and (you know this is true), we like having the ability to sin. One of Satan’s tricks is to convince us to cling to the things of this world, to even desire them above the eternal gifts God wants to give to all the saints. But dear friends, this world is not worth clinging to! There is nothing that this world can offer that is worth ever saying, “Amen. Delay, Lord Jesus!”

What this world has to offer you is sorrow, mourning, sadness. Certainly, there are joys and pleasures in this life, and we receive them as gifts of God, but so often they are tainted by sin; indeed, this world seems to be of the opinion that only through sin can we have any pleasure or joy. Just listen to most comedians or watch the soft pornography that passes for primetime television today. Such joy and pleasure leaves you empty, instead of filling you up, the pleasures of sin make you hollow. And that’s what the world passes off as joy; what it gives you more often is the sadness and grief of broken relationships, of conflict; what it offers is the devastation of depression.

The world can only give you sorrow; Christ comes to bring joy, to make you joy incarnate, joy enfleshed. “Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” The joys that we have in this life are glimpses of the joy that is to come, for God declares that His new creation will be characterized by unbridled, undiluted joy, the joy of the resurrection, the joy of Christ’s victory over sin and death, a joy not tainted by sin, not corrupted by any kind of sorrow or sadness. There will be no depression, no sadness at all in God’s new creation. Sorrow will be replaced by joy.

For there can be no sorrow in a place with no death. But all this world has to offer you is death. No matter what pleasures it can give you, no matter how comfortable life can be, we all have the same destination, and the world can give you no escape. We keep building more (and bigger) hospitals, clinics and surgical centers are everywhere, but we continue to fight a losing battle with death. As much as we modernize, we still fear deadly diseases, and we all dread that six-letter word: cancer. Every day that this world endures is another day for children to die, for people to be diagnosed with terrible diseases. This world is the domain of death, where death rules and always has the last word.

But the new heavens and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, is a place where death will no longer reign, where its domination over all things will come to an end. “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” Now, God isn’t saying that people will die in the new creation, or that the wicked will dwell there, but He is describing His new creation by these illustrations to make this point: death will have no more grip on us there. Jesus Christ rose from the dead to put an end to death, to destroy death forever. What the world cannot do through bigger and better hospitals, through more advanced technology, Jesus did by dying. He died bearing our sin and He rose victorious over our enemies: sin, death, and Satan. He rose to establish a place where death is replaced with life.

If death is the destination that this world offers, the path to get there is paved with deprivation and want. There are some in this world who don’t have to watch their budget, who aren’t worried about how they will afford groceries for the month, who haven’t had to tighten their belt over the past few years. Yes, there are some. But for most people, want is the order of the day, whether on a small scale or a large scale. Millions in our country are out of work, millions are struggling to pay the rent, millions are dependent on food banks and other assistance. In this world, the works of our hands fail us; crops won’t grow, or are destroyed by numerous dangers, prices go up and wages go down.

When Jesus walked this earth, two of His greatest miracles involved the multiplication of food: the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. He did this to point to an eternity where scarcity and want will be no more. “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them.” No more scarcity, no more want; Jesus has replaced deprivation with abundance, and we will live secure.

Security is not something that we often have in this world of violence and conflict. In our country, in our city, we may be more secure than many (perhaps most) other places around the world, but we still fear. We fear crime, we fear violence, we fear terrorism. Christians fear persecution all around the world. Conflict characterizes our existence in this world: conflict between family members, conflict between groups in our country, conflict between nations. There is no peace, and there never has been, since Cain killed Abel, in a world at war with God and at war with each other.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples on Easter evening, He had a simple message for them: “Peace be with you!” Peace was the result of His resurrection: peace between God and man, peace between you and your Creator. And that peace will fill the new creation, it will permeate our existence there: “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The conflict will be over—forever. The peace that we have with God through the blood of Jesus Christ means a new creation at peace, it means people at peace; no more violence, only peace.

Leave your chisels on the shelf, dear friends, as if you could delay the return of Jesus anyway. Do not pray, ‘Delay, Lord Jesus,’ but rejoice to cry out, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Come quickly to deliver us, to save us from sorrow and death, from deprivation and violence. Come quickly to reverse the curse, to replace mourning with rejoicing, death with life, want with abundance and violence with peace. Come quickly to deliver us from evil, to bring us all that you won through your death and resurrection for our sake. And we know that Christ will hear our cry, though the timeline is in His hands, for He has promised us, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” Christ will hear, and Christ will come, just as He has promised: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” To which the Church replies: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

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