For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the themes of the readings over the past few weeks have been rather repetitive -- if so, well, you’re not wrong! But they’ve been that way on purpose. The season of Advent does has a clear theme, namely, the theme of waiting and preparation. And we see this theme again in our readings today. John the Baptist returns front and center -- only this week from John’s Gospel as opposed to Mark’s account that we had last week -- but we see basically the same message again. According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist “was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light”; his “testimony” that he was not the Christ, but “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” preparing the way for the one who stands among you “whom you do not know” -- the one “who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” As with last week and the week before, waiting and preparation are again the tasks at hand.
But it’s our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah that gives us a vivid glimpse of what it is that we’re waiting for and preparing for; and thus what it is that Advent is for. This season sets ahead of us the Nativity of our Lord that we celebrate at Christmas and the Second Coming of our Lord the final judgment of which we long for even now. But surrounding these two great events -- indeed, what these two events bring along with them -- is the ultimate redemption of all things. Through the voice of Isaiah, God tells his people, “behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” The ultimate promise of God to his people is the recreation of all things: a new heavens and a new earth.
As with the rest of the prophets, Isaiah’s message is rich in its earthly imagery. Even though what he is describing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is an altogether new heavens and earth -- which undoubtedly surpasses our imagination -- Isaiah still pulls together the most vivid images of this present life to hopefully scratch the surface. And he gives us a glimpse of it in the process. Isaiah sees that God will create “Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy,” for God Himself “will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people.” In Isaiah’s eyes, the city of Jerusalem, placed at the center of this new heaven and earth, is full of joy because it is God’s joy and gladness that fills her. And this fullness of the presence of God makes for a life of blessing for all of its inhabitants. Isaiah tells us that “no more shall be heard in [this new Jerusalem] the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” This is a city from which death and all the grief that accompanies it have been banished.
Isaiah then proceeds to another vision, one that’s perhaps more obscure to us, but is nevertheless the one that I want to focus on the most this morning. In the Jerusalem of the new heavens and new earth, we are told that:
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.
What’s going on here, exactly? Well, set aside for a moment the literal sense in which we already build houses and inhabit them just fine, for the most part; just as we plant our vineyards and fields and eat of their harvests. Consider instead how the promise is two-fold: “they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” In this life, there is an ever-present possibility of failure and tragedy that sits between each action. Despite our greatest efforts and most detailed planning, it is never a guarantee that we will achieve our desired ends; it’s not ever a given that we will inhabit our houses just because we build them. Some of you know that during October’s historic ice storm, a giant branch fell on the back of my car while parked in the rector’s spot out there and totaled it -- that wasn’t really in my plans for that week! And then, as if that wasn’t darkly comical enough, two weeks ago, after I had just got a new car to replace the old one, I was side-swiped by a driver in a hit-and-run which explains the battle-hardened vehicle you might have seen this morning. I’ve had two cars recently, but there was no guarantee that I would drive them without any risk of unexpected damage. Just because we build our houses doesn’t mean that we will necessarily inhabit them. So, between planting vineyards and eating their fruits, between building houses and inhabiting them, stands the tragedy of this world that groans to be made new. But the promise of God that is communicated through the Prophet Isaiah today is precisely that this tragedy will one day be removed; that an eternal guarantee will be secured; and thus that the deepest desires of humankind will be fulfilled without any risk of disappointment and failure, for God will preside over a new heavens and new earth in which the joy of his people will continue undisturbed forever.
As of now, of course, we are still in this world that has yet to be redeemed into joy. We do our best to build our houses and plant our vineyards -- a metaphor for all of our pursuits -- but with no guarantee that we will inhabit them or eat of their fruits. Whatever happiness that is possible for us in the here and now is therefore ambiguous. It’s not always clear where our joy is to be found; and even when we think we’ve found some, it’s still possible that we’ve mistaken a counterfeit joy for the real thing. And this presents us with the challenge of the Christian life in the meantime. If we’re not diligent in examining our desires and comparing them to the happiness found in God alone, it is easy to project this counterfeit joy into heaven. That is, it becomes easy to assume that the happiness that we will experience in the new heavens and earth will simply be a more certain version of the happiness we currently experience in the present world of things. And this conveniently releases us from the burdens and responsibilities of holiness -- which is always a temptation since the pursuit of holiness is so difficult. Because, when we think that heaven consists in all the delights of the world minus the risk of disappointment, it turns out that we don’t have to be transformed in order to enter into the joy of this new Jerusalem that Isaiah describes. “For heaven,” says John Henry Newman, “is not a place where many different...pursuits can be carried on at once, as is the case in this world” . He continues that “here every man can do his own pleasure, but there he must do God’s pleasure" . What this means is that the possibility of actually enjoying heaven requires that we begin living our lives according to God’s pleasure even now; that we conform and discipline our own pleasure to that of God. “Because,” to quote Newman again, “heaven is not heaven, is not a place of happiness, except to the holy” . It’s another reminder for Advent: this season bids us to ask ourselves whether our present condition is such that we would actually greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ. To greet the coming of Jesus with joy is to greet it with holiness; it is to encounter the judgment of Christ as one who has already been submitting to that judgment with humility.
To wrap things up with a final return to our reading from Isaiah, I think Isaiah’s use of the metaphors of houses and vineyards reveals an even deeper mystery about the new heavens and new earth. Because the simple fact is that there is no such thing as a truly invincible house or a field that is immune to devastation. Houses and vineyards are material things, and like all material things, they are bound to the laws of this mortal life and thus to decay. So if we take the houses and vineyards of Isaiah’s prophecy today as analogies of the new Jerusalem, then this imagery points us to an ultimate truth about our eternal happiness. To build a house and to inhabit it suggests that the activity of the people of God in heaven will be its own fulfillment. There will be no division between labor and rest, between toil and reward. Rather, because God will be the infinite source of the joy of heaven, all activity done in His presence will be its own delight, because the only activity will be “an endless and uninterrupted worship of the Eternal Father, Son, and Spirit” . It is the worship of God that will fill the new heavens and earth -- where the people of God will “be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create” and when God “will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people.”
Fortunately, we have been welcomed by grace to inhabit another, different kind of house, built by God himself -- a house that is the Body of Christ, the Temple, the Church, of which we are the many members incorporate. And in this house, we are given a foretaste of the fruits of God’s vineyard, the fruits of the very Body and Blood of Christ that we receive in the Sacrament of the altar. This is our worship, and its purpose is to increase in us the joy that will finally be made complete when we all gather on “the holy mountain of the Lord.” And the grace of God is what empowers us even now to live as though we were already there. Amen.
[1-4] John Henry Newman. "Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness." Parochial and Plain Sermons.