Sunday, November 20, 2005

Isaiah 65:17-25 - “You’re Not Going to Heaven”

Sunday of the Fulfillment (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, November 19, and Sunday, November 20, 2005

“I’m But a Stranger Here” (altered)

I’m but a stranger here, The new earth is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, The new earth is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand Round me on ev’ry hand;
The new earth is my fatherland, The new earth is my home.

What though the tempest rage, The new earth is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage, The new earth is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last, The new earth is my home.

Therefore I murmur not, The new earth is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot, The new earth is my home;
And I shall surely stand There at my Lord’s right hand.
The new earth is my fatherland, The new earth is my home.

I changed the words of that hymn, because you’re not going to heaven. The traditional words say, “I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home,” but heaven isn’t going to be your home.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m damning you to hell. Instead, what I want you to understand from our time together looking at God’s Word today is that we’re going to live on a new earth for eternity. In Isaiah, we heard God say, “I will create a new heavens and a new earth.” We heard Peter say, “We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

This is the way that the Bible talks about eternal life, life after death. It says that Christ will come back, this world will be destroyed, and there will be new heavens and a new earth. What does that mean for us for eternal life? I thought we always talked about going to heaven when we die. And yet, you look at this phrase that Isaiah uses and Peter uses and St. John uses in Revelation, you look at the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” and maybe we’ve missed something along the way about what eternal life means. We’re not going to heaven; we’re going to live on the new earth.

I know this is probably sounding strange to many of you. We’ve always said that we’re going to heaven. Even our hymns talk about going to heaven. But think about it this way: there’s heavens and an earth right now. Where do we live? Earth. So if for eternity God is making new heavens and a new earth, where do you think He’s planning on us living? Earth.

God created people to have physical bodies to live on a physical Earth. Adam and Eve were living in God’s paradise in the Garden of Eden until they sinned and corrupted God’s world. When we find out that God wants to save us from sin, wants to forgive us through Jesus Christ, wants to take us to live with Him for eternal life, it’s the hope of God to restore Creation, to return to His original plan, to have us live in paradise for eternity just like He started with Adam and Eve, to have us live forever in a beautiful, physical Earth, with beautiful, physical bodies. So when God says in Isaiah, “I will create new heavens and a new earth,” His vision for eternity is that we’ll be living on that new earth.

This is tough sometimes to realize. I know that until one of my professors, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, pointed this out that I didn’t think about eternal life in this way. (see Gibbs’ article) I’m just like you. I’ve spent my days in the church hearing about heaven, the pearly gates, hanging out with the angels. I’m just like you, and I’ve seen all of the pictures in art and movies about clouds, harps, and floating around in white robes.

Yet, you see that’s only a part of the truth. The Bible does talk about us being with Jesus when we die, our loved ones who died in the faith are with Jesus now, their souls being comforted. I think this is where we get the idea of living in heaven, of having an existence that’s bodiless, our souls with God. It’s what theologians call the interim state. Interim means temporary, in between, not final. And that’s my point, when we focus our attention on being in heaven with Jesus, we’re focusing on a temporary thing, a teaching that’s only a small part of what the Bible teaches about eternal life.

In fact, one of the places in Scripture that we see a description of the souls in heaven with God is in Revelation. There John sees a vision of the souls of the Christians who have died, they’re at the altar of God in heaven. However, what are the souls of the Christians who died doing? They are crying out, “How long, O Lord, until You judge the people of the earth?” In other words, the souls who are in heaven are still waiting for Jesus to return to bring an end to the world. The souls are waiting for Jesus to raise the dead and create a new earth. The souls are in heaven, but they aren’t home yet. That’s why I changed that hymn we sang, because the souls in heaven are still waiting. Heaven isn’t their home. The new earth will be their home; the new earth will be our home.

We confess this every week in the Creeds. We say we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Our hope for eternal life isn’t just about our souls going to heaven. Our hope is for our bodies to be raised along with our souls to live forever on a new earth, and God will be with us.

It’s not that we’ve been believing false doctrine. Like I said, it is true that the Christians who die, their souls are with Jesus, comforted by Him. It is true to say that those who die are in heaven with Jesus. So it’s not a false doctrine, but it’s not the whole truth. When we focus on “dying and going to heaven,” we’re missing out on the fullness of God’s promise.

When I heard my professor talking about this, I think it got my attention, because I have to admit that sometimes I felt like heaven was going to be boring. I don’t really like the idea of floating around in the sky on a cloud. I don’t want to play in the angel band, because they only had harps and not electric guitars. I don’t want to be an angel, because I think being a human is pretty cool. An eternal life without a body and without a physical world sounded. . .boring.

And then when I heard my professor say that we’ve been forgetting that the Bible teaches that we’re going to live on the new earth, that our bodies will be raised from the dead, that eternal life is a physical life, I realized that’s why I thought heaven sounded boring. That idea of floating around in the sky isn’t what we were created to do and that’s not what we’ll be recreated, resurrected to do. We’re not going to be angels; God made us to be humans. He’s going to renew us, glorify our bodies, make us to be the best humans, better than we can imagine. It won’t be just about playing harps. Adam and Eve were hanging out with the animals, taking care of the garden, taking walks with God, and there’s going to be all of that and more in the new earth.

Next week begins the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Advent is a time of remembering how the world waited for Jesus to come, for Jesus to become flesh and blood, for Jesus to come and live on this world as both God and man. Yet, as Pastor Miller was pointing out to me while we were discussing this idea of the new earth, we spend Advent talking about Jesus becoming flesh and blood, but then we talk about it as if Jesus became a man so that we could just go to heaven. We talk about it as if the soul is the only important part, that the spiritual is the ultimate, when really everything about Jesus being born, everything about how God chooses to save us shows that God highly values the physical world as well. We are both—spiritual and physical. Advent is about God coming into our physical world to save us both in spirit and body.

Now what’s that new earth going to be like, what’s our physical, eternal life going to be like? The reading from Isaiah tries to explain something that we can’t really understand. God uses figurative language to describe the new earth. He says, “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.” The New Jerusalem is an image that is often used in the Bible to talk about the new earth. Jerusalem was the center of the worship of God in the Old Testament and makes a natural image for the new earth which will be centered on God. And unlike the days of Isaiah, and unlike our days, we will no longer weep or cry.

When Isaiah was prophet, the people were being threatened by enemies who were going to take over their nation, and so they were living in a time of fear. God gives them a vision of the future, “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; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” God goes on to talk about building houses and bearing children. It’s a confusing passage, because there won’t be death in eternity. Jesus said we won’t be married, so it doesn’t seem that there would be people having children in eternity either. So what’s this passage mean?

Well, first of all, the message that came through Isaiah has two purposes. First, it is a prophecy that tells the people that even though they will be taken into exile by the Babylonians, they will eventually return to Jerusalem and it will be better than ever. The prophecy is about the next 70 years.

Secondly, though, the prophecy is a figurative image to describe eternal life. The change that was going to come for Jerusalem in the next 70 years, the change from a land of fear that had little future and many threats, that was going to change to a land of prosperity and security. That is a metaphor for the kind of change that will happen for us in eternity. We will go from this world of fear, death, and sin, to a world of eternal security, hope, prosperity, and love. It doesn’t mean that there will be death or people giving birth. It’s a comparison between this life and the next life. It’s a comparison between something we can understand—a land under attack becoming a strong, safe land—compared to something that’s harder to understand—eternal life with God.

Kind of like how we’d say that for the people in Isaiah’s time getting back to Jerusalem wasn’t the most important hope for their lives, that it was more important to have the hope of being with God forever, so, too, I’d say that according to the Bible, dying and going to heaven isn’t the most important hope for your life. That’s a temporary stop, and I don’t want you to focus on something that’s temporary. I want you to focus on the true hope, the hope that God speaks about in Isaiah, the hope that Peter mentions, the hope of the new earth. That will be our home, and that’s why I changed that hymn today.

The Church Year is the way we set aside different readings and have a different focus for each Sunday. This is the last Sunday of the Church Year, and the end of the Church Year always focuses on the end of the world. I didn’t say it focused on death. Many of us, if not all, may die an earthly death before Jesus returns to bring an end to this world, but our earthly death is not our focus here at the end of the Church Year. Our focus is on Jesus returning, Jesus raising us from the dead, Jesus taking to live in the new earth forever.

Because we know this promise, the end of the Church Year and talking about the end of the world helps us to realize how important it is to share the message of Christ with others. We don’t tell people about Jesus just so that they can go to heaven when they die. We want people to know about forgiveness through Jesus so that they can live on the new earth for eternity. That’s our ultimate hope; that’s what God has in mind for us; that’s where He wants to take all people. So we go out into our families, friends, community, and the world to tell people about Jesus, so that when He comes back, Jesus will raise them from the dead, too.

So you might get someone pretty curious if you tell them that today’s sermon was called “You’re Not Going to Heaven.” You might just get someone asking about what happens when we die, what eternal life will be like, and how do we know that we’ll have life after death. You can tell them, “You’re not going to heaven—at least, not permanently. God’s really going to take you to live in a new earth, a beautiful, wonderful, physical world, where you will have a beautiful, wonderful, physical body, and you will live there with Him forever in peace, truth, and love.”

If you’ve found today’s message challenging, I’m going to have a little ask the Pastor session right after the service. If you’d like to stay for 10 minutes or so to talk, at the end of the service, please come to the front rows rather than exiting the sanctuary.

Now, let us confess our common Christian faith, including our faith in the resurrection of the body, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.