Last Sunday in the Church Year Sermon| Rolf D. Preus| November 25, 2001| Isaiah 65:17-19
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people; the voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying.”
The world in which we live can be breathtakingly beautiful. Think of the sun dog gleaming on the gentle hills and valleys of drifted snow against the dark green pines with the pale blue sky overhead. Now that is beautiful! And it is quite likely that not long before this sight appeared, a deadly blizzard was raging threatening the lives of every creature unfortunate enough to be out of doors. We learn both to love and to fear what we call “nature.”
But there is something very unnatural about calling it “nature.” There really is no such thing. There’s the sky, the earth, the trees, lakes, and rivers, and the weather and seasons. There are all of these things and many more. But they don’t think or act or do as if they are persons with a mind or will. Rather, they are all under the control of their Creator. The first words of the Holy Scriptures are: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is, he called it all into being and so it was. He didn’t take what was there and rearrange it in some way. No, he created everything out of nothing. And he has never let go of his creation. It’s not as if he made it and walked away from it to leave it to its own devises. Strictly speaking, the laws of nature are not that at all. That is, there are no laws that nature passes, repeals, or enforces. There is rather God who governs this world as its Creator and Lord. The reason the snow comes and the wind blows is because God chose to do this. The reason the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is because God has so determined it. Mark Twain once quipped, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it!” But God does. God is in charge of this world.
Not only does God direct the movements of the heavenly bodies, the weather, the flights of birds, and every natural thing. God also directs the movements of nations and rulers. He decides who will rise and fall and when. Some folks like to use the word “sovereign” to describe God. That word probably isn’t the best word to use. It comes from the world of politics. Almighty is a better word. God is almighty. God is in charge of this world.
And we wonder at times what in the world he’s doing. We may think ourselves a bit too pious to say so in so many words. After all, we’ve been taught to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We wouldn’t dream of blaming God for bad things that happen. But we often wonder what he has in mind when bad things do happen. There is a conflict that just won’t go away. The conflict is between two things we Christians believe and confess. God is good and God is almighty. The conflict arises often in our hearts and our minds when we see that the good God has permitted some very evil things that we think he should have prevented. Is it that God wants evil to happen? Of course not! Well then, is it that God is powerless over evil to keep it from happening? Of course not! Well then, what is it? This conflict leads some folks to deny God altogether. They become angry with the almighty God who permits evil to prosper and apparently does nothing to stop it. They put God on trial. They try and convict him. Then they smugly go on their way, presuming to believe that they have debunked all this Christian foolishness.
But they are the fools. The Psalmist says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good.” (Psalm 14:1) If there is any conflict between the goodness of God and his almighty power in light of the evil that exists throughout this world, then what must God do to gain the approval of these critics? Why, he must destroy the evil, must he not? But if you ask God to destroy all evil, what are you asking God to do to you? Think carefully before you answer. If God must get rid of all evil in order to pass the test that sinful man imposes on him won’t this require God to destroy sinful mankind once and for all? That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? And it would certainly silence God’s critics!
But the good God who is almighty is also the gracious God who loves sinners. This is why he hasn’t destroyed this world of sinners. As the Gospel Lesson for Thanksgiving puts it, he “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) The good and almighty God will not permit sinful mankind to put him on trial. The God who judges the thoughts and intents of every human heart will not submit to human judgment. He will instead do good things as he has always done. He, who called the world into being out of nothing, will create new heavens and a new earth. Not only will he destroy the evil that distorted, corrupted, and poisoned his good world; he will utterly destroy any memory of evil. As he promised through Isaiah, “The former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” God will create a new world in which there is pure and untarnished joy. There will be nothing to mar this joy or diminish it over time. There will be no injustice of any kind. There will be nothing perverted or cruel. There will be no hatred. There will be no war. There will be nothing to make anyone sad.
How will God do this? In fact, God has already done it. No, I haven’t seen this world and neither have you. We haven’t experienced the pure joy and the life without any memory of sorrow. Still, these words of our text have already been fulfilled: “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy.” All the work required in the creating of the new heavens and the new earth is finished. It was finished when Jesus said, “It is finished.” All the work has been done.
The sorrow of death and failure and all human sin has already been swallowed up. Jesus said so. He told his disciples that his soul was filled with sorrow even to the point of death. He then proceeded to promise his Father that he would do his will. It was the will of our Father in heaven that Jesus drink up all of our sorrow. This is what Jesus did. He had to do it because God had promised it and God cannot lie. It was God, after all, who inspired the words of Isaiah foretelling the crucifixion of God’s eternal Son become flesh: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (Isaiah 53:4) The sorrow has been borne. This is why we can say that the new heavens and the new earth, the world without any pain, suffering, sorrow, guilt, regret, or shame has already been created.
Heaven is not just a wonderful place in which there are no troubles or pain. Heaven is much more than that. It is where Jesus is. Did Jesus not ascend into heaven? Is he not right now at the right hand of God? And isn’t Jesus also with us? Is not the bread of the Lord’s Supper the body of Jesus? And is not the wine of the Lord’s Supper the blood of Jesus? So then, surely Jesus Christ himself – who is even now in heaven – is also here on earth with his church. This means that we are not so far away from heaven. Aren’t the angels who see God’s face also attending to us every day wherever we go? They are in heaven. We are on earth. They are with us.
No, heaven is not so far away.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when a Christian dies in the faith, he must be purified of the sin that remains in him before he can be admitted into heaven. This requires a purging process during which the Christian becomes completely conformed to the love of God. If this purging did not occur, the Christian couldn’t face God. The beatific vision would not bring joy. It would bring pain. And so, the Catholic Church argues, the teaching of purgatory is necessary. We must be ready and prepared to enter into the joys of heaven. And this requires that we be entirely purged of all our sins.
But this doctrine ignores the almighty power of God. Did not God create the original heavens and earth by the almighty power of his word? And did not the eternal Word become incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary? Was he not made man? And did not the Word made flesh take upon himself all our sins and sorrows? Did he not suffer and then rise on the third day? And did not God tell us that for Christ’s sake our sins are forgiven? When God said that, heaven became ours. This is the gospel. The gospel is true. It is the oil that lightens the lamp of faith. It is the foundation of heaven. It is the joy that even today we have, but in heaven will be without any mixture of sorrow.
The Roman Catholic Church, while teaching falsely about purgatory, is entirely correct to teach that no sinner can enjoy the sight of God. But Jesus has taken away our sin and God already rejoices in Jerusalem. Our text says, “I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing and her people a joy.” Yes, it’s true. It’s true right now. God rejoices in his holy Christian Church. It’s not as if we don’t have God’s favor pure and undiluted until we get to heaven. By no means! We have it right now! This is what is means to be forgiven of our sins. It means that we are saints and that is so right now as we sit here in this church building this morning.
You say that sin still clings to your soul? You say you still suffer from temptations to sin and that you succumb to them? You are not satisfied with what God has given you. You hurt your neighbor’s reputation by what you say. You don’t do the work that God put before you to do. You have fallen into sins against marriage, against family, against God and God’s church. You aren’t anywhere near heaven. You aren’t at all ready to go there. You cannot get rid of the sin that clings to you like mud to a wheel. You’re not ready. You still have sins within you that must be purged out of you.
That sin was imputed to Jesus. He became the sinner by imputation. He purged that sin. The purification of your soul was accomplished on Calvary. When Jesus comes to you and makes his home with you, you most certainly are ready for heaven. For heaven has nothing more than what you already have. But it has much less. Namely, any memory of sin and the sorrow it brings.
The joy of heaven is a pure and holy joy that cannot be adequately expressed in any language. God says, “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people; the voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying.” The sorrow is here and now. It is here and now that we struggle between what God says we are and what we feel we are. We feel and we experience and we see sin, death, destruction, betrayal, decay, and every kind of evil. We live with it all around us. We see it within us. It causes us sorrow. The more we want to be like Jesus the more we know we’re not.
But God sees us as we really are. He sees that holy and beautiful church that we can only discern by simple faith in his word. He invites us to look up, beyond the sin and death we see in ourselves, to look up, and see on Calvary the sin washed away forever. As we know full well, we were joined to Calvary when we were baptized and we receive the fruits of Christ’s deep sorrow whenever we hear the gospel and receive Christ’s body and blood. The joy of knowing that we are pure and holy before our God lives within our hearts today along with the sin that still bothers our consciences and leads us to doubt. But one day that joy will be as pure and clear as heaven itself. On that day we will forget every sin we ever committed, even as God already has. Then there will be no more sorrow ever again.