Sunday, November 20, 2016
Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year - Isa 65:17-25
How old do you expect to become? How long do you think your life will be? Social Security says that if you are 65 years old today, you can expect to live to 84.3 years if you are man and 86.6 years if you are a woman. Life expectancy in general in our country is about 75 years if you are a man and 80 years if you are a woman.
Lord willing, I am expecting to have a long life. My Grandma Stahlke lived to be 99. My Grandma Surburg lived to be 97. Grandpa Surburg died when he was 92. Only my Grandpa Stahlke died in his early 80’s after having a stroke, and Amy tells me that if the same event happened today, the outcome would have been quite different because of advances in medicine.
You can appreciate the blessings we have when you consider that life expectancy in other parts of the world: in Sierra Leone it is 50.1 years; in Angola it is 52.4; in Chad it is 53.1. Great advances have occurred in our own country. In 1935 the life expectancy for a man was 59.9 years and for a woman was 63.9 years. Needless to say, Social Security’s retirement age of 65 meant that it was not intended to support people for two decades or more.
In the ancient world, life expectancy was much lower. Infant and child mortality was extremely high. Up to half of all children died before the age of 10. For this reason, in ancient Egypt the average life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years. If you could make it past age ten, you had a good chance of reaching your thirties, but few people lived beyond 40. By the time of the first century A.D. in the Roman empire the life expectancy was 35. If you lived past age ten, you had decent change of living into your fifties.
It is this background that helps us to understand Isaiah’s words in our text today when he says, “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.” In poetic language the prophet describes a future that is not even something we experience. For the person living in the eighth century B.C. it was unimaginable. Today is the Last Day of the Church Year. The end of the Church Year focuses our attention on the end. It holds before us the return of Jesus Christ and the Last Day. Yet to think about the end is really to think about the beginning. It is to think about the beginning of the salvation that God has promised. In the description of that final salvation we find an incredible contrast with what we now experience. And when we consider how great this difference is, we can begin to understand the magnitude of Jesus Christ’ saving work.
Yahweh declares at the beginning of our text, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” He describes something new in the future. And by the time the readers of Isaiah have reached this point, we know why something new is needed. It is needed because of sin.
In his prophecy, Isaiah has dealt with sin and the ways that it has perverted Israel, Judah and all the nations. Certainly he addresses a variety of sins. But the one that comes to the fore again and again is idolatry. The people of God have put other gods first. Yahweh complains,” I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks; who sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat pig's flesh, and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels.”
We find a description here that certainly sounds religious. It’s about involvement in the paganism of the Near Eastern world during the eighth century B.C. And that makes it sound very strange and far removed from us. But the thing to recognize is that the practices of paganism were what everyone else was doing. It was God’s people who didn’t fit in – who did things in a way that was different. To turn away from Yahweh was to fit in with the world. And that should sound very familiar. For whether it is a fixation on wealth and all the bells and whistles that go with it, or the priority we give to other activities over receiving God’s Word, or the use of pornography, or taking God’s name in vain, they are always things that everyone else is doing; they are things that fit in with the world.
In the second half of the book, Isaiah has described how the Servant of the Lord will address sin. In some of the most important words written in Scripture we are told about Him: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” We learn that God will act in the Servant of the Lord to take away sin – to provide forgiveness.
Yet God’s answer will do more than just give us forgiveness as we stumble in sin. It will fundamentally change existence in this world. And in the first half of the book we learn that he will accomplish this through the Messiah descended from King David. In Isaiah 11 we learn that God will put his Spirit upon him. We are told about the Messiah, “And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
In this New Testament era, we understand the good news that Jesus the Christ is both of these. Designated as the suffering Servant of the Lord at his baptism he suffered and died for sin in our place. Yet Jesus is also the Messiah – the Christ, anointed with the Spirit at that same baptism. He is the One who began the Last Days in his resurrection from the dead. He is the One who brings the peace Isaiah describes.
In Christ we already have forgiveness and peace. St. Paul told the Romans, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Through faith in the crucified and risen Lord we know that we are already justified. This means that we already know of the verdict of the Last Day when we will stand before the judgment seat of God. It is: Innocent, not guilty. Those in Christ through baptism and faith already have peace with God – a peace which carries though the Last Day and into eternity.
But it takes just a moment to glance around at our lives and world and recognize that we do not yet have peace in every part of our lives. Forgiven, yes – but sin and its consequences continue to be present for us. And that is the reason we look towards the return of Jesus Christ in hope.
Hope is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Hope gives people the ability press on the in the face of great challenges. The hope that we have as Christians is the future that Isaiah sets before us in our text. He says, “But 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.”
God describes the future of his people which is now the Church and includes Jew and Gentile. And the note that rings out is joy and gladness! God’s people rejoice and are glad in the salvation God has provided, and God rejoice and is glad in his people. What is absent is weeping and the cry of distress.
And why would there be? Isaiah describes a future of long and blessed life. He describes something that exceeded anything that a person in the ancient world could imagine. And of course, because of God’s revelation in other parts of Scripture we know that this life has no end – it will be eternal life in God’s new creation. It will be eternal life with God, and as he says in our text, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.”
This future – this hope that we have in Christ – is summarized in the last verse of our text where we hear: “‘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.” This is a description of the salvation and peace that Jesus Christ will bring in the new creation – a creation renewed and freed from sin and its consequences.
It is a future in which creation itself will once again be at peace with itself and with man. It is a future in which the evil serpent – the devil – has been defeated and never again poses a threat to God’s people. It is the future that has been guaranteed to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And so we press on in faith. We press on because of the hope we have in Christ. We press on in the confidence that the Lord who has defeated death is still with us, strengthening us in faith and guarding us in his salvation through his Means of Grace. We press on in faith that our Lord will return just as he has promised. We press on in the hope of the future that God will give us. And so we pray in faith, “Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus!”