Do you ever find yourself fascinated by books, magazines and TV shows that depict the way the other half lives – the rich and famous of our world. If so, you’re not alone. The Queen of Sheba traveled hundreds of miles to visit King Solomon, to test his wisdom and observe his luxurious lifestyle. Many of Jesus’ parables feature a rich man, a wealthy business owner or a king – a common technique to gain and keep an audience’s interest. In the 1980’s and 90’s there was a TV show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in which the host, Robin Leach, offered the audience “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” at the end of each episode. This fascination continues today. Dozens of series on TV show you fabulous houses, incredible vacation homes, and the unbelievable properties, pools, and garages that go along with them. All of these shows are designed to show you how the other half lives and I suppose make you think: “wouldn’t it be great to be that guy, to have that house and that stuff, to live that lifestyle.” Today, through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord reveals to us a lifestyle that we could never imagine, one never depicted on television or magazines. It is the lifestyle of the saints of God: in heaven, triumphant; on earth, militant.
Before we take this description in, we need to understand the nature of Old Testament prophecy. When the Lord gave OT prophets visions of the future, they often did not sharply distinguish between the glory God would give the NT church and the glory God had in store for believers in heaven. To put it another way, the prophets didn’t always clearly distinguish between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd comings. Many misunderstandings and false teachings have spread because this distinction has been overlooked. For example, the belief that we should expect and hope for a literal utopia, or heaven on earth is based on passages like this – but they fail to recognize that Isaiah isn’t describing heaven on earth, but heaven in heaven. It’s almost like the OT prophets were looking to the future with a telescope. They could see a brilliant, beautiful picture of what was to come, but with something so far away, the specific details were not clearly defined for them. In Isaiah’s vision, he first addresses the lifestyle of the saints triumphant in heaven and then the lifestyle of members of the church militant.
Behold, is one of those words in the OT that make you wake up and pay attention. Behold, the Lord says, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 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. This is life in heaven. Who is responsible for creating this new heaven and earth, for bringing about joy and perfection? There is a heresy floating around the Christian church that we are. If we want things to get better, we better roll up our sleeves and get to work. We need to get our faith and families into shape, we need to purify our church, we need to get the 10 commandments back into our schools and courtrooms. And if we can do that, then we will have what Isaiah promises: heaven on earth. Except that’s not what Isaiah says or sees. It’s not our job to create heaven on earth. God says I will create (using the Hebrew word for create and only and always refers to God’s work).
What will this new heaven and new earth look like? Since it will be so unlike anything we have experienced, the Bible, almost as a rule, describes it by what will not be there. In Luke, Jesus revealed that our relationships will be different. Marriage, as an earthly institution, won’t be present in heaven. Won’t we miss it? No, Jesus says, because unlike even the best marriages, our relationship with each other will be perfect in heaven – we will all be God’s children. (Luke 20:36) And, unlike earthly marriage, these perfect relationships will never end in death or divorce. In Revelation, John shows us that in heaven no longer will there be any curse. (Revelation 22:3) In heaven there won’t be any sin or any of sin’s consequences – the curse that Adam and Eve brought into the world will be rolled back by God. Women, no pain in childbirth, no longing for a different role in the home or church. Men, no futility in work, no weeds to pull, no endless “to-do” lists. For all: no tears, pain, sorrow, grief, death, anger, hatred, division, etc. In other words, the things that we simply accept as the reality of the human condition – not only will they not be present, but you won’t even remember them. You won’t remember the grief you felt at the death of a loved one. You won’t remember the sins that haunt you to this day. You won’t feel any guilt or have any regrets.
How is that possible? Because not only will heaven be perfect, but even its people [will be] a joy. Have you ever thought, “you know, life would be great if it weren’t for people.” In heaven, there will be no people there to ruin it, no stubbornness, no pride, no hidden agendas, no secret grudges, no lingering bitterness, no hurt feelings. Now, it’s tempting to think of all the people that we imagine won’t be there to ruin heaven (lawyers, politicians, etc); but a more important question to ponder is: knowing my heart, my thoughts, my tongue, my actions – will I be there? Knowing what I know about myself – how can I possibly be considered a saint of God, worthy of heaven’s lifestyle?
Because, unlike the homes and lifestyles of the rich and famous, heaven doesn’t depend on how hard we work, the lucky breaks we get, how wise we are with our investments, or how many influential people we know. Heaven is a reward – but a reward that was earned for us by someone else – by God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. Paul spells out exactly how worthless sinners like us become saints worthy of a life in paradise: From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14) You and I are saved from the miserable eternity in hell we deserved by the redeeming life and death of Jesus, which we were brought to believe by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. Because Jesus rose victorious, you are victorious. Because Jesus’ holy blood has washed your sins away, you are a saint. No one can buy or work their way into the new heaven and new earth God will create. But our gracious God gives it away for free. Treasure this glimpse of heaven, because this is the lifestyle you will enjoy forever, as Triumphant Saints.
Great! When do we leave? Ah, and here’s the rub. Here is where faith meets reality. Here is the tension between right now and not yet. In heaven we will be Saints Triumphant, there is no doubt about that, it was sealed for sinners by Jesus’ blood on the cross and sealed for each of us through the water of Baptism. But here and now, as long as God keeps this earth going and keeps us on it – God’s saints, the church, are not triumphant, but militant. What does that mean? It means that even though we are already safe and sound in our Father’s care, we must continue to put on the full armor of God as we go out to live in a hostile world. It means that we must have the sword of the Spirit (the Word of God) at our side, polished and ready, to defeat the attacks of Satan. It means – and I know I don’t have to remind you of this – that we still struggle with sin. We still struggle with doubts and worries. We are still plagued by sickness and mourning and death. We don’t have perfect marriages or families or a perfect church and nation. The curse of sin that Adam and Eve introduced into the world still casts its shadow over everything we think, say and do. But that doesn’t mean that the victory Jesus won for us on the cross doesn’t change our lifestyle even now. It does! While we wait for the new creation, we are a new creation.
Beginning in verse 20, Isaiah shifts his sights to the lifestyle we have right now as saints in the church militant. To summarize, the Lord declares that in the New Testament, there won’t be untimely deaths, there won’t be a feeling of futility as we work and build only to leave them to someone else, we won’t have to worry that our children will be born only to suffer some tragedy or catastrophe, and even nature, which also came under God’s curse, will be restored to a state of peace.
Hmm…are we sure Isaiah got this prophecy right? Are we sure we’re getting this interpretation right? This doesn’t seem to describe the lifestyle we are experiencing right now, does it? When we let Scripture interpret Scripture, it becomes clear that this cannot be referring to heaven. First, in verses 20-25, death has not been completely defeated, but is only limited which cannot apply to heaven. Second, babies are born, something that Jesus ruled out in our Gospel lesson with his declaration that marriage will be a thing of the past. And, third, we need to remember the context in which Isaiah and his first readers lived. The Old Testament was not a pleasant time. God regularly punished people harshly and immediately when they sinned against his holy will. When Sodom and Gomorrah condoned and accepted the sin of homosexuality, God burned them to the ground. When the Israelites built and worshipped the golden calf, 3000 of them died the following day. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed Uriah to cover it up, his son died seven days later. So what God is promising in this new age, the age of the NT church, is that he will act differently, more patiently. Certainly we face immediate natural consequences for our sinful actions, but the fact that we are still here, in spite of our sin and rebellion is proof that God is making good on his word. Why? [God] is patient with us and with this world, Peter says, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
The lifestyle we live as saints now is one under the grace and patient care of God. This does not mean that we take advantage of his patience to sin as freely and as often as we want – as many in our world believe. It means that we live as God’s dearly loved children, wanting to obey him in everything, but knowing that when we fail we can come to him in repentance and prayer, trusting his promise: before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. In moments we will take God up on that offer. We will pray forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (and we won’t do it with an arm over our head to shield us from the lightning bolt we deserve). That is what the Lord wants us to realize with these vivid descriptions of life in the NT church. God sent his Son to earth to bring peace, and that’s what we have even in a hostile world. Peace of sins forgiven. Peace that even if untimely death takes us or a believer we love – their suffering is over, they are with Jesus. Peace that even if the building and working we do now seems futile, we aren’t working for ourselves but for God. And peace in knowing that whatever comes, whether good or bad, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28) That is the lifestyle we have right now, as new creations in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17) One day we will see and experience all the glory of life in heaven, but for now, we are militant, we live not by sight, but by faith in our Father’s loving care.
People have always been fascinated with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. TV shows and magazines tempt us to long for champagne wishes and caviar dreams. God doesn’t make promises regarding those things, but what he gives us is infinitely better. He has made us saints, in spite of our sin and against our will, through the blood of Christ. Saints who long for heaven where we will be triumphant and there will be no more death or crying or pain. Saints who live in the church militant here and now. Prepared to do battle with the devil and our own sinful flesh, and ready to do so through the peace with God that is ours right now through faith in Jesus. Until God takes us to his new creation we live as his new creations. This gives us reason to rejoice now and forever. Amen.