Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Isaiah 65:18
Old Testament: Isaiah 65:17-25
New Testament: II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Imagine a divided nation. People of the nation are conflicted over how to live together. National unity is threatened by the oppositional positions each group brings to their national life.
One group experiments with new ways of living that had originally been prohibited by God. The people in this group were warned to stop.
In fact, they were very frightened people who felt powerless. The old ways were too limiting. They didn’t answer their needs or resolve their fears. They turned to prohibited ways of living despite the warnings.
The other group is confident the institutions of their nation were ordained by God to help them be a faithful people. But they were divided over how to worship God correctly. They were very confident they were doing all they needed to do to be faithful, even if their confidence was in themselves, not in God.
One group experimented with alternative religions. The other group thought it was faithful to God, but was really trusting its own ability to rule.
This is the nation Israel to which Isaiah speaks on behalf of God. If you read carefully the entire 65th chapter of Isaiah, you see the section we read this morning is the hopeful vision God gives to a nation that is already divided.
Listen to the first verse of chapter 65, “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.’ I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.”
Isaiah isn’t saying one group is listening and the other isn’t. Isaiah is saying the entire nation is missing the point about how God wants them to live.
This prophecy was written when the Kingdom of Israel was divided into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom. Its division was the result of King Solomon’s abandonment of God.
Solomon had married many foreign women and began to practice the religions of his wives. These alternative religions were an abomination to God.
God told Solomon his sins would divide his family by sword. Brother would fight against brother. Israel itself would become divided by his disobedience to God. The Promised Land God had given Abraham would become a battleground for God’s chosen people – all because of King Solomon’s abandonment of God.
Eventually, the Northern Kingdom of Ephraim was destroyed. It was never seen again. If you read I and II Kings, and I and II Samuel, the Bible teaches Ephraim’s worship of other gods led to its destruction. Solomon’s sons and grandsons led the Northern Kingdom to worship other deities than God. These practices are what Isaiah 65 talks about in verses 2-7.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah lasted beyond the Northern Kingdom for another 150 years. Then it was destroyed because it also lapsed into living without God. Grandsons of King Solomon ruled the Southern Kingdom. They were also guilty of worshipping other gods. Others tried to obey God’s law, but lost the point of God’s law. The law was used by king and priest to frighten and intimidate God’s people to obey God.
In both cases, God’s people relied on their own wisdom and understanding rather than God’s wisdom to live. In both cases, God’s people lost their loyalty to God for what they believed were very good reasons.
They trusted themselves rather than God. They were motivated by their ability to control their destiny. The result was disastrous for the nation.
The Kingdom of Israel lost its national unity. Its disunity was blamed on disloyalty to God. Then Israel lost its national identity. The nation was destroyed. Its loss was the result of it not worshipping God.
But amid the reality of these losses, Isaiah prophecies God has a future for His people that will bless them, despite what they lost. Their future wasn’t in themselves. It was a future God would give them to bless them.
That future is what we need to dwell on this morning as we reflect on our own national condition. We’re aware Americans don’t see our national life the same way. Elections bring that out in us.
The fact is, our national identity is based on there being winners and losers. This is our democratic process for determining our leaders. It isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s very upsetting. We’ve gone through two years looking for the sins in either our candidates or the views they represent. Rarely have we admitted our own.
We have embedded in our national identity continual conflict between two groups – both of whom believe they represent God’s purpose for the future. One wins. The other loses this human contest of leadership.
What Isaiah reminds us is that leadership for God’s people isn’t based on the king, or the king’s sins. True leadership for the future comes from God, to whom all earthly rulers are subject. God is doing a new thing for the future despite our sin!
The passages we read from Isaiah are written within the context of national loss that comes from sin. They aren’t words of division. They are words of hope. What appears to be a time of loss is the time for hope!
“I’m about to create new heavens and a new earth. What has happened in the past won’t be remembered or come to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I’m creating; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight.”
This is remarkable!
Jerusalem is lying in ruins. Its house of worship is destroyed. The memory of its destruction is fresh. Tears of loss continue to be heard. Yet in the middle of this anguish, God is working for a new world to emerge.
The nation that has been divided and brought to its knees shall live together. The words of division and the cry of injustice will end. A new Jerusalem will be created by God’s will, not by the will of the people.
A new Jerusalem will become a place flourishing with life by God’s will, not by the will of His people.
The descendants of those whose sin brought calamity upon Israel will be blessed by the Lord. This reverses God’s earlier warning from Numbers and Deuteronomy that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the third and fourth generations who descend from them.
New life comes to an emotionally divided Jerusalem in ruins because God’s wisdom will prevail. God exists for life to flourish. God’s purpose is not to be the eternal punisher of sin. God’s purpose is to be the eternal redeemer of sin. God is blessing His people by making a new creation.
God’s redemption is coming is the message of II Thessalonians. Jesus is bringing the New Jerusalem to earth from heaven. Don’t give up amid the conflicts that are in life. Don’t quit when you’re afraid the future is uncertain. Even though Christians are discouraged by the challenges they face while having faith in God, don’t quit living life with enthusiasm for God.
God is working His purpose out in ways too mysterious for us to know. What we know is if we turn to Him and live, He will reveal to us a future without suffering and sorrow, without conflict and division, where all God’s people are united with joy. This is what the Apostle John wrote in Revelation 21.
John was recasting Isaiah 65 in terms of Jesus Christ!
“Then, I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
The New Jerusalem God is creating is filled with men, women, and children working with enthusiasm for the new world He is generating. This new world comes inside the life of the Church.
We, the Church of Jesus Christ, are the New Jerusalem. We in the Church we are united by Christ despite all the divisions we bring into the Church from a conflicted world. There’s neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither believer nor unbeliever in the Church. All are one in Christ.
Within the Church there’s neither male nor female. Gender distinctions are meaningless in the Church. All are one in Christ.
Within the Church there’s neither slave nor free. Economic differences are meaningless in the New Jerusalem of the Church through Jesus Christ.
We are one in Christ. We are one, not by law; not by fear. We are One by the power of God’s love. We model in our vibrant, living community of faith the joy that comes from being redeemed by Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ’s life was lost for all the divisions and failures that human sin brings about in our personal and public lives. Jesus Christ’s life was given that God would not remember what we’ve done that led to our conflicts with Him over His goodness and mercy.
Jesus Christ was resurrected from His destruction to show us the power of God’s ability to forget the past and bless His people with a future void of suffering or pain. What God has done in Jesus Christ is what God calls each of us to do as the New Jerusalem. We embrace God’s future with enthusiasm.
Our national capacity to exercise self-control comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ. Our national capacity to work together for a better life comes from the spirit of Christ with in us that binds us together.
The fruits of Christ’s spirit are, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The spirit of Christ leads us to temper what we say and what we do by how Jesus lived.
Our national capacity to be the shining example of reconciliation and peace for a divided world comes from our love for Jesus Christ. Christ has called us as His ambassadors, especially in this time, to be excited for His future!
These Scripture lessons weren’t chosen by me for this Sunday. They came from a lectionary that was generated decades ago to teach Christians the entire Bible. They aren’t this Sunday’s Scriptures for the Church to hear by luck or chance. Remember, coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous.
It is our common reservoir of faith in Jesus Christ with the Church that will enable our nation to get beyond these many months of public anguish over the future. There is a new heaven and a new earth that God is creating for our blessing regardless of what we’ve done, or what any of us wants to do.
That new heaven and new earth lies in the community of reconciliation we are as Jesus Christ’s Church. We bring to our national conversation the voice of calm for the future because of what Jesus Christ has made of us.
Embrace what He is doing with gratitude and hope! Encourage others to move into God’s future with grace and enthusiasm. The best is yet to come by God’s grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.