A sermon by Dr. Jesse Joyner, delivered at Eternity Church in Richmond, VA on Nov 13, 2022.
Read full text below or listen to the podcast here.
First Reading Isaiah 65:17-25, English Standard Version
17 “For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.
18 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.
19 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.
20 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.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 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.
Second Reading Revelation 21:1-7, English Standard Version
1 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
Welcome to Mid-November
Good morning. Welcome to mid-November, which is the time of year where we all have the “should I or shouldn’t I put out Christmas decorations yet debate” with ourselves or someone we love. I can put that to rest for all of us: it is never too early to decorate for Christmas.
Speaking of Christmas and the Christian calendar, I was encouraged by Pastor David who, last Sunday, shared that he drew his sermon text of Haggai from the lectionary. I too, found myself at a place where I did not hear a specific message from the Lord earlier this week about what to preach on. And that is why the lectionary is a beautiful thing. You see, I think it’s OK that pastors and speakers do not always have epiphanies or revelations at times convenient for their weekly sermon rhythms. Sometimes, the Lord’s way of speaking to His people is through the consensus and labors of many saints who have gone before us to collate passages of Scripture into what is called a lectionary. For those who, like me, did not grow up with any kind of lectionary, a lectionary is a traditional way of organizing the story of God’s Word into readings and lessons that tell the stories of Scripture through the yearly calendar, covering the Christian holidays and seasons accordingly. The Revised Common Lectionary is a popular one used all over the world. One of the most beautiful things about the lectionary is that it puts believers all over the world and across denominations on the same page in terms of readings and lessons. There is something powerful and transcendent, I believe, in knowing that we are being formed in our faith through the same passages on this very day alongside of believers from Canada to Ghana to the Philippines. We are also building our faith in step not only with other Presbyterians, but also Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Lutherans, and many others in the global Church.
All that to say, I felt led to lead us together into the first Old Testament lectionary reading from today from Isaiah 65. This passage contains a prophetic promise about the new heavens and the new earth. For the New Testament reading, I chose from the chapter in Revelation that describes the complete fulfillment of that Isaianic prophecy. I’m calling this sermon “The Hope of the New Jerusalem.” If you go to Jerusalem today, there is the “Old City,” which is very old and then there is the “New City,” which is the part of Jerusalem with all the new high rises and 20th-21st Century buildings. When we hear about the New Jerusalem in the Bible, it’s not talking about the “New City” that is there today. The New Jerusalem is the heavenly that will come down to earth and be simultaneously paradise, a holy city, and a temple (which is the dwelling place of God). It is not until the New Heavens and the New Earth in the end when we shall see the complete fulfillment of what the New Jerusalem will look like.
This is not a sermon on the competing views of the end times or whether we should believe in Pre-Millennialism, Post-Millennialism, Amillennialism, or the Preterist view. I will leave that debate up to people much smarter than me. Nor am I interested in predicting the geo-political trajectory of the modern Middle East, except to say that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and through him and him alone can there or will there be peace on earth. Rather, this is a sermon about hope. This is a sermon about how we only see through a glass dimly what is yet to come. But we get glimpses of it both in Scripture and in how God reveals himself to us today. And those glimpses are enough, I believe, to instill in us the living hope of Jesus that sparks our holy imaginations to daily labor forward towards heaven. Our readings today are such glimpses and I want to explore them and let them sink in.
Before we dive into the prophecy in Isaiah, first a little background: this prophecy has both a level of imminent fulfillment for God’s people as well as a hope in the full-on fulfillment that will come in the future still for us with the new heavens and the new earth. When Isaiah lived (in the 700s BC), the Jewish people lived in a divided Kingdom. So, if you remember, there was the one united Kingdom of Israel around 1000 BC under Saul, David, and Solomon. But then there was a political split and they were left with the Northern Kingdom (known as Israel proper) and the Southern Kingdom (known as Judah). Jerusalem was in Judah, the Southern Kingdom. During Isaiah’s lifetime, the world superpower at the time, Assyria, invaded and took control of the Northern Kingdom. Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom held on to their land for a few more generations only to be invaded by the big bad Babylonians, who destroyed Solomon’s temple and carted off its treasures (and people) to Babylon. This was known as the period of Exile, which lasted 70 years. After the Exile, a friendlier king named Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland and rebuild, which they did, including building a second temple, which lasted all the way up until the times of Jesus and the disciples. The Romans then destroyed that temple just a generation after Jesus left the earth. To this day, all that remains of that temple are stone foundations. You probably know that today, the Muslim Dome of the Rock currently stands at that location.
Have I lost you yet? You won’t be quizzed on it. Just remember that when Isaiah was alive, things were bad for the people of Yahweh – and that bad was going to get even worse for several generations after Isaiah was gone. But the Lord’s prophecies through Isaiah gave them a precious gift in their hardships: hope. When Isaiah opens his book, he says, “Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!” (Is 1:2). He is speaking to his current generation. But by the time we get to the end of Isaiah, which is our reading for today (the second to last chapter in the book), he says that God will make a newheavens and a new earth. And what he describes in our chapter is a picture, in part, of what scholar John Oswalt says is the post-exilic return to Jerusalem (again, nearly two hundred years after Isaiah lived). This is the time when God’s people return to their homeland, rebuild, resettle, and finally get to enjoy the fruit of their own labors rather than working in slavery or indentured servitude to anyone else (Is 65:21-22). But that life is just a foretaste of the fuller fulfillment of this prophecy, the new heavens and the new earth (which is yet to come), which is when infants will never die (Is 65:20). Thus, the beauty of Biblical prophecy is that some of it has already been fulfilled so that we can rejoice in the past works of the Lord, but other elements of Biblical prophecy have yet to be completely fulfilled so that we have a vision and a hope of what can be, could be, and should be in this world.
Be Glad and Rejoice
Regardless of the timing of the partial or full fulfilments of this Isaiah prophecy, the key imperative here is for God’s people to “be glad and rejoice.” Why? Because of what God is creating. God doesn’t say, “what I have created” or “what I will create,” but rather, “what I create” (Is 65:18). The NIV version of the passage here says, “what I am creating,” as an ongoing action. When I read that, I see that God is continually making all things beautiful, restored, and redeemed. It is a continual process that has already begun, is now happening, and will continue to happen, as (to use the words of MLK) the arc of the universe constantly “bends toward justice.” And we are instructed to “be glad and rejoice forever” in his constant process of renewal.
Better than the Two Billion Dollar Lottery
In addition to that imperative to rejoice, a major theme I see in both of our passages is something I just mentioned – hope. I mean, did you see the frenzy that the two-billion-dollar lottery whipped up in people? It gave people a sense of hope (what I would argue is a false hope) as they imagined what they would do with it all. I didn’t even buy a ticket, yet I still stared out the window and wondered to myself what I could do with all that money – and it felt good (for a moment). In Christ we have something so much better than the two-billion-dollar lottery. In Christ, we have the living hope – the hope that is always there with us – through his Word, his Spirit, and his Kingdom (1 Peter 1:3). This hope does not vanish when the lottery numbers are drawn. The hope that Jesus gives is always there, always true, and always beyond our wildest dreams. Isaiah and the other prophets give us countless pictures of the hope towards which we should live, of which this passage is just one. As the late Christian musician Rich Mullins once sang:
…how the Lord takes by its corners this old world and shakes us forward and shakes us free to run wild with the hope, run wild with the hope, the hope that this thirst will not last long, that it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain. I hear the thunder in the sky. I see the sky about to rain. And I hear the prairies calling out your name.
Let us run wild with the hope that this thirst will not last long.
Picture a World
Last weekend, Kezzie and I went to one of our favorite types of outings – a used book sale. It was the one at Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library. She found some books and I found mine – most of which were songbooks that I could play on our piano at home. When I got home and started playing through my “new” songbooks, one song in one book in particular captured my attention and imagination. It was a song I had never heard before called “Picture a World” out of this songbook right here. Yes, this is the Sesame Street Songbook. I am a child of the 80s and all we pretty much had was Sesame Street and The Electric Company. This song, “Picture a World,” was written by Joe Raposo, who most famously wrote Kermit’s theme song, “Bein’ Green” as well as other well known songs from the street, like Cookie Monster’s “C is for Cookie.” His songs touched the chords of the human heart, particularly as seen through and for children.
Without naming anything explicitly Christian or religious in nature, his lyrics to this song demonstrate a great deal of what some people call “redemptive imagination,” or a poetic vision of the peaceable kingdom. The lyrics go like this:
Picture a World Picture a world Where the rivers are clear Where a dunk in the water is just a block or two from here And try to think of a way to make it that way… Everybody picture a world Where little kids run Where the sunshine is pouring love and life on everyone And try to think of a way to make it that way Make it that way Make it that way Words and Music by Joe Raposo
It’s not Scripture, but it sure does ring true, doesn’t it? The exhortation to “make it that way” is I believe what Jesus calls us to do during our time on this earth. He “made it that way” and now expects us to follow in turn. He taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our job as Christ-followers is to usher God’s heavenly kingdom into earth even now. And what is in that heavenly kingdom? Children playing, peace between seeming disparates, and a dunk in the clear water around every corner. The prophet Zechariah gave us a similar vision – one of redemptive imagination for what we shall find in the heavenly Jerusalem:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets… And I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness”” (Zechariah 8:4-5, 8).
What I love about that passage is that children playing is an activity specifically called out as something that will happen in the New Jerusalem. When we watch children play, we are witnessing a glimpse of heaven. When we let the children play, we are facilitating heaven for them. When we play with them, we are entering into a common experience of heaven on earth alongside of them. Holly Catterton Allen, an author who specializes in intergenerational ministry and children’s spirituality, said that when children are in the room, the entire mood of the room changes. It is disarming to us adults. The presence of children reminds us of just how fragile life can be as well as mirror back to us how insanely serious we take ourselves in this life. I think about our music worship here at Eternity and what the presence of children does for us in the room while we sing. Laura Ann has pointed it out many times before that we love having the children run up and down the aisles and wave whatever they have in their hands back and forth. That attitude is contagious, and it helps us adults loosen up a bit and worship more freely as I believe we should. Without the children among us, we would probably descend into becoming the frozen chosen.
But heaven doesn’t stop with playing children. There will also be a new peace among all creatures where there was little prior. I’m going to make you suffer through another reference from the world of children. Sarah and I are, after all, surrounding by all things children these days. So it is all we know in this season. This time, I want to draw from the Disney film, Zootopia. As the title implies, the story is set in a zoological utopia – a city where all the mammal species of the world come together and co-exist in harmony with one another.
Whether the story writers knew it or not, I believe they wrote an image of Isaiah 65 with the story of Zootopia. Isaiah says, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together….they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Is 65:25). If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. There is a more commonly quoted passage in Isaiah chapter 11 that is referred to as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy. You may have seen any one of the many works of art throughout history called The Peaceable Kingdom as artists have depicted predator and prey lounging together in perfect harmony. You see, in the New Jerusalem, there is no longer predator and prey, nor nations warring against one another.
Like an Enemy Army Fleeing in Defeat
Speaking of nations warring against one another, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor during the Nazi regime. He was one of the few German religious leaders who stood up against Nazism and Hitler during World War II. And he paid the ultimate price for it. He was captured, thrown in a concentration camp, and was subsequently executed just two weeks before the Allies liberated Germany and ended the war. He was also a brilliant author, poet, and theologian. One of his poems is called Who Am I? In it, he expresses the tension of a believer’s identity this side of heaven. Here is a portion of the poem:
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.
Bonhoeffer was internally struggling with that tension we all feel in this period between earth and heaven. The line, “like a beaten army fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved…” has stuck with me ever since I first read it twenty years ago. Jesus is the victor over our hearts and lives. Whatever is left of our fallen human nature (both individually and collectively) is merely “fleeing in disorder” from its already lost battle to the victor Jesus Christ.
The Literal Lion and Lamb
I want to return for a moment to the peaceable kingdom found in our Isaiah passage. There is a local pastor named Jim Lavender who takes the peaceable kingdom imagery to a new level. Jim pastored at Discovery United Methodist Church near Short Pump for over thirty years and is now retired. Before his pastoral vocation, he worked in the circus industry (which makes us instant friends). While in the circus world, he acquired a menagerie of wild and exotic animals that he kept on a farm even into his preaching days. Every so often, he would preach on the peaceable kingdom and bring out a real lion and a real lamb into the sanctuary. And as far as I know, there was never lamb chop for dinner after his presentation. And yes, I have a picture to prove it. I don’t know the year of this photograph, but this is Jim in his earlier years of pastoring, so maybe sometime in the 80s.
The Survivor Tree
In the New Jerusalem, children don’t die. One of the most tragic loss of children in our country’s history happened in 1995 when a domestic terrorist blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. There was a day-care center in that building and many children were tragically taken way too early in life. Just outside the federal building stood an 80-year old oak tree that was badly damaged by the blast. It caught fire from the blast and was close to being completely chopped down during the recovery efforts. But they left it. And about a year later, when survivors returned to the site for a memorial service, they noticed blooms on the once-written off tree. They decided to protect and preserve the tree and sure enough, it grew back strong and beautiful. It now stands as a centerpiece of the memorial plaza on the site of the tragedy. Known as “The Survivor Tree,” the oak stands as a reminder of life in the midst of tragedy and steadfast hope staring down the face of evil. The inscription on the wall around the tree reads:
The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us.
Seeds are collected and planted from the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree each year and there are now thousands of little Survivor Trees descended from this one growing all over the country.
Isaiah’s prophecy says in our reading, “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be” (Is 65:22). We will never understand this side of heaven why things like Oklahoma City happen in this world. They’re so confusing to comprehend and painful to swallow. On the one hand, there is darkness, despair, death, and pain in this worldly existence. But on the other hand, there is life, joy, and survivor trees in this world. We live in this in-between stage where life and death somehow co-exist. But Jesus changed, is changing, and will consummately change all of that. Jesus literally embodied the co-existence of life and death when he died on the cross. He is eternal life, yet he took death upon himself out of love for us humans who are, on our own, incapable of bringing life out of death. In Philippians 2:8, Paul tells us that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”
Jesus did that for us. Then he rose from the grave. He brings life where there is death and light where there is darkness. He gives us hope for the New Jerusalem that will someday be. When we follow him and abide in him, he empowers us to live lives that usher heaven into earth even now. I mentioned the living hope we have in Jesus. Peter is the one who said it in his letter in 1 Peter 1:3:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (1 Peter 1:3).
As Pastor David likes to say, we want to be “thin” places for others in this world. We want to be close to Jesus, so that we can act as havens for others in this world. You may know someone who, when you are around them, make you feel closer to God. It’s not because that person is a deity. It’s because there seems to be just a thin layer of separation between that person and heaven. It is a form of hospitality. People need Jesus. This world needs light. This world needs heaven now. We can be those thin places to the world in our families, our daily workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the city of Richmond as a whole. I think of what Doc and his team are doing by offering a thin place at these residential homes. I think of Eternity at VCU providing a place of college students and staff to learn about and connect to Jesus. I think about Mia and her sacrificial work of facilitating thin places for the kids and youth of this church. And the faithful prayer teams of this congregation who offer up prayers morning, day, and night for the world around us. Providence Christian School, Eternity Music Academy, and the host of other touch points we have to our local community represented here in this room. I pray that we would lean into these thin places and continue to ask for new ways as to how can we be and continue to be ushers of heaven for those around us.
One more Disney reference: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is one of the very few Disney films with outright religious, even Christian, symbolism. Why? Because it is about that great story by Victor Hugo about the reviled Quasimodo who in his deformity hides away in the tower of Paris’ great cathedral. There was a tradition in medieval Europe where someone being chased by the law could run into a church and claim “sanctuary” which essentially gave them legal immunity from the government powers so long as they were in the church (this is found in the Old Testament cities of refuge as well). There is a scene at the end when the gypsy Esmerelda is being falsely accused of witchcraft by an angry mob, who then ties her to a stake to burn. Quasimodo, who has developed a friendship with her, dramatically swings down from the cathedra, braves the flames, and rescues her limp but still alive body from the stake in the square and carries her straight to the cathedral. In his extraordinary strength, he hoists her over his head and shouts, “sanctuary!” to save her from death and condemnation. When I watch that scene, I see two metaphorical relationships. First of all, that is what Jesus does for us. And secondly, it is a picture of who we as Christians could be to the world around us. Like Jesus, we want to pick up the hurt, the poor, the condemned, and bring them to a safe place. We can claim “sanctuary” for them because we know the one true Lord, Judge, and King. This is what being a priesthood of believers means – we are ambassadors for the justice and peace of the kingdom of heaven.
The Engagement Ring
Finally, to our reading in Revelation. This is the culminating vision John receives on the island of Patmos. Jesus shows him a vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth. All our hopes and longings will be satisfied as “the dwelling place of God” will be permanently with us – no longer in this in-between/already-not yet phase of history. But rather we will be with him and he with us completely and fully. Not even a thin layer will separate us from him. We will be with him and with one another forever, void of pain, tears, and death.
I like to see the present state of God’s story with us here on earth like an engagement. And for God’s people, His bride, heaven is the full married life. You know what (or rather, who) the engagement ring is? The Holy Spirit. Listen to Paul in Ephesians:
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
When I bought Sarah’s engagement ring and put it on her finger, it was a deposit guaranteeing (not just wishful thinking) the follow through of our coming marriage. So also when we believe in Jesus, God gifts us his Spirit as a promise of the life to come in the New Jerusalem. John even uses wedding imagery in verse 2 of Revelation 21 where the New Jerusalem itself is “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
All Things New
Now look at verse 5, where God says, “Behold I am making all things new.” My professor Donald Guthrie points out that God does not say here, “I am making all new things.” He says, “I am making all things new.” Heaven, whatever it looks like and feels like, will look and feel familiar. It will be recognizable. Why? Because God will make all things new. All of creation will be redeemed and restored in a way that is familiar yet new. Again, as Rich Mullins said, the Lord has and will shake this old world forward and free. My prayer is that we would follow Jesus in that way and daily ask how we can be his ambassadors of hope, peace, and ushering glimpses of heaven into earth even now. If you want some inspiration, look for the children. Go play red light/green light with some children during the fellowship time downstairs after the service. Jump in a pile of leaves outside with some kids. Speaking of ushering heaven into earth, we’re about to pray the Lord’s prayer together.
But first (and last), I want to share something I heard about first things and last things from an author named Gregory Thompson, who co-leads an organization called Voices Underground, which advocates for racial reconciliation in the world and the Church. You may have heard people say that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city (Eden to the New Jerusalem). To that, Thompson says, “the story of vocation does not, in fact, begin with creation. It begins with the Trinity. And… the Bible does not, in fact, end in a city. It ends at a wedding.” The identifying feature of both the Trinity and a wedding is communion with God. And that is the culminating hope we have for the New Jerusalem. What we get to look forward to is God’s permanent, all-encompassing presence as we enjoy complete communion with Him and with one another. With that, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray:
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever. Amen.
Now let us gather around the Lord’s table for his communion….
 Bauckham, Richard. 1993. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 132.
 Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 29-33.
 King Jr., Martin Luther. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
 Mullins, Rich. 1996. “Calling Out Your Name.”
 Catterton Allen, Holly. 2022. “Intergenerational Teaching and Learning: Benefits, Challenges, and Recommendations from Recent Research.” Presentation at SPCE Annual Conference. San Diego, CA. Oct 21, 2022.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1971. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York, NY: Macmillan, 347-348.
 Thompson, Greg. 2018. “Music, Worship, and Reflection Together.” Lecture at the Faith at Work Summit. Chicago, IL. October 12, 2018. Available online. Accessed March 31, 2020. https://youtu.be/IMhkNUHyu3o (start at timestamp 33:05 for quoted portion).
 Bauckham, Richard. 1993. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 140.