Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Strong City: A Sermon on Isaiah 26

Sermon on Isaiah 26; John 5:25-29; Revelation 20:13; 21:2, 9-11, 23-27.  Delivered on 26 April 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The sixteenth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1; Isaiah 2; Isaiah 3-4; Isaiah 5; Isaiah 6; Isaiah 7-8a; Isaiah 8b-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; Isaiah 23; Isaiah 24; and Isaiah 25.

If Isaiah 24 highlights the heaviness of sin and the need for our redemption, the next three chapters of Isaiah unfold to us the amazing things that the Resurrection of Jesus makes possible. It's so easy for us to forget that Easter isn't a day. Easter Sunday is a day, but Easter is a season; and more than a season, a lifestyle, a truth, a universe. Two weeks ago, on the second Sunday of Easter, Isaiah 25 showed us the Wedding Supper of the Lamb – the glorious truth that, because Christ is risen indeed, our union with his risen life will be perfected in the kingdom of God. The Church is engaged to Christ now, but because the Lamb lives again, we'll move in together, and he'll shower us with the fullness of his love forever, and we'll have everlasting fellowship of grace, and death and sorrow will be distant memories of the obsolete past.

As we pick up the prophet's book again on this fourth Sunday of Easter, Isaiah teaches us about two more significant blessings that the Resurrection of Jesus brings: resurrection for ourselves, and a life in the holy city. Isaiah plays with a contrast between two cities: the City of Chaos we met a couple chapters earlier (Isaiah 24:10), representing all the nations trapped under sin, versus this new “strong city” with salvation for its walls and gates wide open (Isaiah 26:1-2). The second can be introduced as victorious because the first one has fallen. Revelation does the same thing, contrasting two cities: “Babylon the Great City” (Revelation 18:21), the empire of ungodliness doomed to failure, versus a “holy city, the New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2), the final manifestation of “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” that the devil ultimately attacks in vain (Revelation 20:9). The harlot-city will be burned up (Revelation 17:16; 18:9), but the bride-city – a people called out from the sins of the harlot-city (Revelation 18:4) – will live and fill the earth forever. Where once the nations drank of the harlot-city's wrath of wine and “the kings of the earth committed fornication with her” (Revelation 18:3), the story ends when “the nations will walk by [the New Jerusalem's] light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24).

Sixteen hundred years ago, the great bishop Augustine wrote a hugely influential book called The City of God. Drawing on Isaiah and Revelation, and trying to make sense of the Visigoth sack of Rome and the decline of the Western Roman Empire – which had officially adopted Christianity as a state religion – Augustine describes history as a constant conflict between the City of Man (or City of the World), on the one hand, and the City of God, on the other. The City of Man, inspired by Satan and founded by Cain, is civilization where people invest themselves in worldly cares and pleasures; the City of God is civilization where people put aside worldly cares and pleasures for the sake of God's truth. The sack of Rome isn't the defeat of the City of God, because the Rome wasn't itself the City of God. Rome may suffer, Rome may fall, but through it all, we have a strong city.

Like Augustine long after him, Isaiah is forced to wrestle with the challenges of the present world. Sure, it's nice to know that someday, the City of Chaos will fall (Isaiah 25:2). Sure, it's nice to know that someday, God will lay low the lofty city and bring down those who dwell in the heights (Isaiah 26:5). But what good is that now? How does it give Joe Shmoe of Bethlehem hope to know that his great-great-grandson might see freedom? What good is all that future if it stays in the future, beyond the lifespan of anyone listening to Isaiah wax eloquent? And what good is the victory of the City of God if it has no practical impact on our lives today? How does it help us grapple with our suffering, how does it give us reason to live with wisdom and virtue, how does it kindle the fires of courage in our chests? How is the Great Feast good news if we aren't around to taste it? If the victory is delayed so all we see is the birth of empty wind (Isaiah 26:17-18), how does that answer the prayers of our present distress (Isaiah 26:16)? If it makes no difference for our generation, if we who are living now get no victory from acknowledging just one God and one Lord, why not party it up with the City of Man and keep living under other lords (Isaiah 26:13)? What good is it to die in faith if the promise isn't for you?

So Isaiah finds an answer. He sees the truth. If God is faithful, and surely he is, then God will be faithful not just to the nation as a whole, but to each generation and each individual who served him. And if he's faithful to them beyond death, and he's faithful to his purposes in creation, then, Isaiah exclaims, “Your dead shall live! Their corpses shall rise! O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isaiah 26:19). It isn't true that a lifetime of faithfulness only gives birth to wind; it gives birth to new life springing out of death's dust. Even those long dead, for centuries and centuries, haven't been forgotten from God's purposes. God is faithful. And the faithfulness of God means life from the dead; it means resurrection. Those who serve God do not have all memory of them wiped out (cf. Isaiah 26:14). They'll live again to see with their own eyes and enjoy in their own bodies the triumph when God increases and enlarges the nation (Isaiah 26:15). The patriarchs saw the promises from a distance and greeted them, desiring a better country, and so “God has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The ancient Greeks didn't believe in resurrection. They thought it was a lousy idea. The Greeks often looked at the body as a prison for the soul, something holding the soul back from living to its full potential. They didn't want to believe in resurrection. That's why the Greeks usually didn't bury bodies whole. They, like Vikings and Hindus and other cultures, practiced cremation – a symbolic 'burning of the bridges' to show that the soul was now free of this yucky world of matter for good. But the Jews were famously different. They didn't hate the body. They knew that if God created us with bodies, then God meant for us to be part of the material world. That wasn't a punishment or a mistake; that was a blessing. The world may be running down and falling apart, it may be fraying at the seams from the force of sin, but they had hope that the God who made it was the God who'd restore it – and them. Mainstream Jews rejected the idea of death having the last word in its age-old argument with the goodness of creation.

So the Jews didn't cremate. They buried bodies intact, putting them in tombs, saving them as a witness that God isn't done with them and that they'd live again. It wasn't because they believed that God couldn't raise a person from ashes as easily as from bones; it's because burying the bones was a better testimony to their hope of resurrection. Even in how they treated their dead, they were determined to make a clear witness to each other and the world, clinging to the confession of their hope. As Daniel said, those sleeping in earth's dust will wake up, though not all with the same outcome: “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”, and “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky” (Daniel 12:2-3). Jesus himself said that, when the appointed time rolls around, he himself will raise all the dead, and they'll come out of their graves, “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29). On that day, “the sea [will give] up the dead that are in it, Death and Hades [will give] up the dead that were in them, and all [will be] judged according to what they had done”, whether living according to faith or else according to sin (Revelation 20:13).

In a lot of our hymns, we have a very Greek idea of heaven as our ultimate goal. And it's partly because the Bible really does talk about the spirits of believers being in the presence of Jesus once we die. But that isn't even close to the end of what the Bible sets forth. If it were, why does the Bible even bother to talk about a “new earth”? What's the point of it? If our 'going-to-heaven' theology can't see a place for a new earth in the end, then our beliefs fall too far short of the Bible. The real biblical hope isn't represented in terms of 'heaven'; it's described through the grand symbol of the New Jerusalem, a city and a garden, the perfection of the church into a new civilization. But where is this civilization? Is it in the clouds? Is it in another universe? Is it beyond space and time? What does the Bible actually say?

John writes, “I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). An angelic guide, he said again (in case we missed it), “showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). The point isn't going to heaven; the point is that what's now stored up in heaven will come here: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). By the time the Wedding Supper of the Lamb happens, the Great Feast of Isaiah 25, God's attentions are squarely on the earth, because the earth will be where God lives: “See, the home of God is among men, and he will dwell with them” (Revelation 21:3).

The gospel is not about how to go to heaven. The gospel is about how to live heavenly life on earth – starting now, but even in the end, the everlasting age-to-come when the earth finally becomes everything God ever wanted to make of it. Here's where the resurrected saints will live – where David will play his harp again, where John the Baptist will get his head back, where Job will see his Redeemer in the flesh, where Jeremiah will laugh and smile because his tears and laments are no more. Here's where the resurrected believers will share the Wedding Supper of the Lamb with the Lamb himself – here on earth.

Here on earth is where every City-of-God deed we do will find its fullness. The earth as such won't be destroyed, tossed into the scrap heap and replaced; but its old fallen quality will pass away, just as Peter and John said it would (2 Peter 3:7-13; Revelation 21:1). We have no license to treat God's handiwork lightly as an inconsequential thing, as if defiling the earth through careless or cruel stewardship weren't a sin. Every act of caring love for the earth God made will be perfected in the new creation. We have no license to hold back our witness from impacting society. Every stand against oppression or ungodliness will be honored in the new creation, a building block in a strong city, made firm as we answer the resolute call of our God.

When it comes to this new city, Isaiah describes it as having salvation for its walls (Isaiah 26:1). In a later oracle, he makes clear that this has to be “the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 60:14), where “you shall call your walls 'Salvation' and your gates 'Praise'” (Isaiah 60:18). Without walls, a city is defenseless, which is why the psalmist prayed, “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem” (Psalm 51:18). This strong city isn't the ruined Zion of the exile, where “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). This is the real City of God, the one that “God establishes forever” (Psalm 48:8), with the salvation Jesus offers as the sure promise that “this is God, our God forever and ever” (Psalm 48:14). “With salvation's walls surrounded”, we can trust in Jesus our LORD forever, because he is “an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:4).

With this new city, Isaiah says that the gates will be open – so that there are no boundaries? So that there is no truth? No, “open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in” (Isaiah 26:2). But surely that's just an Old Testament idea, replaced by a New Testament that's only inclusive and only affirming? After all, when John describes the New Jerusalem, he says that “its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:25). So the gates are always open! But just the same, John says, “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination and falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

It's only those who have their robes washed clean who get “the right to the tree of life” and who “may enter the city by the gates” (Revelation 22:14). And John urges that it's those who hold fast to the gospel witness of faith, holiness, and love, even through all the opposition that cultural forces can bring – those are the people who, passing through the great ordeal, “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). It's those who overcome whom Jesus promises, “You will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life” (Revelation 3:5). The opposite are those who remain outside the city, prevented by the resistance of their own sin from entering it: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15).

We may not like the sound of that. It may not fit an age where sin-affirming 'tolerance' (falsely so-called) is the buzzword on the streets and the idol to which law and mass media demand we bow, an idol so precious as to justify, in the minds of many, forcible coercion contrary to conscience – and without bowing to it and being marked as idol-compliant, no one can earn a livelihood, “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark” (Revelation 13:17). It's a subtle thing, one even many in the church deny or dismiss if they aren't vigilant: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert” (1 Peter 5:8). It's only those who don't worship the Beast who can “share in the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4-6). Bowing to idols isn't Christ-like love; it's just idolatry, because love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

People left outside the gates may not fit the ideals of an age where one of the most popular Bible verses even on Christian lips is, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) – true in its context, a sermon against hypocrisy (Matthew 7:3-5), but often stripped of that context to justify ignoring the rest of the Bible's picture, like Jesus's other statement, “Don't judge by appearances, but do judge with right judgment” (John 7:24), or Paul's affirmation that we have to judge sin within the church through properly executed church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:12), or Paul's inspired promise that “the saints will judge the world” (1 Corinthians 6:2). We aren't called to condemn, but we are called to have open eyes to see whether something accords with God's wisdom or not. And especially within the visible church itself, among those who profess to belong to the family of God, we're told not to extend the right hand of fellowship to those who live unrepentant lives of immorality, greed, theft, indulgence, hostility, or idolatry (1 Corinthians 5:11). And yet so often we ask, “Who am I to judge?” But if we'll even judge angels, how much more are we equipped to compare actions and attitudes to to the word of God, as Paul said (1 Corinthians 6:3)? And we serve “God the judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23), both in the church and outside the church (1 Corinthians 6:13). Pointing to his revealed wisdom on how to live should be an act of love, if we carry it out with a loving heart and if we remember, as G. K. Chesterton once said, that:

The one really strong case for Christianity is that even those who condemn sins have to confess them. It is a good principle for Pharisees that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. But it is the good principle for Christians that he who casts the first stone should declare that he is not without sin. The criminal may or may not plead guilty. But the judge should always plead guilty.

Jesus was hard on the Pharisees, because of all the Jewish groups in his day, they were the closest to the message he brought. The Sadducees, the Herodians, the Essenes, the Zealots – they were way off the mark. The Pharisees said many of the right things, but they had the wrong heart and, because of that, they didn't follow through with even their own message: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses; therefore, do whatever they teach you, and follow it; but don't do as they do, for they don't practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3). When it came to many sins, Jesus was far more strict than the Pharisees! But he was also gentle with sinners: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”, the Pharisees complained (Luke 15:2) – but where they feared he affirmed sinners in their sins, Jesus said it was just the opposite: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When we call people to repentance, we should remember that we aren't without sin; we too must plead guilty (1 John 1:8-10). And if a sinner is finally left outside the gates, he's outside gates that are permanently open; the only thing preventing him is his own stubborn devotion to his own sin.

So why does the resurrection of Jesus matter? It matters because it makes possible the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. It matters because it guarantees our resurrection, the affirmation of God's good creation and the bodies we have within it. God started resurrection-work with Jesus, and what God starts, God finishes. It matters because it justifies our courage in the face of those who can kill the body but can't kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). It matters because it's the foundation for the New Jerusalem, our hope of a life better than Eden – not just a garden, but a city, meaning that every good use of our gifts and graces will be caught up into it and perfected there. We ourselves, not just our ancestors or our descendants, have this hope for “a strong city” (Isaiah 26:1). And it matters now because how we choose to respond to Jesus now will shape our very own destiny then.

If we say we respond to Jesus in faith, is it a living faith or a dead faith (James 2:26)? If it's a living faith, then it naturally answers the apostolic message with the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). Does this mean that we're saved by works? No, we don't create our own peace: “O LORD, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we've done, you've done for us” (Isaiah 26:12). We're saved by grace – God did it for us – through faith – we trust that God did it for us, and we stick by him – and we're saved for works, which reveal the character of the faith we live and the grace at work within us (Ephesians 2:8-10). The resurrection of Jesus matters.

Are we living like it matters? Are we standing firm like it matters? Are we bearing witness to how it matters, how “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19) – not a wish, not an idle dream, but a hope sealed by an unbreakable promise from the God of Truth – and how “in hope we were saved”, and “if we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25)? The resurrection is true; Christ is risen; the Lord of Life is alive, and we will see him alive! And in this truth, we see the big beauty of God's zeal for his people – for us (Isaiah 26:11). So “let us hold fast” in purity of life and in faithful witness “to the confession of our hope” – the hope of resurrection, hope even for dwellers in the dust, the hope of a strong city, the true Zion of which such glorious things are spoken (Psalm 87:3) – “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

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