Scriptures: Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-4
When my children were young we occasionally played a game called Taboo, a game where you use clue words or phrases to help a player guess the target word. The trick is that certain clue words are taboo—off limits. In one round we were trying to help my son, who at the time was probably around ten years old, guess the word “Bible.” The taboo words, the words we could not use in any clue, were book, scripture, church, and pulpit. So we gave him this clue: “The thing we always read on Sunday morning.” He said, “Comics.”
Well, this morning we are actually going to read a comic strip in church. I showed this strip two weeks ago in my class on the Theology of Calvin and Hobbes. In the first frame Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.” Hobbes answers, “Pittsburgh?” To which Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”
When you think of heaven, I doubt many of you think of Pittsburgh or even Seattle. And yet when the Bible pictures heaven, it thinks of a city. Revelation 21, verse 1-2:
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.
This vision of heaven is almost a direct quote from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 65:17-18, God says,
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
In both scriptures heaven is not described as a place where we leave behind our earthly bodies, and our earthly cities, and this whole earthly world. It’s a place where these things are transformed, where our earthly bodies no longer suffer, and where earthly cities like Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D. C. become the healthy, just, nurturing, life-giving communities they were supposed to be.
Isaiah elaborates on this theme in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 25. Notice the down-to-earth imagery. Verse 6:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
The mountain mentioned here is probably Mount Zion, the temple mount in Jerusalem. But it’s a picture of Jerusalem transformed and expanded, a place of welcome for people all over the world. In the new Jerusalem there won’t be rich nations and poor nations, some people living in penthouses while others live in refugee camps. In the new Jerusalem everyone will be invited to the same table to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation.
Isaiah extends this image in verse 7-8:
And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.
Compare this to the vision of Revelation 21, verse 4:
God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
Illness will be gone, as will violence and abuse. And this won’t be just for us. God will wipe away tears from all faces; God will take away the shroud that is cast over all people. The whole world will be transformed.
So what does this have to do with Easter? How is this connected to Jesus’ resurrection? Jesus’ resurrection is the launch pad for this new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is, in a sense, God’s down payment on a new heaven and new earth.
There is an important detail in the Easter story found in all four gospels. All of the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection agreed on this. The tomb was empty! The body was gone. Jesus was risen bodily from the dead. Easter is not a case of Jesus leaving earthly bodily life behind; it is a case of God transforming earthly bodily life, beginning with Jesus.
There is a scene in John’s gospel where the risen Jesus comes to his disciples in a room where the door has been shut and locked. To reassure them that he is real, he shows them the nail prints in his hands and feet. Think about that image. Jesus’ risen body still bears the marks of his crucifixion, but it can go into a room through locked doors. Jesus is risen bodily from the dead, but it is a transformed body. He has a body that can never again be shut out; it can never again be excluded. It can never again suffer under Pontius Pilate or be crucified on a Roman cross. It is bodily life redeemed.
That’s what Isaiah and Revelation are talking about: bodily life redeemed, earthly bodily life transformed into the kind of life together God meant for us.
Admittedly, the new creation is not yet finished. Easter is the launching of the new creation, but not its completion. We still live in a world where bodies are crushed by violence and riddled by disease. We still live in a world where death is very much with us and tears saturate the ground. But Jesus resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation, and every time we work to heal human bodies, every time we care for them and do things to make them whole, we strike a blow for this new creation. We declare that death will not have the final word; Jesus will.
Likewise, every time we provide shelter for the homeless or better yet an affordable home, and every time we serve a hungry person at the food bank, or better yet help them find appropriate, life-sustaining work, we strike a blow for the new creation. And every time we clear a landmine from a farm in Vietnam, every time we support a school for disenfranchised children in the Dominican Republic, every time we intervene to stop abuse or violence, and work for reconciliation and peace between races and nations, we strike a blow for the new creation. We declare that poverty, injustice and suffering shall not have the last word in this world; Jesus will.
In his book Miracles C. S. Lewis says that miracles write for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation (p. 219). That’s the key to Easter. Easter writes for us in small letters what God will one day write in large letters across the whole canvas of creation, and through Jesus we are invited to be part of it.