Easter Sunday (C) – Isaiah 65:17-25
If we recognize the opening words of this passage today, it’s usually from another context. John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, uses this same image of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in the twenty-first chapter of HIS book. Many Christians hear his proclamation that “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,” these words as some description of the afterlife, the life that is to come, either when we die and go to heaven, or else at the second coming, when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. But that perspective doesn’t quite work if we start looking in detail at the prophecy of Isaiah.
The give away is in verse twenty, where Isaiah prophesies that, in God’s new Jerusalem, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. For one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth.” Isaiah is thinking of babies who die during or just after childbirth—a major problem especially in developing countries (like ancient Israel)—and proclaims that this won’t happen anymore. In fact, fully grown adults don’t die anymore in his vision either, not until they reach a ripe old age that most of us can only dream of. Death still happens, but only in its proper place. Which is to say that Isaiah is not talking about something that takes place after death. Isaiah is talking about a new creation in the midst of real life. Today, now, alive.
And it’s a big change that Isaiah proclaims in this new creation. The prophet Zephaniah, talking about the destruction of Israel before the exile, says that “Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.” A sign of the coming destruction is that nobody can enjoy the fruits of their own labors. Isaiah undoes this prophecy, declaring that the people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” This prophetic proclamation doesn’t just affect people life, and health, but it extends to the whole society, too, the economic life of Israel. It seems that no part of the people’s lives is untouched by God’s new creation.
And the power of what God is doing doesn’t stop there. The cup of renewal that pours out onto God’s people overflows into the rest of creation, too. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Even the behavior of wild animals are affected by this new life.
“And the serpent—its food shall be dust.” This gives us a hint about what’s really going on here. Has anyone caught it? Has anyone figured it out? Where else do we see a serpent in the story of salvation? That’s right! Way back in Genesis, when God first created the universe. Here in Isaiah, everything is renewed. Everything is re-created. Even the very foundation of the world.
Jesus’ resurrection at Easter always makes us think of the promise of eternal life, of an afterlife, of life after death. I won’t deny the truth of that, but I don’t think that’s really the point that God wants us to know here. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t about the end; it’s about the beginning. The beginning of creation! The beginning of life! The beginning of joy and delight! When Jesus rises from the grave on Easter morning, the torn fabric of creation is reworked and rewoven into new cloth. It is not thrown out, it is re-made. This is what God does to each one of us, as we begin to experience resurrection life. All the old, all the evil, all the brokenness is cast away. The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. No more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress. Instead, God has made us, and all things, new. And all the earth, and even the heavens, are renewed. This renewal is not limited to just us; it spans all of the cosmos. Jesus’ resurrection is a cosmic event. And all creation sings God’s praise. And just as he did in the very beginning, so too in this new beginning. God looks at what he has made, and it is good. And it is good. And it is very, very good.
* * *
Peter is staying with Simon the Tanner in the town of Joppa when he hears a knock at the gate. Three servants of a man named Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, have come looking for him. He’s heard that Peter has a message he’s spreading around, and wants to know what it is. Now, so far, Peter and the other apostles have only carried the Good News of Jesus Christ to other Jews. After all, Jesus was a Jew, lived among Jews, preached almost exclusively to Jews, and died in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea. Clearly the God’s gospel was meant for God’s people.
And now Peter is faced with a dilemma. He doesn’t know how Cornelius will treat him. Even among his own people, Peter’s proclamation of the gospel has gotten him into some trouble. And this guy is a Roman Centurion. He’s likely to react poorly. Peter should stay where he is. He should decline the invitation, and perhaps run the other direction. He should. But he goes.
After all, what’s the worst that could happen? This centurion could kill him, right? Which, I suppose, wouldn’t be very pleasant. But Peter knows that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and while he probably hasn’t completely worked out what that means for him yet, it at least suggests that death isn’t quite as final as it seems.
When Peter gets there, he’s welcomed like a wanted guest, and he and Cornelius talk. Something in their conversation convinces Peter that maybe it’s okay after all, because he begins to preach to Cornelius’s whole household. And the first words out of his mouth are, “Now I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter recognizes that this Good News has no limits on it. God’s saving work through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is for everyone. Even a Roman centurion.
This has a few important implications. The first is that His death and resurrection is for YOU. I think sometimes that we, even the best of us, get caught up in the enormous scope of the Good News. Especially this far removed from the actual historical events. Jesus died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Two thousand years ago. Two thousand years worth of civilization that have known of that salvation, and even just today, there are two billion Christians in this world. We are but a tiny, insignificant part of that. Jesus was for us, yes, all of us, centuries of us, uncountable numbers of us, what are “we” in the midst of that “us?”
Peter’s proclamation is that, no less than any of that crowd, salvation is for you, too. The New Creation is cosmic in scope, as I said earlier, yes it is, but it is also very specifically pointed in scope. For. You. When you receive the forgiveness of sins, it is not just the sins of Christianity. It is your sins, yours. When you reach for the bread and the wine, it is not just the whole community that receives Jesus own body and blood. You do. It is yours. When the water of life wells up within us, this is not some mystic fountain in the midst of the Lutheran assembly. It is in you. Yours. The New Creation is created within you. It’s not just that you get to see and hear Easter joy. You are a part of that Easter joy. It is your resurrection we’re talking about.
But while it’s good to experience the Resurrection like Cornelius, receiving the good news and knowing that you’re included, we need to remember that we are also like Peter, sent by the Holy Spirit out into the world to proclaim that Resurrection to others. And what strange others we might be sent to! For Peter, nobody could have been more difficult than a Roman centurion, the embodiment of the empire, the enemy of the Jewish people. Peter must have been frightened, but he went anyway, into certain peril, for the sake of Christ crucified and risen. Why are we frightened, then, to share the Good News with others? To celebrate the joy we have in the Resurrection by helping other people to experience Resurrection joy?
Unless, of course, everything we do as the people of the Resurrection speaks of that joy? Perhaps we don’t even need to name Christ in order to proclaim the gospel? We build houses or feed hungry people, and they can experience the Resurrection in that, too. We serve in the food pantry, or sell Christmas trees for the hungry, or provide Christmas gifts for families that otherwise might have nothing. The world says we should spend our resources, time, and energy providing for ourselves. But when we experience the Resurrection, when we know that we are part of the Good News, the Resurrection of Christ FOR US, then the way we behave speaks of that Resurrection. It’s not that we have to work to be better people; somehow, because of the Gospel, we just ARE better people. And everything we do is Easter joy.
A new creation. New life. And now we become new witnesses to Jesus’ death and rebirth. Everything becomes new in Jesus Christ. Everything: With no partiality. But everyone and everything in every nation everywhere who does fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him. Amen.