Sunday, March 14, 2010

End of the Story, Part 2

We’re still talking about the end of the story. We’re still talking about Jesus coming back. In last week’s chapter Isaiah told us about the destruction that is coming. But in this chapter he uses the image of a banquet to draw our attention to the wonders of the age to come. We’ll be focusing on the middle of the chapter where Isaiah describes the banquet and what will go on there. I have found what Isaiah has written here very powerful. I believe that it holds much that is helpful for us.

Listen as I read Isaiah 25.

Let’s start with this question. Why a banquet? What is it about this image that makes it useful as a picture of eternity with Jesus? For one thing, a banquet is a celebration. To make that abundantly clear, other Scriptures describe it as a wedding banquet. Life after Jesus’ return will be a time when we will be happy. Please remember the distinction I have made between joy and happiness. Happiness is rooted in circumstances. As a result, happiness in this life is always only temporary. And that’s because the circumstances that bring it about are also always only temporary. But in the life to come, happiness will be permanent. After all, the circumstances that bring that happiness about will also be permanent. We will all be happy at the banquet that is coming.

Also bear in mind that a banquet is a meal. ‘On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.’ Key points in the biblical story are tied to meals. So, it’s not surprising that we have a meal show up here. But note that for this meal we will not be dining on stuff from Aldi’s. This is a banquet where the good stuff is served. So, it’s going to be ‘rich food full of marrow’. Now, to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure what that means, but whatever it means it’s going to be really good, and I’m going to have mine medium well done. And then Isaiah also tells us that it will also be a feast ‘of well-aged wine’. Now, I do know that that means. Psalm 104 teaches that that wine is a gift of God ‘to gladden the heart of man’. And the symbol of wine is often used to point to joy. You’ll remember that the first miracle in John’s Gospel is Jesus turning the water into wine, into really good wine. One point of the miracle is that Jesus has come to bring us joy. So, you see, this banquet is going to be something. And that makes sense. Remember that the angel said that Jesus’ birth was ‘good news of great joy’. Our forever will be filled with joy.

Now, did you notice that this description of eternity is so very physical? Isaiah doesn’t picture us floating on clouds, strumming harps and being bored. Isaiah pictures heaven as a feast to be eaten. And that imagery isn’t completely symbolic. Remember that we will have bodies. We will eat. That links up nicely with another Psalm. ‘You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ That word, ‘pleasures’, sounds so earthy. It sounds like food and football and laughter and sex and woodworking and photography and endless conversations over a pint. It sounds like fun. And it will be. So, when thoughts of heaven as boring begin to creep in, first, laugh at them. How wrong can you get? And then think of some of the things that you enjoy doing here and try to imagine how much better they will be there.

And that leads to this. Eternity, this feast, will be something that we will do together. You can’t have a feast, not this kind of feast, alone. You can limit a banquet to family. But, of course, after Jesus comes back we’ll all be one big, happy family. There will be no secluded places for people to hide behind walls once we get to heaven. Every inch of eternity will have the feel of a feast, something done together.

This is a picture of what will happen once Jesus returns. But remember that it’s only a picture and only a partial picture at that. The reality will blow the socks off any description that you will ever hear.

Let’s shift our view a bit. In this chapter Isaiah tells us that other things, besides eating, will be happening. ‘And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.’ Death. Tears. Reproach. Let’s look at each of these.

Death. What’s that? When the Bible uses that language what is it talking about? We usually limit the idea of death. It is actually very broad. A simple way of understanding it is to think of perfection. Think about the Garden of Eden. Peace, happiness, satisfaction, loving, being loved and knowing that you are; all of that and more all of the time. That’s the Garden. Death, on the other hand, is anything less than that. Death is anything that is not perfection, not the Garden. So, you see, death affects us all the time. It qualifies everything that we do and everything that we experience. Death is, at the very least, that disagreeable aftertaste that is always there. People miss this because they think that what we have here is normal. Nothing here is normal. The Garden is normal. What we have is profoundly not normal. What we have here is touched by death. It only seems normal if you settle.

Jesus says that one day there will be no death. That doesn’t mean that it will be placed over on the side. No! Death will be swallowed up. It will be consumed by Life. It will disappear. So, Paul gives us words to say when we are confronted by death. ‘When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Jesus’ promise to us is that one day death will be gone, completely, and that without a trace. Then we’ll be able to enjoy normal. Then we’ll be able to enjoy Life as it was originally intended. Then it’s back to the Garden.

Tears. When life got especially hard for me I stumbled upon these words from Jesus and found them very encouraging. ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.’ So much of ‘now’ is filled with weeping. That makes sense if you look at ‘now’ from Jesus’ perspective. Try to imagine what He must have felt as He walked around. He knew what normal was supposed to be. But what He saw were people caught up in abnormal. So, He saw the prostitute and what she suffered through and why she thought that was the only way she could make life work. He saw the tax collector and his treasonous choice, the hatred of the people against him and his hatred in return. And all of that for money which could not buy what he really desired. Jesus saw disease. He saw funerals. He saw Satan and his demons busy destroying lives. Jesus saw all this and more, and He wept. There is a way to avoid weeping and mourning. All a person need do is ignore it all, develop calluses around his heart and think only of how he is going to succeed at living well. Isolation also works. But that isn’t what Jesus did. Jesus wept. ‘Blessed are those who mourn…’

As we follow Jesus, that is, as we live like He does, as we look at ‘now’ in the way that He does, we will see the suffering that death and sin bring. We will see it in ourselves, and we will also see it in others. And we will weep. As we grow in our understanding of what real life is supposed to be, death will appear more and more ugly to us. And we will weep. But then the promise of Jesus will become so precious. One day, like a gentle mother, He will dry our tears. ‘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.’ We need to mourn. We need to shed tears. If we refuse to do so it can only be because we have hearts of stone as we watch humanity crushed by death. We must weep. But though we weep, we do not despair. We grieve at the effects of sin and death but not as others who have no hope. As Paul puts it, ‘… as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing…’ And we can do that because of Jesus. He promises us that a feast awaits where He will wipe away all of our tears.

Reproach. What’s this? It has to do with things like shame and disgrace. So, Isaiah writes, ‘… the reproach of his people He will take away…’ There’s an assumption here. Isaiah assumes that Jesus’ disciples will endure shame and disgrace for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’ The assumption of our text in Isaiah is that the saints are going to do things that will earn them the reproach of others. The world will look at the Church and say, ‘How stupid can you get?’ So, Paul described himself and those with him as ‘… fools for Christ’s sake.’ And Jesus said, ‘Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets’ and ‘Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!’ Reproach is assumed. But then, during the banquet, the reproach will be removed. So, from the Psalms: ‘… the LORD will vindicate his people …’ Jesus will make sure that everyone knows that the reproach, the shame, the disgrace endured was done for His sake. And that, by itself, would be reward enough.

Now, I will repeat a question that I posed for last week’s text. Why is this here? Why is this imagery of the banquet and all that goes with it included in Isaiah’s book? Once you think about it the answer is obvious. The faithful of his day were confronted with death and tears and reproach. And they needed some way to be encouraged. The faithful are still confronted with death and tears and reproach. And we also need some way to be encouraged. So, Isaiah points to the future. ‘The banquet is coming. Jesus will deal with all that you endure. And when He does, it will be worth it. So, endure to the end. This is not normal. That is.’ Thoughts of heaven, of eternity, of the banquet – thoughts about the future are intended to aid us as we deal with the present. The future gives a context to understand the present. The future gives hope.

And that leads to what Isaiah says next. ‘It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”’ This explains what we are to do now, before that day arrives. We ‘wait’. Now, please understand that word. It may sound passive, but it is anything but. It is a word that is filled with anticipation. It oozes with thoughts of eagerness. It is a word that is all about hope, the certainty of what is coming, though we do not now possess it. So, as you deal with death and tears and reproach, do not try to hide from them. Do not try to run away from them. Do not try to cover these over with distractions. Understand them and deal with them in the context of the certainty of the banquet. One day Jesus will stand on this earth as host of an awesome feast, and He will make wrestling with those three worth it. We do not give in to the weariness of the battle. Part of what keeps us going is the certainty of that day. Death will be swallowed up. Tears will be wiped away. Reproach will be changed into praise.

Let me close with the words Isaiah used to begin this chapter, slightly altered. ‘O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you [will do] wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.’

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