By Annette Brownlee
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. … And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:1, 4 KJV)
A new heaven and a new earth; no more tears or pain. Don’t we yearn for this? My eldest cousin died after returning from Vietnam. A decorated war hero. Drinking, he crashed his car into a tree. A friend’s youngest son is lost to opioids. A student left all her family behind in China when she came to Canada. Such loss. At some point, we want it to all go away. And with this promise in Revelation, that is what we hear. All the “former things,” simply gone. A new heaven and new earth.
That’s partly — and maybe even mostly — what we think about “newness”: the former things gone. God’s newness, his “new thing.” Not only in our families. Poverty, racism, violence: all things of the past, now replaced in the new earth. Who doesn’t hope for this?
Yet we need to dig deeper to understand this promise. For the tears of loss — my aunt and uncle over their son, my friends over their son, my student over her family lost to her, so far away. Tears of loss often come with tears of regret. Don’t they? When my cousin died, there was the regret at not having loved him more. When my student’s mother died back in China, after she came to Canada, her tears of loss were mixed with tears of guilt. If there is to be a new heaven and a new earth, there must also be, it seems, a new heart.
Thus, if we are to ask “How does God create anew?,” a part of the answer must go beyond the former things having ended. Restructured circumstances. If anyone is in Jesus Christ, Paul says, “you/we are a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only the heavens and the earth, but our own selves. What might this mean?
The wonderful verses from Revelation this morning are in fact based on a direct quotation from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s original words offer a clue to John of Patmos’s meaning. All Scripture interprets other Scripture. But it is a difficult clue. The words are from the very end of Isaiah’s book, chapter 65.
There have been 64 chapters of the long and hard history for God’s people. That history is shaped by God’s warnings to Israel and the nations, judgment, hope, punishment, and longing. At the end of all this, God finally announces: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17 RSV). And then come descriptions we read at Christmas. Of babies who do not die when playing with snakes, of lambs and wolves lying down together, of prayers that are always answered. One can almost hear Israel’s sigh of relief, and hope for a new future.
Yet Isaiah does not stop there. He goes further to explain what this “newness” involves: “For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the storm wind. By fire the Lord will execute judgment, and by his sword, upon all flesh” (Isa. 66:15-16 RSV). It is a wrenching shift from the images of peace that Isaiah just announced. God knows the “works and thoughts” of all, he says (66:18), and renders them bare before his gaze; he showers “affliction” and “fear” upon all who cannot receive him; and he brings those who will not “listen” to him to “shame” (66:4-5).
There is an almost terrifying contrast at work here. The Lord insists, very clearly, that his “coming in fire and judgment” is itself part of the new heaven and new earth. Part of Israel’s renovation. Listen to these words: “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your descendants and your name remain” (Isa. 66:22 RSV). But then, in a disturbing climax, the prophet ends his entire book with this disturbing word from God, which forms the very last verse of Isaiah itself: “And they — that is, these recreated Israelites — shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of those that have rebelled against me …; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa. 66:24 RSV).
That is how the Book of Isaiah ends. This is what we must see: The new heaven and the new earth is scattered with the dead, it seems. What a strange thing to say! They lie there as reminders to Israel, contrasting with all her hopes. It is as if Israel herself, redeemed, resuscitated, renewed, in this very posture of re-creation, gazes at herself, her “other self,” her “old” self (cf. Rom. 6:6; Col. 3:9), the self of her rebellions, the self of her angers, the self of her bitterness, the self of her lovelessness — Israel, in her newness, now gazes at and knows who she was, and sees this self finally discarded and left to dissolve into the dust. “The former things have passed away.” What former things? They are there for Israel to see. For us to see. The distortions of our own hearts, which now we see for what they are, and to which we are urged to say, and indeed can finally say: goodbye.
This is true newness, divine newness, what it means to be in a place where tears and pain are no more. Our Christian faith calls this newness “repentance.”
It is this repentance that is the heart of the inclusion of the Gentiles — you and me — into God’s promises. In our reading from Acts, when it is dawning on Peter that the non-Jews have been included in God’s promises, what happens? “The Holy Spirit falls upon them.” They praised God and said, “Then God has given even to the Gentile the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). It is the repentance we see at the end of the Book of Isaiah.
What Isaiah, whom John is quoting in the Book of Revelation — what Isaiah seems to be claiming is that the “new heaven and new earth” mark a new shape to Israel’s relationship with God. A new shape in comparison with the present. The earth and the heavens change as a result, to be sure. But the foundation of that change is found in the hearts of those who see themselves in relation to God in a new way, one where what is wrong has been acknowledged for what it is, and then been left behind.
Recall the first words of Jesus’ preaching, when, after his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, he appears now before the world, proclaiming openly his message: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15 RSV).
Repent and believe. Believe in my promise of forgiveness and of transformation. Newness itself. Repent and believe.
I am not suggesting that “heaven” is the same thing as our repentance. I do not know what heaven is, or what constitutes the end of the world and its redemption, in any concrete way. Nor does anyone. But the line between repentance and divine re-creation is a direct one. This is what we are invited to hear this morning.
Every tear of loss we find running down our cheeks is tinged with the more bitter waters of regret. We know this, especially as we age. I did not spend enough time. I did not sympathize. I did not say what I most deeply needed and wanted to; I did not give as I might have and should have.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Jesus places as a request in the center of the only prayer he taught us. Forgive as I might or wish or am called to forgive. So Jesus says today, in the commandment he gives us that he calls “new”: love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). The commandment is “new,” not because no one had ever heard of “love” before. The commandment is “new” because it makes us new. It is new in the sense that the earth and heavens become new when our hearts admit their frailties and failures, and finally turn to God, and now given over, are filled at last with his Spirit and purpose.
We don’t know what heaven is. But I doubt that heaven is constituted simply by the annihilation of our sorrows. We bear these sorrows, each of us, every day in this life, and in their accumulation they can become too much at times. Yet part of their burden lies in the bitterness we have wrapped around our losses — our responsibilities, abandoned opportunities, and regrets.
These the Lord would lift from our shoulders, were we to offer them before his grace. He forgives us; in our honesty and need, God forgives us, coming to our side in the body of Christ Jesus himself. And there we find what love is, and thus discover true love at the center of our sorrows; and just so find sorrow itself transfigured. A new heaven and a new earth? The world is re-created here, in this juncture of divine self-offering, and our repentant turn to welcome it.
“Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” even now (Luke 17:21). Such is God’s promise to us. Today!
The Rev. Annette G. Brownlee is the chaplain of Wycliffe College, director of field education, and teaches in the Pastoral Theology Department.