Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Heaven on earth? Really?

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:6-9

Do you like animals? I’ve never really been a pet person (though we did have a budgie I was very fond of when I was small). But I certainly enjoy a stroll round a wild-life park when I get the chance.

However, there’s a little colony of cats that belong - more or less, anyway - to a neighbouring house. They’re all female, with ridiculously cute names, but my wife and I call them Klopp, Mourinho, Allardyce, Southgate and Pardew (you may possibly spot a theme there), depending largely on their colours; and we get great pleasure from observing their antics from our front window, and speculating about what goes on in the murky depths of their dark, mysterious cat-minds.

Domesticated animals, or animals in the security of a zoo or safari park, are one thing. But of course wild animals, when they are actually in the wild... well, that’s a different matter.

I read in the paper this morning about polar bears sniffing around people’s homes in a Russian town way up in the Arctic Circle. And we have long heard about wolves venturing into the suburbs of Berlin. There was the sad story too, last week, of two tigers being slowly introduced to one another in the hope that they would mate. No sooner had they been allowed into the same pen than the male mauled the female to death. No wonder the poet Tennyson wrote about “nature red in tooth and claw”.

How utterly glorious, then, is the vision of the prophet Isaiah! 
Picture this, please! ... wolves and lambs happily co-habiting... leopards and goats enjoying a snooze together... calves and lions out for a stroll (and shepherded by a small child!)... lions eating grass like oxen... little children playing happily and safely in the habitats of poisonous snakes!
Is there any more beautiful passage in the whole of scripture?

Our natural response might be (to borrow the words a former tennis-player used to scream at umpires who displeased him), “You cannot be serious!” Surely this is just too good to be true?

Bu no: the prophet is absolutely serious.

Just as he was a little earlier when he predicted that weapons of war and killing would be transformed into implements of peace and prosperity: “they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). (“Hey, we don’t seem to need these spears any more! - why don’t we convert them into hooks for getting the fruit off the top branches?”)

And just as he will be a little later when he foresees a fantastic feast for anybody and everybody, and an end of death, weeping and sorrow: “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine - the best of meats and the finest of wines... he will swallow up death for ever... [he] will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:6-8).

And just as he sums it up at the end of his book: “See [says the Lord], I will create a new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).

Putting it in a nutshell, the prophet has a vision of the Garden of Eden restored. Isn’t all this the way it could have been if Adam and Eve had never sinned?

And, of course, he gives a foretaste of what that other great visionary, John, would see hundreds of years later, in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus...

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain’...” (Revelation 21:1-4).

We read these words and naturally find ourselves asking questions: When exactly will these things be? How literally are we to understand these visions? How do we square them with the darker side of the Bible’s message - judgment, wrath and hell?

These are fair questions, and they need asking.

But there are times, too, to let our imaginations run riot and simply luxuriate in the wonder of God’s promises. The essential truth we need to get hold of is this: Our God is a great, holy, just and loving God. He started this world in which we live - and he hasn’t finished with it yet!

How confident are you that you will have a seat at his great feast, a place of honour in his new heaven and new earth?

This, and nothing less, is the vision God holds out to all who trust in his son Jesus.

Thank you, Father, for the promise that a day is coming when paradise will be restored, when Jesus will reign supreme, and when all sin and sorrow will be done away. Help me to live my earthly life in anticipation of that day, and even to bring a little foretaste of heaven to everyone I meet. Amen.

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