A New Heavens and a New Earth

Catherine Thiel Lee

I talk about heaven pretty often.

Not hypothetically or sentimentally. When you work with the dying, then isn’t much room, let alone time, for hypothetical sentiment. Things get very real and concrete.

When you work with the dying you think a lot about heaven. It is one of the more surreal and baffling (and lovely) parts of my hospice job. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t have a conversation about heaven. Some people have deep assurance and clear visions. Some people have questions. Not a few are just plain scared they aren’t going to get there. There is a lot of fear, a lot of mystery, and a lot of hope.

That is what came to mind when I first read these verses from Isaiah 65, all about God creating “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17). That eventual renewal of all things, that trust that somehow, some way God is going to at some point set things to right. That the death we see in front of us, in a 1,000 different forms, isn’t all there is to it. God will make things new.

These are the verses echoed in John’s Revelation. The next to the last chapter of the whole dang Bible (how’s that for a summary), which casts a vision of heaven. Beforehand John sees all this crazy stuff: dragons slain and white thrones, shimmering souls and fire consuming the devil, beasts and armies and a lake of sulfur. It reads like a sci fi role player video game that my nephews would be very into. (I thought to myself, “this has got to be a thing.” My quick internet search did not turn up an online RPG of Revelation, so entrepreneurs out there, seize your gold mine.) (I did, however, no lie, turn up a game called “Jesus in Space.”)

But digressions aside, Revelation is super weird, right up until the end when John culminates his vision with some of my favorite lines in the Bible, if you will forgive me for playing favorites. But they are really good. Maybe in part it’s because what becomes before it is so weird and dark and violent.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and there was no more sea,” no more chaos and difficulty… “See, God’s home is among the people” (Rev 21: 1, 3). It is a vision of heaven. God literally brings heaven out of the sky and sets up house. It is a vision of God’s ultimate homecoming for us, and for God.

And it sounds as though John, when he was writing Revelation, reached right back into his cache of words and stories and prophecies he had no doubt absorbed over the course of his life and faith and pulled right from the prophet Isaiah. “Behold, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17). The opening words we read tonight.

“Behold 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 in what I am creating” (Isa 65:17-18).

But this Isaiah passage isn’t particularly about heaven, it turns out. Isaiah is writing to people very much in the here and now. Isaiah is writing to people who live in the aftermath of years of war, exile, and the abandonment of God. Isaiah is writing to people who have and are facing death head on. There is no room, let alone time, for hypothetical sentiment. Which is perhaps why Isaiah’s words are so real and concrete.

But their “what’s next” isn’t heaven. It is life on earth.

Isaiah’s vision is filled with “earthy” images. Wrinkly babies and wrinkly old people. Houses and fruit. Sounds of weeping, of screams. A tree. Isaiah conjures pictures of work. A builder’s rough callouses. A farmer’s stubbed fingernails, stained with soil from digging, tying, trimming in the vineyard. A lion spread in the grass, its mane waggling as he absurdly chews his cud.

There are no streets of gold, silver chalices dripping honey, or chanting angelic beings. Not that Isaiah won’t go there. Isaiah is rather famous, in fact, for his wacky, fantastical calling: he told us some chapters back about strange seraphs whizzing around the exalted king’s throne, flapping their 6 wings as they burn his lips with hot coals. Isaiah isn’t afraid to get trippy.

But here Isaiah stays focused, grounded. He speaks of the stuff of daily life: nails driven into building frames, the dignity of labor. His concern is for infants and the elderly, the vulnerable and venerated, the people in a war-ravaged community for whom our compassion wells the quickest. The ones we react to protect. Isaiah speaks of world in which babies will not die too soon. Old people will not only live 2-3 times longer than expected, but their years will retain the vigor and joy of their youth.[1] For us, it translates to no more Pediatric ICUs, no more dementia or achy joints.

Isaiah abounds with gentleness, a tone I catch even deeper when I compare these words with strikingly similar verses in Jeremiah. Jeremiah 29 also talks about building houses and planting vineyards, but they are commands, to a likely begrudging or resentful oppressed community. Where Jeremiah says, “go, build, inhabit, plant,” (29:5) Isaiah makes joyous predictions. “They will build and inhabit…they will plant and eat…” (65:21) Where Jeremiah tells them, “[when] you call on me…I will hear you, (29:12)” Isaiah is even more reassuring. “Before they [even] call I will answer” (65:24). Isaiah tells them, “you won’t even need to pray, but God will still hear you if and when you want to.”

Isaiah’s is a rather domestic vision of creation, homes and food. “I am creating,” God declares, “I am about to create,” God repeats herself and mixes tenses, like a churning of action, God at the pot stirring things round and round, life about to bubble over. God the agitator, grasping a giant wooden spoon, whipping up something fresh.

The domesticity, mind you, is profoundly political. It transforms oppressive labor structures. “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat…they shall not labor in vain” (65:22-23). It envisions an end to generational trauma, children no longer born to calamity (65:23). Economy and nature itself transform; war and violence cease as a wolf and lamb set down to share a table.

And all of this renewal is framed in the context of joy and delight. God creates the city as “a joy,” the people as “a delight.” Isaiah repeats those words joy and delight, delight and joy, sets them in a poetic criss-cross down the page and in our ears. God is full of rejoicing, laughing as he stirs like a jolly chef.

Isaiah’s oracles have been stacking up for 65 chapters now. Layers of woe and consolation, warnings and punishment. The beginning of this chapter is subtitled, “the righteousness of God’s judgment.” It’s all been a bit weighty so far. So the conclusion is surprising.

All of this prophecy about God’s justice—its purpose all along is joy and delight.

I found a delightful twitter thread earlier this week, dozens of folks chiming in on their favorite nicknames for Mary the Mother of Jesus. There are a lot. Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, Cause of our Joy. Throne of Wisdom, Gate of Heaven, Tower of David. Health of the Sick, Our Lady of Light, Help of the Afflicted. The Mother of the New Creation who brings flowers and songs. The list goes on.

My favorite, though, is Untier of Knots. Perhaps, among other things, we can think of Mary, as John Gross suggested to us here at CHMF years ago—as an articulation of God’s identity, and our own, beyond the masculine, the King, the man in the sky.

I see God in these verses like Mary, untying knots. God holding our knotted-up world in her hands and carefully undoing all that have gone wrong. God placing hands on our own, guiding them as you would a child, showing us new ways to build houses, new ways to plant, new ways to work. Gods hands and our hands together crafting communities stretching into generations of shared shelter and meals and labor. Whose fruit is no less radical than the end of violence on the earth.

“Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God tells us (65:18).

“Behold” (65:17).

This is the work of hands, the work of God’s hands, the work of our hands too. This is not a vision of heaven far away. These are God’s words to people here on earth, an invitation to receive and create in the here and now. This is no time for hypothetical sentimentality.

So I will share with you an earthy image of hands that I know. My friend Julia is a farmer, a creator, and a lover of justice. She works day after day in the garden, farming and planting, building soil, pulling out weeds. She doesn’t only work the land, but also works tirelessly to deconstruct racism and construct new economies. When I meet with her the green tinge of tomato vines and embedded streaks of dirt often remain etched in her skin even after she washes her hands. There are scratches across her palms, torn fingernails. I watch her wrap her hands around a glass as she chugs water. On good days there is a gleam of delight as she brushes her hair out of her eyes.

I love her hands. I love the work that she does and her determination. I love the ways she sows flowers and songs into the earth, alongside strawberries and garlic, kale and sweet potatoes. Hands that build up and tear down. Hands that create.

So I will imagine God’s hands, perhaps a bit like hers, as they busily, earthily fashion a joyful, delightful new heavens and earth. Reaching out to invite all of us to join in.

[1] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A translation with commentary, Vol 2, The Prophets (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2019), 840.

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