All Flesh Shall Worship

Text: Isaiah 66:18-23
Date: Pentecost XIV + Proper 16 + 8/21/16

Today St. Luke reminds us that Jesus is continuing on His journey “toward Jerusalem.” Jerusalem! It’s the place where God dwells. It is the place of divine worship. It is the place of God’s salvation. So it’s not surprising that a nameless “someone” asked Jesus about salvation. It is interesting that the question was not, as many ask today, whether everyone is going to be saved in the end. Among the Jews there has always been an awareness that salvation will be the possession only of a faithful remnant chosen by God. In the apocryphal book of 4 Ezra it is written, “The Most High has made this world for many, but the world to come for few” (4 Ezra 8:1). This is simply because, while salvation is the totally free gift of God, it is possessed only by faith. Did God make forgiveness of sins and salvation available to all people? Yes, He did. Could all people be saved in the end? Yes, they could. Yet the Bible tells us that it is because of our fallen, sinful nature, our inbred spiritual blindness and deadness that many will reject God’s proffered salvation by unbelief. So if you change the question asking “Will all people be saved in the end?” The clearly unhappy answer is “No.”

The final chapter of the book of Isaiah concludes the prophet’s entire message speaking of Final Judgment and the Glory of the Lord. Are these words about heaven? Well, yes and no. It speaks clearly of “the new heavens and the new earth that I make which shall remain before me, says the Lord.” St. Peter speaks of the Christian hope of eternal life, in the words, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). Likewise, we read in the book of Revelation where St. John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev 21:1). So, yes, Isaiah prophesies concerning eternal life in heaven.

At the same time, however, the Lord continues to speak of the final judgment and the glory of eternal life in terms that still seem in this text to be fixed on the earthly city of Jerusalem. For time is still measured “from new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath.” He says that many will be brought from the nations, “And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.” Priests and Levites are only of the Old Testament. It is said, “the Old Testament brings down the life to come to the level of this life, whilst the New Testament lifts up this life to the level of the life to come; that the Old testament depicts both this life and the life to come as an endless extension of this life, whilst the New Testament depicts it as a continuous line in two halves, the last point in this finite state being the first point of the infinite state beyond.”[1] Isaiah sees this new heaven and new earth but only the old Jerusalem of earth being lifted up. But St. John talks about “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:1). “In the former dwells the Israel that has been brought back from captivity; in the latter, the risen church of those who are written in the book of life.”[2]

Again to our question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus redirects that question to the most important one, that is, the question is whether you will be saved. It is only by personal repentance and faith that God’s salvation will be yours. And so we can speak both of the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly one in the same breath since, by repentance and faith in Jesus you are already made a member of God’s kingdom now and yet to wait for the fullness of salvation in the life to come.

Will those who are saved be few? Jesus says, “yes,” yet the reality is that, still, “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” For the invitation is for all. “God so loved the world….”

Jerusalem is the place and the goal of salvation because that’s where God is, that’s where our Lord shed His blood, a ransom for the life of the world. There sin was taken away, death destroyed, life and hope restored.

And now wherever this Gospel is preached there is the new Jerusalem. While Jerusalem was Jesus’ destination and our hope of salvation it is also the place for feasting. The Last Supper of Jerusalem now repeated all along the way by God’s people everywhere will finally find its fulfillment in the heavenly banquet when you find your seat among the many and myriads “at table in the kingdom of God.”

[1] Isaiah by F. Delitzsch, reprint 1980, 517.

[2] ibid