Sermon: The Ships of Tarshish

In The Last Battle, the concluding book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, heaven comes crashing into earth. Aslan, the Christ-figure, returns and the characters see him face-to-face, and those who respond with joy are invited into the wide open country of salvation. And what they discover is that this salvation land, this redemption country, is much, much bigger than they thought at first. As they go “further up and further in,” they find that the landscape of salvation is bigger on the inside than on the outside. The deeper they go, the bigger it gets.

Our hope is that in these last few weeks, we have discovered that God’s salvation is bigger on the inside. The deeper we go, the more expansive it gets, until it touches every nook and cranny, every square inch of our lives. We have headed further up and further in and hopefully found our minds and our hearts have expanded, filled up and dripping over with the good news of God’s redemption of all of creation.

We began with Creation, discovering that God created work as part of his good gifts to us. But this work, like the rest of creation, was corrupted in Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and has far too often turned into toil. But that original goodness was not destroyed, simply marred, covered over, and redirected away from God and his purposes for us. But we saw the good news that God is at work redeeming all of creation in Jesus Christ, which includes the very work of our hands.

We then lived in the tension between these competing claims upon our life. Pastor Olga guided us in hearing how the Pharaohs of today still seek to oppress, minimize, and less us, but that God invites us to work for his kingdom, which is filled with joy, rest, and fulfillment.

Then we heard the good news that our salvation, our restoration to relationship with God is not a result of the work of our hands, but because of Christ’s death on the cross. We are not saved by good works, but for good works. We now for God’s glory with the wind of the spirit at our backs.

This morning, we end by journeying again into that wide open country of salvation, seeing if God’s work of redemption is even bigger on the inside than we imagined. We end with one question: Does our work matter in the long run?

Does our work matter at the end of the day? At the end of all days? If, as we hear in the gospel, our work doesn’t save us, does the work of our hands matter when Christ returns in glory? Does work matter outside of the joy and fulfillment we feel and its ability to help us eat and find shelter? Or is it simply something for us to do while we wait for Jesus to come back?

Does our work matter at the end of the day?

To answer this question, we will take a glimpse into the Heavenly City, the kingdom coming in its fullness. And that vision comes to us this morning from Isaiah, chapter 60. Isaiah is in the Old Testament – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Isaiah. Isaiah, chapter 60, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God, from the book that we love:

Arise, shine, for your light has come

and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

and thick darkness is over the peoples.

But the Lord rises upon you

and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look about you:

all assemble and come to you.

Your sons come from afar

your daughters are carried on the hip.

Then you will look and be radiant,

your heart will throb and swell with joy,

the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,

to you the riches of the nations will come.

Herds of camels will cover your land,

Young camels of Midian and Ephah,

and all those from Sheba will come

bearing gold and incense

and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,

the rams of Nebaioth will serve you.

They will be accepted as offerings on my altar

and I will adorn my glorious temple.

Who are these who fly along like clouds,

like doves to their nests?

Surely the islands look to me,

in the lead are the ships of Tarshish,

bringing your children from afar with their silver and gold,

to honor the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,

for he has endowed you with splendor.

Foreigners will rebuild your walls,

and their kings will serve you.

Though in anger I struck you,

in favor I will show you compassion.

Your gates will always stand open,

they will never be shut, day or night,

so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations,

their kings led in triumphal procession.

For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish.

It will be utterly ruined.

The glory of Lebanon will come to you,

the juniper, the fir, and the cypress together

to adorn my sanctuary

and I will glorify the place for my feet.

The children of your oppressors will come bowing before you,

all who despise you will bow down at your feet

and will call you the City of the Lord,

Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Although you have been forsaken and hated,

with no one traveling through,

I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.

You will drink the milk of nations

and be nursed at royal breasts.

Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior,

your Redeemer, the might one of Jacob.

Instead of bronze, I will bring you gold

and silver in place of iron.

Instead of wood, I will bring you bronze

and iron in place of stones.

I will make peace your governor

and well-being your ruler.

No longer will violence be heard within your land,

nor ruin or destruction within your borders,

but you will call your walls Salvation

and your gates praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day,

nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,

for the Lord will be your everlasting light,

and your God will be your glory.

Your sun will never set again,

and your moon will wane no more,

for the Lord will be your everlasting light,

and your days of sorrow will end.

Then all your people will be righteous

and they will possess the land forever.

They are the shoot I have planted,

the work of my hands,

for the display of my splendor.

The least of you will become a thousand,

the smallest a mighty nation.

I am the Lord,

in its time, I will do this swiftly.

This the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Does our work matter in the long run? Are we just supposed to ‘get saved’ and ‘get others saved’? Does everything else not really matter when Jesus returns? The vision God gives to Isaiah is bigger than we often dream, maybe than we believe we are allowed to dream.

But Prophecy is notoriously difficult to understand. We won’t be able to explore every detail of this rich chapter, but I want to take a little time to help us get a vision of what is happening in Isaiah 60. And then I want to invite you to notice two details with me that I hope will lead us further up and further in to this wide open country of salvation.

The vision of Isaiah was originally given in a period of darkness. Most of the evidence points to this entire section of Isaiah being written after the people of Israel had been sent into exile. They had been starved, slaughtered, pillaged, and dragged away from their homes, which were left in ruins. The few chapters before this vision and the opening words themselves describe this time with the image of ‘darkness.’

The powerful nations of the world had stripped Jerusalem bare, desecrated God’s holy temple, and scattered its people.

But then, Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

Like the sun coming at dawn, the Lord rises to shine the light of his salvation on his people.

As so Isaiah is given a vision of the future God promises to bring about – a future that we catch in glimpses, but will ultimately come in its fullness when Christ returns and the heavenly Jerusalem comes to earth and God dwells among his people.

The whole earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, but the prophets picture God’s throne being in the temple of Jerusalem, in the Holy of Holies on Mount Zion. It is from the perspective of sitting at the foot of God’s throne that Isaiah glimpses the heavenly city.

The city is no longer bare and empty – the children of God who have been scattered the corners of the earth now return to Jerusalem. The sight of it will cause Israel’s heart to throb and swell with joy. But not only do the scattered people of Israel return, but the nations of the world stream to Zion to praise and worship the Lord.

He looks south and east and sees camels coming from Midian and Ephah. He looks far south and sees people streaming from Sheba with gold and incense, proclaiming God’s praise. To the west, just on the horizon are what look like clouds or flying doves, but are really the ships of Tarshish, their sails billowing in the winds as they coming bringing people, silver, and gold. To the north, he looks and sees Lebanon coming with the finest wood, the symbols of their power and prosperity.

The nations who had once oppressed Israel, the powers that had used their might, their culture, their gifts, to oppress God’s people, now come humbled before the throne of God, they bow down before God’s people and praise the Lord, the Holy One of Israel.

Where Jerusalem had been stripped bare and torn down, it would now be rebuilt. The walls climb again, the gates stand open – Gold, silver, bronze take the place of wood, stone, and iron. Violence and destruction end and at the climax, the sun and moon even lose their high place. God’s presence will be so good, so wonderful that it will fill the city with light and your days of sorrow will end.

This is the heavenly city when Christ comes again. This vision is echoed when God gives John his vision on the island of Patmos in Revelation 21 and 22. When Christ comes again and sets all things right and makes all things new, the scattered will be gathered, the nations will humbly stream to praise God, and violence, destruction, and death will be no more.

I am the Lord,  in its time, I will do this swiftly

Come, Lord Jesus, and come soon.

If this is the vision, if this is what the heavenly city will be like, how should we live now, in anticipation of its coming?

1. The Ships of Tarshish

Let’s notice together two things. First, the ships of Tarshish come to the heavenly city.

It’s verse 9: who are these that fly along like clouds, like doves to their nests. Surely the islands look to me, in the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your children from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.

What are the ships of Tarshish doing here in the heavenly city?

In this vision, God shows the nations of the world streaming to worship God from every corner of creation, but interestingly they don’t come empty-handed. They bring stuff with them. Gold, silver, spices, animals, and ships.

Ships in heaven.

Let me ask you something: Were there ships in the garden of Eden? (No)

The first ship we know of for sure is Noah’s Ark, and in Genesis 10 we are told that one of Noah’s descendants helps form the maritime or ship-building peoples of the world – including Tarshish. But there were no ships in Eden, but we do see them in heaven.

That means that something that wasn’t in the Garden is in the Kingdom.

Some part of the unfolding of Creation, the work of human ingenuity and engineering is included in heaven. The vision of God’s kingdom is not going back to the garden, but to a city. In God’s amazing grace, he includes the work of human culture in his heavenly kingdom. The ships of Tarshish are in the heavenly city.

God takes history seriously, which means he takes the products of history seriously as well. The work of making culture finds its way into the kingdom. Our work matters in the long run, because God allows it to be brought into the kingdom. This doesn’t mean that you get to take your stuff with you when you die. You can’t. But it may mean that somehow, the work that we do is included in God’s final work of redemption. There may be plenty of things in the heavenly city that were not in the garden and they may be there because of God’s work through our hands. The first commandment in Scripture was to be fruitful and multiple and fill the earth and that commandment includes not only filling the earth with people, but with schools, homes, farms, law offices, factories, art, and more. And somehow, these works of filling creation will be reclaimed by God for his glory.

And this reclaiming is key. This is the second thing we should notice together: God reclaims work for his glory. If the first things to notice is that the ships of Tarshish are heaven (and all their equivalents in our culture and world), we also need to notice that they are not the same in going there.

2. Reclaimed for God’s glory

All the foreign goods and foreign powers named in Isaiah 60 were pagan. All these foreign things which were used for pagan ends and grandiose displays of power are all present in the heavenly city, but with a new purpose. The ships of Tarshish come to the honor of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel. The gold, camels, flocks, incense, and ships which reeked of paganism, which had been twisted to serve human power and vanity, and which had been instruments of ruin for the people of God are now all mentioned as being in the heavenly city. Their distortion is removed and they are brought to the city to serve God and his people.

God doesn’t get rid of the ships of Tarshish because they were used for wicked ends, instead he redirects, reclaims them for his glory. All of it will be broken and rebuilt. All that refuses to serve God will be utterly ruined, we are told in verse 12. But God doesn’t destroy them all together, he reclaims for himself those very things which humans used to rebel against him.

As we saw in Genesis 1-3, all of work is good, all of work is fallen, and all of work is being redeemed. In Isaiah 60, we see a glimpse of that redemption. The ships of Tarshish are in the heavenly city. For all their fallen-ness, they are brought into the city, brought into service to God. God is redeeming all of life, every square inch, which means that all kinds of work will be reclaimed in the heavenly city, brought out of darkness into the light, into the service God intended it for.

It is God who brings this city about, he does all of it, I am the Lord, in its time I will do this swiftly, but as his people, we are called to live as citizens of that heavenly kingdom, which means living into a reality that has not yet fully arrived.

We are to live and work leaning into this future. We work to reform education because it matters for the kingdom. we work to reform medicine, agriculture, politics, science, and even the pastorate, because it matters for the kingdom. God is bringing the ships of Tarshish into his kingdom and into his service.

May we bring all the works of our hands before him, that he might shape them and use them for his Kingdom and his glory.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday School Questions

What might redemption look like in your workplace/field of work?

– What is the structure of your kind of work? What is it that makes it what it is?

– What direction is your work headed in? In what ways is it directed towards God and hs will? In what ways it is directed away from God and his will?

What might God long for there to be more or less of in your work?

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