Forever and Always Starts Now

 Inspired by Revelation 20:10; 21:1-6, 22-25; 22:1-5

So we have come to the end of our five weeks in Revelation. I hope it has been a meaningful five weeks for you. It certainly has been for me. Next Sunday we start year four of the Narrative Lectionary, which is hard to believe that much time has already gone by. This too has been a joy to journey with you through. As with every new year of the Narrative Lectionary, we will begin in Genesis and work our way to the Gospel of John this year, stopping along the way at some of the most important stories of the Hebrew Bible that we’ve yet to read in the first three years. Next week’s reading will be particularly timely because it matches so well with today's! It’s almost like they had it planned that way! So let’s dig in to today’s reading. 

We begin our story with the end of the dragon from last week’s reading. We skipped to the end of the book, not because it was boring or anything, far from. But other than some more death and destruction, all we really skipped was the beginning of the last battle. The last battle between Christ and the dragon. Our reading for today picks up at the end of that final battle, when evil is finally defeated, never to return again. No more last gasps of strength, no more flailing fists of fury. Evil is no more. Gone. For good. Now, let us just pause there and bask in that good news. Because honestly, the book could have just ended there! For far too many of us, it is enough to know that the evil of this world does have an end, it has an expiration date, it will die, its power will be no more! 

I think for a lot of us, that’d be enough! Whatever comes after is just icing, unnecessary! Well, let’s not get crazy, I love me some icing. It’s the only reason to eat cake in my opinion but I digress. The end of the pain and heartache that this world provides would be enough, but for God, it’s never enough, is it! God is always ready and willing to go the extra mile. And so we get these final two chapters of Revelation where John describes his final vision, God shows him the new Jerusalem. Now, for us that might sound like an odd way to describe Heaven. Jerusalem doesn’t have the same ring to us that it did for them. But we have to remember all that Jerusalem represented for them. Jerusalem was the one and only place on earth where you could claim to be the closest to God that you could ever be in this life. 

And we also have to remember, that the Jerusalem that they knew, was just a shell of what it once was, not to mention the fact that the temple, the very lightning rod that connected them to God was no more, destroyed by the Roman Empire, the dragon of their day. And so, a new Jerusalem brought for them all the warm fuzzies that you could imagine, it tugged on all the heartstrings for these early Christians, newly birthed from the Jewish faith. This meant everything to them. This meant that things were finally, ultimately, going to go forward to the way things were intended. Not go back. This new Jerusalem was going to be an entirely transformed Jerusalem. This wasn’t a Make Jerusalem Great Again movement!  

But at the same time, this was not John’s way of saying that God was ready to discard all that God had made and start over. God was in no way giving up on creation. But rather, God is ready to make something new with us. Something that will not be tainted by evil. So much so, that it will be something altogether new. How new? This place will be so different, there will be no need for a temple!  

Now, again, that might not sound like a big deal to us but to them, it was not only a new idea but it was probably a blasphemous idea! That was the only place they could be assured of their nearness to God! John says, no need, God will be there, like really there, as in the garden of Eden kind of there, face to face with us. John describes the new Jerusalem like this, “God’s very self will be with them…and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore.” 

Can we just stop here again and bask in more of that good news. I mean, not only will evil be defeated, not only will God live among us, not only will there be no death or pain or tears, but what I love about this is the affirmation that those things were never part of God’s original blueprint for creation. Can we just stop and admire the truth here that John is sharing with us, that God hates those things too. Pain, suffering, death, tears, mourning, God hates those things as much as we do, and never has and never will use them as tactics to get God’s way.  

Now, for some of you, this might be a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how often pastors hear comments like, “Well, I guess that was God’s plan” after someone dies. Or, “Well, there’s a reason for everything” after tragedy strikes. Bull! Poor John probably turns over in his grave every time someone says something like that. Because John knew that those things sadden and frustrate God as much as they do us. And that is gospel to our ears. 

This last vision ends with John seeing more of what makes this new Jerusalem so special. The river of life-giving water will run through the city. The tree of life, harkening back to that story of creation from Genesis, will be there, for the healing of the nations. And there will be no need for an outside source of light, because God’s glory and the wee little wounded lamb will be providing all the light that is needed. No need for the sun, moon, nor night. And this really struck me. In this last vision of John’s, God is so powerful, so providential, that God won’t even need the sun or moon or temple to make God known. God is enough. God is enough. And so, with that in mind, let’s ask that question we always ask ourselves after reading a Bible passage, “What does this mean for us today?” 

And for a little help with that we’re gonna turn to another author. In the final years of his life, Mark Twain wrote a book called Letters from the Earth. It includes a collection of letters written by Satan from Earth, to the angels Gabriel and Michael in Heaven. There’s this one section where Satan is comparing and contrasting the way things are in Heaven and the way things are on Earth. Humor me a moment and let me read you a portion of it, “In man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: "Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of [Heaven], 'rah! 'rah! 'rah!" Meantime, every person is playing on a harp -- those millions and millions! -- whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument in the earth, or ever wanted to. Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church -- an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so -- consider what their heaven provides for them: "church" that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end!” 

This was written during a very difficult time in his life, after the death of both his wife and one of his daughters. So aside from being typical Mark Twain writing, the sarcasm is at an all-time high, and so is his criticism of the Christian faith. What struck me about this passage though was his keen eye in realizing the discrepancy between God’s ways, as they are in Heaven, and our ways, as they are on Earth. Snarkiness aside, Mr. Twain hit the nail on the head. John of Patmos would urge us to ask, should there be such a discrepancy between Heaven and Earth? Of course there will be some discrepancy, but should there be such a discrepancy, such a wide discrepancy? John ends our passage by saying that God and God’s people will rule forever and always. Well, can’t forever and always start now? Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says it can’t start now? 

I don’t mean in its complete form but the ways of this new Jerusalem that John saw in his vision seem pretty doable now. At the very least we can get a good head start on them! Think of all the images that John has shared with us, an ornate city, gates that are forever open, the river of life, the tree of life, a garden-like setting, a place of perpetual light, angels singing, a marriage, a wounded lamb, a feast. These images represent protection, security, beauty, peace, abundance, joy, community, celebration, sacrificial giving!  

We know those things! We can do those things! Forever and always can start now! And it doesn’t have to be as hard as we often make it. Our God is so powerful, God does not need any of our help. If we can just allow God to shine, the way God shines in the new Jerusalem, without any outside help. Imagine how many new people could hear the good news of God’s unconditional love? 

But we always got to complicate things! We’re always looking for some new way to reach people. The latest craze that’ll pull people in! What if it’s not about pulling people in anyway! What if it’s just about letting people know that God loves them, no matter what? Especially in light of the fact that other people, other churches, have told them just the opposite! Which is why I’m so proud to be a part of a Reconciling in Christ church. Those rainbow hearts and flags and pamphlets that we have around, those might seem a little silly to some but to those who have been told you don’t belong in church because of who you love, those colors can seem like a river of life flowing from this place. And maybe they come through those doors someday and maybe they don’t. Either way, we can sleep tonight because we’ve allowed God to shine, not us, God.  

Here’s one last example and then I’ll shut up and let you get on with your day. Sometimes I think I’m in the twilight zone when I see such a fuss over the phrase Black Lives Matter. In what universe do people argue over whether a particular group of human’s lives matter? Any group! Blank lives matter. I never thought I’d live in a world where blank could be filled in with a group that people would actually argue over! If this book calls us to do anything, it’s to look around our world and see who needs some of God’s light to shine on them, who needs a drink from the river of life, who needs some of the healing leaves of the tree of life, in the here and now! And just like a rainbow flag, imagine how people of color feel after passing by the church in this photo? I’ll tell you how, they feel seen and they feel loved.  

I can tell you that because that’s how I’d feel as a brown person who has walked into too many rooms in my life, into too many buildings in my life, and have not felt welcome. The church in this photo is an Episcopal church in Mobile, Alabama. Needless to say, they have had to replace that banner several times and have said they will continue to do so. Like a rainbow flag, these are not new ways of reeling people in. They are simply allowing God’s light, God’s truth, God’s love, that we have had the privilege of knowing, to shine through to people who have not! And again, whether they ever walk through those doors or not isn’t the point. That church can sleep tonight knowing they’ve let God’s light shine through. And have continued the process of closing that discrepancy between that new Jerusalem and Earth. Thanks be to John of Patmos for sharing these visions with us. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to the wee little wounded lamb. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment