28 September 2010

Making All Things New

Revelation 21: 1-8

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 26th September 2010

This glorious text from Revelation 21 is often read at funerals or memorial services.  There’s so much about it that lends itself to such occasions in the life of the church.  In a time of sorrow and grief these words offer considerable comfort:  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21: 3-4). Because of this reference to the death of death, of a time when mourning and crying and pain will come to an end, it is often assumed that this is a vision of the heavenly realm.  Hence it’s use at funerals and memorial services.  We suspect that these verses are describing a place in another world.

            But the text doesn’t say this.  At the beginning of the chapter it reads, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  It continues, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  A new heaven and a new earth and in the earth a new city, a new Jerusalem.  Where is it?  Here in this world.

            That’s what John saw in his vision. (Revelation is an account of what he saw.)  Now, we could say this was “just” a vision, a religious hallucination, a spiritual insight that has no real correspondence to reality as it is.  Surely this can’t be a description of this world because how on earth can there be on earth an earth without the sea – what kind of world would that be?  Not a world we would want.  That is unless you were a Jew.  For a Jew such a world, without the sea, would be a kind of heaven because to the Jew the sea represented chaos, the part of creation that was beyond the control of God’s sovereignty.  Heaven would mean no sea.  The Jews have never had a strong association with seas and oceans.  You never think of Israel, for example, and say:  naval power. 

And, what is more, how can there really be world where death is no more?  Death, from a purely biological perspective is a natural process of creation.  No thing, no one lasts forever.  Death is as sure as taxes, we say.  But for a Jew, in Jesus’ time, in most of the Bible, death meant more than biological death. Death was understood as a power, a force in the creation that is destructive, that hinders God’s plans for creation.  Paul refers to death as an enemy whose sting has been blunted by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).   You can see why we assume that John’s vision is of heaven, heaven as another world, some other dimension, some place other than here.  The promises, the hope extended to God’s people  we think will be fulfilled and realized not in this world, but in a world to come.

            But that’s not what the text says.  The text says heaven is a reality that comes down to earth, so that it “may be on earth,” as we say in the Lord’s prayer, “as it is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 10).  The vision points to a place – a city.  The Bible might begin in garden, but it ends in a city.  It’s the city that matters to God.  It’s an urban setting where God chooses to pitch a tent to dwell with us and live with us, day in and day out.  The city becomes the place where heaven and earth touch, meet – which is what the Jews believed about old Jerusalem, the axis mundi, the axis of the world, the center, the navel of the world.  John’s hopeful vision is not a description of a place beyond time, but a place in time, here and now. 

            This vision is really quite extraordinary, given the fact that John and his fellow Christians have been living through hell at the hands of the Romans.  The fantastical, even violent, bloody images one finds in Revelation paint a picture of a world where Christians were seriously tortured and brutalized for their confession of Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar.   One would expect good news for these people who have victimized, broken, and abused by Rome, to be the promise of a new world some place else.  One would expect the promise of an afterlife in some other place would be their message.  But, no; that’s not what the text says.  It’s not the promise of some other world, but this world that John sees. Revelation is not escapist, it’s not otherworldly and there’s no account of a rapture (or the whisking away of Christians at the so-called end of the world).[1] 

            Instead, listen to the voice of the one who sits on the throne, whose orb and scepter rules the universe with justice and righteousness, who rules even over the chaos of the sea, whose power of love cannot be matched by the force of death or the strength of Caesar’s armies.  Listen to what the voice on the throne says to John:  “See – behold – look – I am making all things new.”  Write these words:  “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end.”  The one who was there before time is the same faithful Lord at the end of time; the potentate of time who rules with love over the movement of our lives, the benevolent ruler who leads and moves all of creation towards its culmination and fulfillment, this is the one who says, “I am making all things new.”

            With these amazing words at the end of Revelation we are given a glimpse of the purpose and direction toward which God is moving the universe.  They point to the culminating work of Jesus Christ, what his life and death and resurrection, his defeat of death all point to at the heart of existence.  They give expression to the direction of all God’s handiwork, the very purpose, goal, or end of the universe – which is the recreation and restoration of all things, the recreation and restoration of the world and our lives within it.  This, my friends, is the force, the secret power deep at work in the depth of all things.

            Now the text doesn’t say the removal of all things.  It doesn’t say everything old will come to an end followed by something new.  It doesn’t say all new things.  Instead, its says, “all things new.”[2]  This is what God loves to do, over and over and again, creating and recreating with all the “stuff” of our lives.  Isaiah foreshadowed this when we hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19).  Or, here:  “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, see also 66:22).  God loves to take what is old or worn or broken or useless or tired and transform it.  God loves to take into Godself all the hate, all the sin, all the excruciating pain and mind-numbing, heart-freezing sorrow of human existence and then do something marvelous and wonderful with it, offering something new in its place.  God loves to take all of our tears and our hurts and our regrets, our shame and our guilt and then d something extraordinary with them, transforming them.  God takes on every death force in ourselves, in our families and relationships, our communities, nations, and world and decisively redeems and restores.  That’s the goal, that’s the purpose, that’s what god is doing now and that’s the direction of God’s time.  It’s the promise of the Christian experience. 

About eleven years ago, about a year before she died, I remember visiting my grandmother in the nursing home in New Jersey.  My maternal grandmother lived with my family.  Some of my earliest memories are with her.  I couldn’t say the word “grandma” as a toddler, so I said, Mama.  And that’s who she was to me.  I was extremely close to her.  She was about 92 at the time in declining health and suffering from dementia.  It was a difficult visit.  It was tough finding something to talk about and she kept falling asleep.  Although I visited her many times before there, I couldn’t help but remember the way she used to be:  loving conversation, engaging me, asking questions.  Frustrated and sad with nothing to talk about after a few moments of silence, I said, “So, Mama, what else is new?”  As I heard those words coming out of my mouth I thought to myself, how absolutely stupid you are  – what was new for her when every day was relentlessly the same, where she was surrounded by death and the ravishment of time.   All my pastoral care training, in that moment – gone.  I asked it as if she wasn’t even there.  I was felt terrible.  Then she came to and turned to me and said, “Oh, Kenny, everything is new.”  And I smiled.  That is the deeper truth of the universe because that’s the deeper truth of the gospel.

            The good news is that Jesus Christ declares to our hearts and to the heart of his church and to the heart of his world:  “I am making all things new.”  At the core of the gospel is this experience of new life.  At the core of our encounter with God is the same message:  “Behold – see! – I make all things new.” 

            Is it any wonder, therefore, that these words are among those used to describe the Christian experience:  renewal, regeneration, rebirth, restoration, revitalization, redemption, change, new Creation.  Transfiguration.  Transformation.  Conversion. Revolution. Resurrection?  They all point to the same reality: the movement, the dynamism at the heart of the Christian life.  There’s nothing about it that calls us to secure the status quo.  In fact, the status quo can too easily become status woe

            Woe, because there is something else within us, in our psyches, in the depths of our being that really doesn’t like all of these words, that resists renewal or restoration or change.  There’s something in us that really doesn’t embrace resurrection in our lives because that means something first must die in us.  Until we come to terms with this resistance within us, until we face, head-on, our fear of rebirth, we will remain stuck.  To acknowledge that Jesus is at work in our lives and the world, actually working to form and reform us, to give a place to the movement of God’s Spirit blowing through our lives can be very scary indeed. We prefer to keep God at bay.  We prefer to think we’re in control of our lives.  We prefer to think we understand what it means to be a Christian and what God expects from us.  There’s no need for change.

            “There’s an old Celtic story about a monk who died and was interred in the monastery wall.  Three days later, the monks heard noises coming from inside the crypt.  When they removed the stone they found their brother alive.  He was full of wonderment, saying, ‘Oh, brothers, I’ve been there!  I’ve seen it! And it’s nothing at al like the way our theology says it is.’ So they put him back in the wall and sealed the crypt again.”[3]

            It’s an illusion to think we can wall-up the truth.  It’s an illusion to think we can resist forever the grace that seeks to enter into and work through our lives.  It’s an illusion to think that nothing will ever change; that we are bound by our circumstances or contexts or histories or our limited visions or even our budgets, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.  It’s an illusion to think there’s no cause for hope.

            These illusions are really lies, because nothing can resist God’s redemptive determination to restore, to heal, to make new.  John tells his fellow Christians, yes, you’ve been through hell, but I’ve seen into the future and the future cannot compare to what is coming and has even now broken into our world.  Because the future is in God’s hands, this means the present is as well.

            I invite you to meditate on 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new,” this week and claim this vision for yourself, ask yourself:  what does this verse mean in this season of your life?  What does this verse say to your family situation?  How does this inform your worship life and experience God’s presence in the life of this community?  What’s in need of renewal in life?  Where is God trying to regenerate new life in you?  What is God through Christ trying to give birth in your or through you – and in us together – for the sake of the world?

            As theologian Christopher Morse writes in his recent book on heaven, “…we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask for imagine.”[4]

            To everything in the world that is worn and tired comes this word of good news, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To everyone who is weighed-down and weary and wants to begin again comes these words of healing, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To every relationship, family, community or church that hungers for a different way to be faithful and loving and forgiving comes these words, “See, I am making all things new.”

            To everyone who wants rebirth and renewal come these words:  listen to the one seated on the throne:  “See, I am making all things new.”  Alleluia.  Alleluia!  Amen!

[1] Brian Blount, Revelation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 2.
[2] Citing Eugene M. Boring’s study Revelation, in Blount, 376.
[3] Told by Parker J. Palmer in “Taking Pen in Hand,” Christian Century, September 2, 2010, 25.

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