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“Imagine….” — Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-34 — April 28, 2013

The Book of The Revelation (only one) to John is to most of us UCC-types the stuff of eyeball rolling skepticism and even dismissal.  Of course, for others, it’s the most important book in the Bible, as Tim LeHay’s wildly popular Left Behind series can attest to.  For these folks, the Book of Revelation is a road map and guidebook for these final days of planet earth, and there is a certain amount of smug satisfaction in that they will be taken up in glory while we will be “left behind.”  Already there have been sightings of and speculations about the four horsemen of the apocalypse and just who the Beast and the Anti-Christ are.  I prefer a more agnostic perspective, leaving it up to an infinitely loving and just God to determine where we all are headed.

Still, it would be a shame to give up completely on this book which, despite a good deal of controversy, did make it into our canon (or authorized set of books of the Bible).  After all, it’s only since the 19th century that people began to take the Bible literally, so our ancient ancestors in faith knew that there was more to this book than terrifying beasts and puzzling numbers.  They also had experienced enough blood baths and terror to know that if God is totally uninterested and removed from our struggles and terrors, then we really are in trouble.

The passage which Andrea read for us this morning is one of the real jewels in the book and almost makes slogging through the rest of the book worth it.

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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; 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.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’

As Biblical scholar Eugene Boring writes, “All of Revelation’s statements about ‘the End’ are really statements about God…[John gives] remarkable expression to the Christian conviction that at the End we meet not an event but a Person.” (Boring, Revelation, p. 215) And I would add that we meet not even a Person with a capital “P,” for God is more than a “person.”  As William Sloan Coffin put it in his memoir, “I don’t know what awaits me after death, I only know Who, and that is enough.” (Credo) Along with Coffin, the Book of Revelation affirms that “at the end,…God.”

You know that we’ve been “re-thinking church,” trying to open ourselves up to the possibilities of new forms, new ways of thinking and being and doing “church.”  We’re in the midst of this 500 year rummage sale, as Phyllis Tickle puts it, and we’re not really sure what we should throw out, what we should keep, or really, where we’re headed.  Another way of putting that is, we’re not sure what our “end” is, not so much in the sense of “the end,” “it’s over,” “there ain’t no mo’,” but rather, our end as our goal, where we’re headed, what fulfilling our destiny and purpose might look like.

And of course, the same could be said of any of our lives.  We may wonder, particularly as we begin to accumulate more and more birthdays, where we are headed, what lies ahead, maybe doing some wondering about what happens after we die, though Bill Coffin’s confession that we only know Who awaits us may just have to be enough.

So, for the early church, awaiting the end of the world, because everything was falling apart, for the church today, and for each of our lives, the Book of the Revelation to John holds wisdom for us–“in the end,….God.”

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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Again, Eugene Boring writes, “In John’s view, the new Jerusalem is the fulfillment of all human dreams for the community and security of life in an ideal city.” (214)

It is a dream of community.  This is not a vision of individuals holed up in their cells, each one communing one-on-one with God or Jesus, but rather an interdependent community, a city, “the concrete living out of interdependence as the essential nature of human life.” (Boring, 219)   It’s the African notion of ubuntu, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains it–“My well-being is wrapped up in your well-being.”

“And the sea was no more,” John notes.  The sea in Biblical usage often signifies chaos, so in this vision there is a deep order or at least harmony here.  “The sea” also separated John from the rest of his community, if, as he says, he is in exile on the island of Patmos.  “The sea was no more” means that all the barriers to human relationship and community will be gone.

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes[John continues]. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  “All that now robs life from being fulfilled, joyful, vibrant life [Eugene Boring writes] will be absent from the transcendent reality to which [God] is leading history.” (217)    Isn’t that what we long for?  Isn’t that what we fear from death?  Pain and separation from loved ones?  “God will wipe every tear from their eyes, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  “The sea was no more…”

And not only all that separates us from loved ones will be removed but also all that separates us from God will be no more.  God is not one “item” in this new heaven and new earth, but God is all in all, God is in the midst of humanity.  There is no temple in the New Jerusalem –no church or mosque or shrine either–no place where people go to be in God’s presence because now God’s presence is everywhere.  We are in God and God is in us.  “See, the home of God is among mortals.”  “My Lord, what a morning!”

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.  And I saw the New Jerusalem…”  The voice from the One seated on the throne does not say, “See, I make all new things,” but rather, “See, I make all things new.”  Heaven and earth and we are not obliterated; rather, we are renewed, made new.  Jerusalem was where the story of God’s dealing with humanity took place, and there is continuity.  This is the New Jerusalem.  “We shall not all die,” Paul wrote, “but we shall all be changed.”  Boring writes that this is “a world in which nothing human is lost.  Salvation is beyond but not without this world.” (221).  This world, right now, in the present moment, is where “salvation” begins. The new heaven and new earth are coming and already are in our midst.  This is not a world-abandoning vision.  We are called to “love one another, as Jesus loved us,” right now.  The New Jerusalem comes out of heaven from God, but that does not mean we can give up all our responsibility.  “The present moment is the decisive one,” calling us–commanding us–to “love one another.”

And despite the desire of some to be part of the exclusive club, this is an inclusive vision.  They will be my peoples, God says.  The vision of the New Jerusalem that the writer sets out does have gates to the city, so there are those outside the walls, but the gates are always open. The choice is always ours–to come in, or to stay out.

And then, there is the image of the city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  This is a vision of beauty.  I love Robin Meyers’ working definition of beauty as “the effortless manifestation of inner peace.”  (The Underground Church).  I wish I’d known that as an adolescent girl, holding Seventeen magazine in one hand and looking into the mirror.  That was a very different image of “beauty.”

Eugene Boring sums up John’s vision this way–“If this is where the world, under the sovereign grace of God, is finally going, then every thought, move, deed in some other direction is out of step with reality and is finally wasted.”  (224) If God’s intention, God’s dream, for the world, for the church, for each of us, is community, deep harmony, interdependence, beauty, inclusion, communion, if that is, indeed, the ultimate Reality, then all other thoughts, moves, deeds are a waste of time.

So perhaps some questions might guide our thinking and acting and dreaming in the days and weeks and months, even years, ahead.
–How and where are you, are we, most likely to encounter God, right now and in the future?
–What in my life, what in our church’s life, is no longer vibrant and alive and could be turned over to God for renewal?
–What in my life, what in our church’s life, is full of greenness and potential and might be brought to blossom and bear fruit in God’s dream for me, for us?
–Who have I–we–thought we were separated from, and how might we be re-connected through God?
–What might I–we–do to find the deep harmony and inner peace that manifests itself in beauty? –How would I live my life if I knew that nothing, ultimately, would be able to separate me from God?   How would that translate into the life of our church?
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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; 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.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
This is good news!  Amen.                                                  — Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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