Easter 6C

April 25, 2016

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 14:23-29

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Acts 16:9-15

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 67

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    On the very day when I slated for myself the task of writing up this sermon starter article on the end of Revelation, I did some thinking about Ezekiel as part of an Old Testament Prophets course I am co-teaching this semester. As my colleague Amanda Benckhuysen pointed out, there is a lot of intertextuality going on between Ezekiel and Revelation, and a good bit of the imagery in especially Revelation 22 shows this.

    As preachers, our understanding of the imagery here will be enhanced if we take a look at Ezekiel 47. There Ezekiel is brought in a vision to the Temple in Jerusalem, which is going to be rebuilt and refilled with glory one day, God assures the prophet. As chapter 47 opens, Ezekiel sees a trickle of water emerging from Temple. It’s just a trickle, just a little rivulet of water coming from who knows where in that otherwise arid climate of Israel/Palestine. But the Spirit of God and Ezekiel then begin to follow that little trickle and in a few hundred yards discover that it has somehow gotten to be ankle deep. A bit farther on and it’s up to Ezekiel’s knees and then shortly after that it’s waist-deep and before you know it, it’s a vast river you could not wade through but would have to swim. This now vast and mighty river flows out toward the desert, making fertile what was dry ground and making sweet what had been before salty water. Fish of every kind abound in an echo of Genesis 1 and God’s filling the seas up to the brim with every kind of fish. And along the banks grow an astonishing variety of fruit trees, providing sweet food and leaves that can be used medicinally for healing.

    A few years ago another colleague, John Rottman, preached on this passage. He said in that message that you could never have guessed based on that small trickle of water coming from the Temple that it would lead to so vast a body of life-giving waters. By way of analogy he also mentioned the little cup of wine or juice we get with the Lord’s Supper in many churches. There is “not much to it” as a member of one of his congregations once commented and yet from that trickle of wine—from those trickles of blood that came from Jesus’ mouth after a Roman thug split his lip with a punch and from the blood that ran out of his body on the cross—there would finally emerge a river of life that would engulf the whole creation. (And, of course, as Revelation 21 makes clear, Jesus the Lamb of God just IS the Temple now and so the reference to Ezekiel and his Temple imagery is utterly apt.)

    Revelation 21 and 22 show us the New Creation culmination of Christ’s sacrifice and of his saving work. What started as just a trickle now nourishes all life in God’s good Kingdom. And at the center of it all is God and the Lamb of God, radiating life and light. The sheer holiness of it all and the awesome power of that river of life and of the tree of life it nourishes will mean that sickness and sadness, corruption and violence, poverty and want will be no more. There just won’t be a place for such things because flourishing and delight will be all in all.

    One of the Bible translations I looked at had as a sub-heading before Revelation 22 the words “Eden Restored.” But that does not have it quite right. For one thing we’re not just in a garden but in a city—or in a Garden-City as some have suggested (and then some Canadian friends also tell me to think of Vancouver!). But more substantively the New Creation is not just the Garden of Eden rebooted. This is a whole new realm where the possibilities of temptation and sin that were present in Eden no longer exist. What’s more, this is a realm that is now suffused with something else the Garden of Eden did not have: namely, the knowledge of how far God went through God the Son to salvage and restore the creation gone bad. The lyric knowledge of God’s grace, the never-ceasing praise that gets summoned forth from all creatures in the face of this “love supreme” (to quote John Coltrane) all combine to make this New Creation so much more than even the original Eden was or could ever have been.

    But how does one preach on a passage like this, so redolent of hope and joy in ways most of our ordinary, work-a-day lives most certainly are not? What is the function of a passage like this in the life of the church for now? Is this meant to hush any complaining we might be prone to do about the world as it stands, a way to say “No complaining allowed! Just ponder what we’ll get bye and bye and our current sorrows will just melt away”? Is this supposed to make us impatient with our current situation as we eagerly hurtle toward this better place in ways that might also make us discount the life we now have? And also, is this just too remote, too pie-in-the-sky to do much of any good for the time being?

    Let’s admit that a vision like this has sometimes been used badly by preachers and others. The joy to come should not be used as a squelch on lament for now, much less as a kind of scold for those who might express the wish that we’d prefer to have a little more heaven already now and a little less of the hell that seems to fill the newspaper headlines more days than not. And on the “opiate of the masses” trajectory of Karl Marx we can also admit that a passage like this can be used to stifle efforts at creating a greater justice in the world already now. Why protest injustice when we can just gaze and gaze on the beauty that is to come? We can’t make the world into a better place on our own anyway so why try? Just sit tight, wait it out, and God will take you to this heaven one fine day.

    So if some of this represents potentially bad or injurious uses of Revelation 21-22, what can a pondering of this do for us—what should it do? Perhaps just this: Generate Hope. But true, biblical hope is no opiate, no excuse for passivity, no reason not to rage appropriately against the machinations of injustice, poverty, corruption, and violence today. Rather hope is what animates us precisely to begin leaning into and living toward exactly the vision for abundant flourishing that John sketches in his vision. Hope is what gives us the steel and the grit to soldier on for the truth, to preach the Gospel, to denounce that which Christ died to end and anything that will not have a place in the New Creation.

    Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King, Jr., and the others walk across that bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of bed every morning across long years of unjust imprisonment. Hope is what moves every volunteer in a soup kitchen to ladle out bowls of chicken and rice and to griddle up some toasted cheese sandwiches for the homeless. It is not the hopeless who found Hospices, establish Ebola clinics in remote parts of Africa, or stand in the breach when rival drug gangs threaten to shoot up whole neighborhoods. It is the hopeFUL who do all that precisely because they even now serve a risen Savior who also right now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come when the vision of Revelation 21-22 becomes each creature’s everyday reality.

    A passage like Revelation 21-22 can lead to passivity and may be liable to make some folks too heavenly minded to be of much earthly good. But it need not be so. Not if we preach it with the passion of the one who was incarnated into THIS world to begin his redeeming work. Not if we preach it with the fire of the Holy Spirit who was poured out on THIS present-age Church to get the Gospel steamrolling across the face of the whole earth. Pondered and preached that way, Revelation 21-22 become as much about today as any tomorrow we could ever hope to experience.

    Illustration Idea

    If you consistently read my sermon starter articles here on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, then you know I have frequently alluded to the 2012 Terrence Malick movie The Tree of Life. And since there will probably never be enough fellow pastors who have taken the time to watch and understand this fascinating film to satisfy me, I will just keep on mentioning it!! But, of course, this time the passage itself mentions “the Tree of Life” and so the association is not the least bit strained.

    The end of that film depicts people arriving in the New Creation. Sean Penn’s character is shown enduring a long trek through a desert-like, parched mountainous area before arriving at an endlessly long swath of beach. The water imagery is rich here and in the context of The Tree of Life is clearly a reference to the River of Life, too. Images of doors being opened underwater leading to a new life are here (as is the curious image of a mask floating down—a reference to “until we see one another face to face”??).

    You should see the whole film properly to make sense of it but here is the final 10 minutes on a YouTube video in HD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqTo_r6WAoE

    And crank the sound and note the soundtrack: Agnus Dei Tolle Peccata Mundi: The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world . . . If this clip is not about Revelation 21-22, I don’t know what it is about!!