April 25, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jesus kept saying it, kept repeating it that night: Let not your hearts be troubled. But it’s difficult to imagine a more troubling context in which to try to say such a thing! Jesus kept talking about peace, but all hell was about to break loose on Jesus and on his band of followers. In fact, the mayhem at hand had already begun. Judas had already fled the table by the time Jesus said the words contained in this lection from John 14. What’s more, Peter’s impending denials of Jesus had also been foretold. The atmosphere was as taut as a snare drum. It was also unspeakably sad.
As I have noted elsewhere concerning John 14, it would not surprise me in the least if the words Jesus spoke in verse 1 had been spoken even as Jesus’ lips trembled and as tears formed in the corners of his eyes. The Bible almost never tells us how a given line was spoken—unlike novels or short stories or movie scripts, the Bible does not have descriptive adverbs like “He said sternly” or “She said softly.” So we’re left to imagine in what tones of voice various lines were spoken.
In the case of John 14, we often assume Jesus was speaking confidently, strongly, bravely. But what if—having just seen one disciple flee to betray him and having just told another disciple he would soon deny him—what if Jesus’ tone were more sorrowful, a bit fraught with emotion in a tone of voice not unlike the way some of us may speak at a funeral when we’re struggling to keep our own voice from breaking in case the emotion of the moment catches up with us?
If we can imagine Jesus speaking these words of comfort and peace in a tone of voice that matched the acoustics of that room on that dark night in which he was betrayed, then the poignancy of it all hits home in a new way. After all, even Jesus said he did not give peace as the world gives, and it’s a good thing, too. This world is, after all, anything-but peaceful most of the time. And so what little peace it has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious. The world cannot finally give what it does not firmly possess itself. A poor man can promise you all the money in the world but he has none to give you in the end. A world in love with war can promise you peace but in the end there’s seldom enough real and lasting peace to go around.
Barack Obama came into office on wings of peace, or at least the prospect of less war and more peace. He was even given the Nobel Peace Prize because that was how great the expectation of peace was. But although we got out of Iraq, it’s not stable. Afghanistan remains a problem. And then along came war in Libya, in Syria, and then came ISIS and then Russia messed with the Ukraine and well . . . “peaceful” is not an adjective we will be able to use to describe the world when also the next President comes into office.
If there is to be peace at all, it has to come from somewhere else. That’s where Jesus comes in, of course. But the fact that he can proffer even this lasting peace in perhaps a broken voice and with a tear or two streaming down his face lets us know for sure that the very features to this world that make us most pine for peace cannot ruin or snatch away that peace. It is possible to embrace Jesus’ peace in the midst of turmoil and woe, and we know that for certain because even the time and place and manner in which Jesus spoke about such peace in John 14 was proof positive that the terrors of- this world cannot cancel the shalom Jesus brought. It didn’t do so that night. You really can believe in lasting peace AND cry in sorrow at the same time.
Nor does the presence of hardship in our lives, therefore, mean that the Holy Spirit that Jesus also promises here has abandoned us. The two can and do co-exist: the Spirit and our hurts, Jesus’ peace and our hardships.
And I suspect we all know deep down in our hearts exactly why that fact is such very good news indeed.
The NIV translates it as “Counselor” but in the Greek of John 14:25 the word Jesus uses is parakletos, or “Paraclete” as we sometimes transliterate it. (But pay attention because Microsoft Word will keep trying to auto-correct that into “Parakeet” and although avian imagery can be used for the Spirit . . . that’s not the bird we’re looking for!) Literally this is the one “called alongside” of someone else. We’ve all heard various iterations of how to understand this, one of which is an attorney who stands next to her client in a court of law. But in this context the meaning does feel—as alluded to elsewhere in this set of sermon starters—a bit more like a tutor or a prompter on the wings of a stage while a play is going on. The Paraclete stands next to us or near us so that we can be reminded of Jesus’ words and teachings as the Spirit whispers those things into our hearts, prompting us to remember what we might otherwise forget. It’s a dark and difficult world, after all, fraught with sorrow and uncertainty (even as was true in that very room on the night when Jesus spoke these words). The sorrow of it all can make us lose our place, forget what we know. So how good to have a Spirit come alongside us to remind us of the dearest things Jesus said and taught.
As C.S. Lewis once said, we too often substitute religion for God. But that is like substituting navigation for arrival or wooing for marriage. Getting to your destination is wonderful but the trip itself is also valuable. Courtship, dating, the thrill of romance you experience when you are wooing someone to marry you is thrilling, unique, scintillating. But the journey toward a whole, wholesome, and goodly marriage continues long after courtship ends.
The building of a marriage continues as surely in the pots and pans of everyday life as it did in the candles and roses of your early romance. That’s why there is something more than a little shaky about couples who describe their married life as a never-ending string of sizzling romance, pyrotechnic sex, or star-struck gazes at one another across the dinner table at every single meal. What are they trying to prove? Couples who talk like that are either a sign that the rest of us have bad marriages after all or it is a hint that these couples are casting their lives in false ways in the mistaken idea that this is the only way to present a genuinely happy marriage.
As Craig Barnes once wrote, many of us spend far too much time trying to become something we are not instead of just being who we already are. Of course, I realize that this could quickly become an excuse not to pursue the spiritual things of God. But the goal here is not to foster complacency but a greater awareness of how God in Christ is already at work in you and how, by becoming more aware of that, you can become more intentional in following Jesus along the way which you are already traveling with him.
As it turned out, Jesus was the very autobiography of God. He was the Son who was his Father all over again. It’s just that the disciples assumed that being with the Father would introduce them to something quite different from the road they had been walking up to that point. Jesus had a different idea about that. In and through everything they had seen in Jesus–the very obviously spiritual and almighty things he had done as well as the very typical and everyday things he had done–they had seen the Father. Jesus had been so completely lost in his Father that, as it turned out, everything he did was transformed. And it was all about love in the end, as Jesus made clear in John 14. Once that love engulfs you, everything is different. Everything!
Author: Doug Bratt
Occasionally the Lectionary’s choice of where to begin and end a text boggles preachers’ and teachers’ minds. This Sunday’s text is a good case in point. It’s not just that it begins in the middle of a paragraph in most English translations. It’s also that this text begins in the middle of what we often call Paul’s second missionary journey. So Acts 16’s preachers and teachers may be wise to begin with perhaps verse 6 and end, as the Lectionary suggests, with verse 15.
This text’s broader context is Paul and Barnabas’ decision to take a trip to visit the churches they’ve planted. However, since Barnabas wishes to take John Mark with them, Paul and he go their separate ways. As a result, Silas accompanies Paul on their extended missions trip.
However, while the missionaries seem to have an itinerary for it, God has God’s own plans for the second missionary journey. Earlier God had shown Peter God had plans for smashing the barriers that kept Jews from doing mission work among gentiles. Now, however, God erects a barrier to mission work. In verses 6 and 7 we read Paul and his companions “were kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”
My colleague John Rottman suggests this leaves Paul and his companions “stalled out in Troas” and in need of some direction. God provides that direction through a vision. In it, according to verse 9 a Macedonian man stands and begs Paul to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
This offers Acts 16’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore how God erects barriers and opens doors to mission in the 21st century. Why did the Spirit keep the apostles from preaching in Asia? Preachers and teachers might also explore just how the Spirit kept Paul and his companions from preaching where they wanted to. Does the Holy Spirit still do something similar today? How can we know to where God is calling (and stopping) us?
Even the text itself presents a kind of natural opening to such exploration. With verse 10, after all, Acts’ narrator makes a startling shift in the way he relates its story. Throughout long stretches of the rest of Acts, the missionaries are no longer Paul and his companions. They’re “we.” So it’s almost as if Acts’ narrator invites Christians in all times and places, including our own, to join the apostles on their mission trip.
“Our” first stop is in the Macedonian city of Philippi. There the missionaries’ stay stretches over the Sabbath. However, it Paul and his companions don’t seem to worship with other Jews in a synagogue on that day. Instead they find a place by the river where they can pray and talk with the women who have gathered there.
There “we” meet Lydia. She’s a woman whose business has made her wealthy. That, in a sense, creates two strikes against her. Women were, after all, very low on the social scale in the first century A.D. However, Lydia is also wealthy. In the gospels Jesus repeatedly warns against the dangers of wealth. His pregnant mother even warned rich people about their fate in God’s coming kingdom.
This offers those who preach and teach Acts 16 an opportunity to ask about whom Christians sometimes think of as having “strikes against them” today. About whom do we have prejudices like Paul’s contemporaries had towards women? Whose endangered eternal status, like Lydia’s, makes us reluctant to approach them?
Of course, Acts’ Holy Spirit goes ahead of us, busily breaking down all sorts of barriers. So we’re not surprised Lydia’s gender, social and even, apparently, racial — she seems to be a gentile — status present no real obstacle to the Spirit’s convicting work. In fact, we might argue the Spirit has been working on Lydia even before she met Paul. After all, verse 14 calls her, after all, a “worshiper of God.”
However, the Holy Spirit graciously turns Lydia’s perhaps unrefined ideas about God into faith in Jesus Christ. The Spirit opens her heart to faithfully respond to Paul’s message. The Spirit transforms this rich businesswoman into what she calls in verse 15 “a believer in the Lord.” Because she desires God’s forgiveness for herself through a faithful relationship with Jesus Christ, Lydia is baptized, along with any servants and children she may have.
Yet the Spirit doesn’t just transform Lydia’s faith. The Spirit also graciously grants her the gift of hospitality. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she tells “us” in verse 15, “come and stay at my house.” Earlier Acts reports Peter was so reluctant to enter a gentile’s home that the Spirit had to figuratively shove him through the door. Is it fair to wonder if Paul doesn’t also figuratively “stumble” just a bit over Lydia’s threshold as well? After all, she’s a gentile. She’s a woman. She’s rich. Yet Lydia “persuades” us. We accept her hospitality.
Lydia’s hospitality reminds Christians that Easter doesn’t just signal our dead bodies’ coming resurrection in preparation for life in the new earth and heaven. Easter also signals the resurrection that already occurs in us as God raises God’s adopted sons and daughters to a new life of obedience. The kind of hospitality Lydia shows Paul and his companions is part of that obedience. In Romans 12:13 the apostle invites us to “Practice hospitality.” In I Peter 4:9 that apostle also challenges his readers to “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
On this sixth Sunday in Easter the Lectionary appoints John 14:23-29 as the gospel lesson. It’s the account of Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. That Spirit will be “another Counselor” who will come alongside Jesus’ followers to both remind us of what Jesus said and teach us all things. That Spirit is clearly very active in Acts 16’s account of Lydia’s conversion and hospitality.
The Lectionary appoints Psalm 67 for this Sunday. Its poet prays, “May all the nations praise you [O God]. May the nations be glad and sing for joy … May all the peoples praise you” (3-5). Acts 16 describes one of God’s gracious “yes’s” to those prayers. All kinds of people, including rich, gentile women like Lydia, are offering God their praise.
The Lectionary also appoints passages from Revelation 21 and 22 as this Sunday’s New Testament lesson. Among other things, they anticipate the time when “the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into” the New Jerusalem (21:24). Is it too much of a stretch to think not just of the hospitality Lydia brings Paul and his companions, but likely also part of her wealth she eventually brings to the church, as some of that “splendor”?
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
Their son David describes how Rev. and Mrs. Edwin Van Baak went to China to serve as Christian Reformed missionaries there in 1948. However, while they were learning the Chinese language in Beijing, the Communist revolution gained momentum. As a result, the Van Baaks were evacuated, first to Shanghai and then, eventually, back to the United States. So while it was the Chinese rather than the Holy Spirit who “kept them from preaching the word” in China, they, like Paul and his companions, had to change their mission plans.
But in the early 1950’s the Lord opened another door for mission work in Asia, this time in Japan. There the US occupation authorities decided to open the country to foreign missionaries. God sent the Van Baaks to their own kind of Macedonia. The Van Baaks served as missionaries to Japan from the early 1950’s until 1969.
Perhaps ironically, Rev. Van Baak later assumed responsibility for caring for the Christian Reformed Church’s teachers who taught English in China. Part of his work involved touring China to visit those teachers in their places of work. So Van Baak’s missionary work that began in China ended, in some ways, in China. What’s more, while Chinese authorities had done everything they could to destroy the Christian church, Van Baak found that even in the face of persecution and the absence of foreign missionaries, the Chinese church had actually grown between 1949 and 1989.
Author: Stan Mast
Easter is long gone, but Psalm 67 and the other readings for this sixth Sunday of the Easter season keep the Easter theme alive by foreshadowing one of the most astonishing results of Christ’s resurrection.
Let me explain that by putting Psalm 67 in liturgical perspective. Next week, we will celebrate Christ’s Ascension when, according to Matthew, Jesus gave the Great Commission. And the week after that is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church so that it could fulfill that Commission. Our New Testament readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter show us the Great Commission being fulfilled in the power of the Spirit, as the first European convert is brought into the church (Lydia in Acts 16:9-15) and as all the nations of the world stream into the New Jerusalem where they will be healed (Revelation 21 and 22).
Psalm 67 is an Old Testament anticipation of those New Testament events. It is a missionary Psalm for a people who often thought of themselves more as adversaries than as missionaries. Since Christians can fall into that same way of thinking, Psalm 67 is a inspirational corrective for us. Because of Christ’s resurrection, it’s no longer “Us” versus “Them.” Now it’s “Us” for “Them.” Psalm 67 looks toward the day when that sea change in human relationships finally happens, and “all peoples praise God” together.
Psalm 67 begins with the quintessential Jewish blessing, the Aaronic blessing from Numbers 6. “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us….” Note the recurrence of the first person plural. The ‘”you” of Numbers 6, uttered by the priest over Israel, is now “us,” spoken by the people at large. But it’s not an in-house blessing here; the writer turns decidedly outward. May God bless us, “that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among the nations.”
Then, in a turn that must have shocked the more xenophobic among God’s people, the writer calls on all the nations and peoples of the earth to join Israel in praising God. Using terms that were often used pejoratively (goyim, ammim, and leummim, 8 times), the writer issues a dual summons to the whole earth (earth 4 times and all 4 more times). “May all the people praise you, O God, may all the people praise you.” The Psalm concludes with another “Us” that probably includes the “Them” of the nations. “God will bless us and all the ends of the earth will fear him.” Because of the blessing of God, the historical “Us” versus “Them” has been transformed into a new “Us.”
The Risen Christ sent his Jewish disciples into the whole world to make disciples of all nations. Revelation 21 and 22 shows the ultimate fruit of that sending. But today the world is still an “Us” versus “Them” battlefield. From the cliques of the classroom to the competition of the playing field to the warfare between nations, it’s a hostile, divided world. “We” are threatened by “them,” especially if they are of a different ethnic or racial group. Think of the cauldron of emotions that boils around the immigration issue in the United States and Europe. The divisions get even more heated and dangerous when they involve religion.
That was surely the case for Israel. After all, they had been chosen by God to be his special people. He had given them a land to occupy. But that land was already occupied by other nations and peoples. So God himself ordered Israel to do battle with “them.” Throughout her history, Israel had to deal not only with the Canaanites, but also with the Egyptians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians and many lesser nations. The result was always bloody, and sometimes nearly genocidal. Not surprisingly, Israel came to see the nations as nothing but the enemy whom they needed to subdue for the Lord and whom the Lord would finally judge. They saw themselves as having a standing order from God to not only stay away from the goyim lest God’s people be polluted by their sin, but also to do battle with them lest they destroy Israel and take away the Promised Land. That’s how they understood their great commission.
Many Christians today are so horrified by that bloody dimension of the Old Testament that they become virtual Marcionites. Let’s forget about the Old Testament and focus on the New Testament that reveals a kinder, gentler God in Jesus Christ. But the New Testament, too, has some pretty fierce talk about God’s anger and the prospect of judgment. Furthermore, Christians are also called to “come out from among them,” to be a separate and peculiar people who have no fellowship with darkness.
I suspect that most Christians today have almost forgotten the “Us” versus “Them” anti-thesis that galvanized previous generations, writing off such thinking as old-fashioned and provincial. We want to engage the world for the sake of the Kingdom and, if we’re honest, we also want to enjoy the world for the sake of our pleasure. So, the old religious “Us” versus “Them” dynamic is absent from much of the church. As a result, we may find it difficult to relate to the celebration of Psalm 67, where, after centuries of conflict, the nations of the world join the nation of Israel in praising God.
Perhaps we can get into the mood of Psalm 67 better if we remember what Israel often forgot, namely, that she was chosen in order to be a blessing to the nations. In the original covenant promise, God told Abraham that he would not only make Abraham’s seed into a great nation, but also that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3, which, interestingly, is quoted in Acts 3:25 and Gal. 3:8)
During the great covenant renewal at Mt. Sinai, God explained that Israel’s special status in the world was not just for her enjoyment; it was for the world’s ultimate salvation. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5,6) It was those last words that Israel often forgot. They luxuriated in their status as a “treasured possession,” but they didn’t emphasize their priesthood as a holy nation. They were chosen to mediate between a sinful world and a holy God, to help the world find God. The way they would do that was through their holiness, through their demonstration of how life could and should be lived under the one true God.
Through the ups and downs of their embattled history, Israel forgot that emphasis. As they became more and more unholy, like the nations, God repeated that message over and over in the great prophecy of Isaiah. As the chastening experience of the Exile loomed in Israel’s life, God reminded Israel of his ultimate purpose in words to Suffering Servant of Isaiah. “I will keep you and will make you a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles….” (Isaiah 42:6) Speaking of Egypt and other foreign nations, Isaiah prophecies, “They will bow down before you and plead with you, saying, ‘Surely God is with you and there is no other; there is no other god.’” (Isaiah 45:14) Addressing the Servant, God says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) (See also Isa. 52:10, 56:3-8, 60:1-3, and the whole book of Jonah especially 4:1-3)
In summary, God had always intended to use Israel to reach the whole world. The way Israel would do that was by being a holy nation, a nation so governed by the laws of God that the world could see how good it is to live under the reign of Yahweh. The world would see the light of God shining in Israel, flock to the light, and live in blessing.
How ingenious and gracious of God! If God simply appeared in all his glory, the world would have been shattered, “undone” as Isaiah put in Isaiah 6 when he saw the glory of the Lord. In the same way as humans can’t stare directly into the sun or even something as small as a nuclear explosion, so “no one can see God face to face and live.” Thus, God chose a little nation to reflect his glory, as the moon does the sun. That’s why Psalm 67 asks God to “make his face shine upon us.” As the glory of God’s face is reflected in his blessings of Israel, the world will know God’s ways and receive his salvation. And all the earth will join in praising God.
Sadly, Israel did not live up to her holy calling. Even exile did not purify God’s people enough. So, God formed a new Israel, “the Israel of God.” (Gal. 6:16) As before, he began with one man through whom he would bless the whole world. His name was not Abraham, but he was the seed of Abraham. His name was Jesus, and in his person he summed up all that Israel was supposed to be– prophet, priest, and king.
He was the light of the world, but though he shone in the world, the darkness would not receive him. Instead they tried to snuff him out. But he rose and formed a new nation, a body composed of people from every nation. He told them to be a light, a city set on a hill so that the whole world could see how abundant life can be when it is lived under his Lordship. Instead of merely telling them to be holy, so that the nations will come to the light, Jesus sent the New Israel into the darkness to make disciples of every nation. But, of course, the nations will not believe the church’s message about Jesus, unless they can see the light in the church.
This is where Psalm 67 speaks to us pointedly. When we ask God to bless us, we should ask not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. “Make you face shine on us, that your ways may be known on earth and your salvation among all nations.” The nations already experience the blessing of God in multiple ways. As verse 4 says, “you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth.” As the just shepherd of the whole world, God provides not only the “harvest” of verse 6, but also the beauty of nature, the birth of each new generation, good government, the love of family and friends, good health and medical care, music, and so much more.
But many don’t recognize that those blessings come from God. Others are robbed of those blessings by the vagaries of a fallen world and the depravity of humanity. So, the world needs to be saved. The nations will be glad and sing for joy, only when all people know that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” to the Risen Christ. The world will know that only when Christians break through the “Us” versus “Them” divisions that ruin the world. We have been given “the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” (II Corinthians 5:18, 19) But our message of reconciliation will be heard only when we demonstrate in school, in sports, in families, in politics, in national and international affairs, and in the church that “Us” versus “Them” has been replaced by “Us” for “Them.”
Then Psalm 67 will come to pass. “May the peoples praise you, O God. May all the peoples praise you.”
I’m sure you can come up with dozens of personal examples of “Us” versus “Them.” But if you need a particularly painful one, I’d suggest the story of Melody in Out of My Mind, a young adult novel I just read. Melody is a fifth grader who is perfectly brilliant, but no one knows it because she has a perfectly awful body. She is profoundly disabled by cerebral palsy, and is unable to say a word. However, through the advocacy of her parents, the instruction of a marvelous teacher and the support of a compassionate aide, things change for her. Her aide discovers the kind of mechanical device that enables Stephen Hawking to communicate. When Melody gets one for herself, she begins to shine in her inclusion classroom. In fact, she makes the Whiz Kids team for the national competition.
But with one minor exception, the other kids won’t accept her. She is too “weird.” But she perseveres, until she arrives at the airport for the flight to Washington, DC, where the national competition will take place. There, she discovers that the whole team has already departed. They had voted not to phone her about a flight change, because she would be an embarrassment to their team. She misses the entire competition, even though she was the smartest kid on the team. It was a despicable case of “Us” versus “Her.” “May the peoples praise you, O God, especially those who embarrass the rest of us because they are too weird. May all the people praise you.”
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.
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!!