The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2019
Scripture: Revelation 1:1-8
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We Have Arrived
What a journey it’s been. We began, really, on Easter Morning, five weeks ago. We always begin again on Easter morning with Resurrection life. Easter morning can be (should be) every day. But our church calendar journey to Pentecost and the arrival of he Holy Spirit 50 days after Eater began as we stepped into the bizarre and beautiful world of the Revelation of John.
Reading the opening verses of this letter on the Sunday after Easter, we “revealed” a few of the most important things about this writing: John’s letter, the Book of Revelation, It’s not about the end of the world. It’s not about a Second Coming that allows violence and destruction and death to conquer the life, non-violence, and creation that the First Coming of God in Jesus the Christ established. This book is about is about transformation, about re-creation. It isnot written to confirm our desires for destruction and death, but to challenge them. We “have been made by God to be a kingdom” of God on earth, John says. Rv 1:6
On the second Sunday of our journey, the first Sunday in May, we met the “one seated on the throne” and the Lamb – God and Christ. This was our final Sunday of preparation for what was to come. As the Lamb took the scroll of judgment, we were offered the opportunity to join “every creature in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is within them” in praising Love incarnate and a God who reaches out to all. We have heard the words written on this scroll. What will it take for us to live into it? John’s depiction for the coming judgment is not only designed to comfort the afflicted, but to conflict the comfortable, we learned. We then asked a question we’ll be asking of the rest of our lives: Which are we?
Two weeks ago, it began in earnest – the scroll was opened, the seals were broken, the trumpets sounded, and “the kingdom of the world became the kingdom of our Lord and of God’s Messiah.” Our minds and imaginations were overwhelmed by the quantity and unrelenting intensity of the violence against both humans and the cosmos itself, and the entire theological dilemma was compounded by the fact that the source of this violence is God and the Lamb. And all of that on Mother’s Day. Do you remember? I tried to get around that, but the Bible’s message, in Revelation no less than the Gospels, is not honored by ignoring the problem it presents. We flashed back in time to remember the historical Jesus and his life on this earth and acknowledged that – even waist deep in violent imagery and metaphors – what John was revealing to us is that human beings, all of us, will be redeemed by God’s unconditional grace made known to us in Christ’s unconditional love because we have been so redeemed. How, we wondered, is the Revelation of John trying to change the way Christians, from the first century to today, look at our world?
Last Sunday Babylon fell, at least in John’s phantasmagorical world. Babylon, we suggested, is more than Rome or any worldly Empire. Babylon is part of us, deep within all of us. And it’s more. Babylon is all around us. John consistently speaks in political and national terms. Babylon is that which urges us to live in service to ourselves and people like us, to live in fear of others not like us, and to categorize and demonize in order to control and suppress all that is not “us.” Babylon is the inhuman, antihuman arrogance that tempts humanity to discord, violence, immorality, and overall opposition to God and God’s kingdom on earth in any age. Last week Babylon fell.
And this morning, we have arrived. Pray with me. And listen for the Word of God … Read Revelation 21:1-6. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We have arrived. And as (almost) always, it is a fascinating Sunday to engage what we engage this morning. On Memorial Day weekend this year, a weekend set aside to commemorate all those who died in the armed forces in service to a country whose ideals – however distorted, misunderstood, or ignored they may get – begin with the divinely inspired belief that all human beings are created equal, on such a weekend we enter a new space, a new place, where war and carnage and grief and death are no more.
We spend a lot of time, not just here “in church” but in our lives as a whole, conjuring up images of the physical place called “heaven.” In our minds and in much of our writings, heavenly mountains or beaches, or soft rolling hills dominate our imaginations: Soft clouds, pearly gates, divinely paved roads; robes, harps, wings. Heaven is someplace “other,” somewhere beyond this world, beyond this life, beyond our sorrow, and beyond our pain. In the Revelation of John, after all that needs to happen, happens, that image is revised – dramatically. Heaven, he reveals, is plainly and simply the place where God is. This if the first and the final, the alpha and the omega, the most important detail: Heaven is the place where God is and where humans are most fully united with God.
John images a city because cities were, and are, places where people live together in dependence on one another. Not much room to grow your own food, dig your own wells, raise your own livestock. A city works when everyone in it does dos something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people like you and I arrive at the end of a long journey (like the one we’re on). We all know that “the city” in our world can be, and often is, the opposite of this description. But John’s city, our new heaven, is unique for one reason. In the very first verse of our reading, John describes this particular place “on earth” by noting what is not in it. All of those things I just mentioned a moment ago, imaged and offered as “the sea.” The sea (is) no more.
Think big, now. This is no “ordinary sea” that is absent. It is a powerful biblical symbol for chaos. To the land locked people of ancient Israel and Judah, nothing was more unpredictable and unforgiving as the sea. But this “sea” in John that is so totally absent from the new heaven and earth, is the sea of “primordial chaos” first spoken of in Genesis. That sea was evil, too, for out of it came ‘the Leviathan (the Dragon) that continually threatens to undo the goodness of God’s creation. Think big, now.
Here in the last book of our biblical canon, the very first motifs of the old Testament stories of primal creation return. The ending of all is prefigured in the beginning of all, and this ending, of course, begins it all again. The beauty of this “dry” new heaven-on-earth is that there are no stormy seas to separate people from one another or from the primordial Love we call “God.”
Close your eyes for just a second … breathe in … imagine … such a place.
It strikes me as profoundly sad that we have to imagine it when John tells us that it is right here – within us, among us, around us and beyond us, all at once. I suppose that’s because it’s so far from the images of the “physical place” that is heaven in our own imaginations. You remember: Clouds, harps, rolling hills beyond this life. Honestly, that’s pretty much all we’ve been given from pulpits, movies, books and stories.
But, having journeyed through John’s Revelation, I also believe that we have to imagine heaven “later” and have to imagine God as “out there” instead of experiencing heaven now and God here, because unlike the clouds and pearly, gates we have a lot of work to do to get “here,” to arrive here. We first journeyed to the heaven-in-our-minds with John through the door that stood opened. We approached the throne and watched as the Lamb first took the scroll and then opened it. We had to not only witness the breaking of the seals, blowing of the trumpets, and pouring of the bowls, but to take our part in pushing out the dragons, defeating the beasts, and felling Babylon. Only after all that are we ready for this new heaven and earth. It’s much easier to imagine it all out there waiting for us later without our need to do much to make it happen. But we do have things to do. We always have.
You know, the most powerful example I came across this week of how we are to engage this life and work for new life now, came through one of my conversation partners from the Feasting on the Word commentaries I use for sermon preparation and writing. Dana Ferguson was one of the Pastors at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. She shared her experience of getting the news that she had cancer. “It was a particular vicious and sneaky kind of cancer,” she wrote, “for which there were no survival rates.” The morning after she received the news, a doctor she had come to know during her journey to this diagnosis came to visit her, not to share his medical knowledge, but to offer his support.
“Will I survive this?” Dana asked this doctor/friend.
“Yes,” he replied, “but you will have to fight.”
And that’s what she did, leading her into a new day many months later (Feasting on the Word, year C vol 2. 465-466). I looked for Reverend Ferguson in an internet search just yesterday and found that, while she survived the cancer she had, she died in 2008 from heart failure most likely caused by her cancer treatments.
“The words we read, hear, and give our hearts to from John this morning,” she wrote, “are words that matter at the very heart of life, where we ask who we are, who God is, and what is the value of our Christian pursuit” (466). We have to fight. We have work to do right here and now, for our own life and the life of others. I mean, are we Christians simply because someday we’ll “get to heaven?” God … I hope not. I hope and pray that it has more to do with this world than the next.
John offers us a vision for this world that we can sit down in front of and take in all that he shows us about it. Perhaps then, when it’s time to stand up again, we may be able to face whatever deep struggles we have in our own lives and to engage the inhuman, antihuman arrogance that tempts all of us to discord, violence, immorality, and overall opposition to God and God’s kingdom on earth wherever it is. We have to fight, to struggle, to reveal ourselves “God with us.”
For some people, I suppose, this revealing, this battle, and the revelation that God is here and that heaven is on earth, if only in part, is a daily task. They have to remember, be reminded, be-lieve it every day. That’s a sad way to live this life. I hope that we, that you, don’t have to do this daily. We’ve ended every sermon in this season, and we’ll end this one and next week, with words that John uses to begin his book: “Blessed are those who hear and who keep, in other words, who believe, what is written.” We believe so we don’t need to spend every day remembering. We can spend our days re-membering our world. The Spirit is close now. Two weeks away.
We have arrived. And we’re going to linger here in John’s “heaven on earth” for one more week, in this place where the God we love and worship stands beside us so that we may find it easier to believe what has been revealed and easier to live into this revelation when the Holy Spirit arrives.
“Blessed are the ones who read aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written down.” May it be us. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 26, 2019