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May 19, 2019
“Death Will Be No More”
Today’s passage from the Book of Revelation may sound familiar to you if you’ve been to a memorial service or a funeral. That’s most commonly when we pull these verses of a new heaven and a new earth; death will be no more; every tear will be wiped from our eyes; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. And that makes sense – Because funerals and memorial services are times of intense grief and sorrow and loss. They are moments when we desperately need the reassurance from God that this life is not the end – And we pray, “Beyond all touch and sight, grant us a glimpse of your kingdom – and where vision fails, help us to see some sure sign of your love which never fails.
But before I read these well-known words, let’s consider that the author – John – is writing from exile on the Greek Island of Patmos, where he’s been banished in the effort to crush the Christ movement. And John is sharing a dream he’s had - which, like all dreams, has some wacked out imagery and strangeness, but also reveals truth – This dream offers comforting reassurances and images for a people who are crushed.
At this point, followers of Jesus and traditional Jews are still somewhat part of the same faith community. And for a brief moment, all looked great for the Israelites: About 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a Jewish uprising managed to expel Rome from Jerusalem. Maybe once again they could be in charge of their own homeland, freed from the oppressive and cruel government that persecuted them. But then, in 70 CE, Rome invaded and took back Jerusalem, burning it to the ground, destroying the Temple, slaughtering thousands. Thousands more were sent to the mines in Egypt; others were sent throughout the Roman Empire to be, as one website put it, “Butchered for the amusement of the public.”
The Temple is gone. Their homeland is gone. Their homes are gone. Their friends and family and neighbors and way of life – All gone. They are scattered, bereft. Imagine New Orleans, after Katrina, rebuilding, only to be wiped off the map again by another Category 5 hurricane, the people scattered, wondering if God’s promises are true, are trustworthy, have anything to do with life here and now. Maybe you’ve had a time or two like that in your life – When you are carrying more than you can bear, and you wonder how you will go on.
Because for the Israelites, it seems like the Roman god Nike – The god of Victory – has won. Temples, coins, statues, everything around them would have seemed to mock their own faith in the One True God, and in Christ’s resurrection. Sure, we think of Nike as shoes, and athletic clothes, and competitions – But the modern day company Nike got it from the Greek god Nike.
So John, in exile, isolated, basically imprisoned on an island, writes these words to a people scattered, bereft, hopeless, despairing, ready to give up on the God of love who seems powerless against the god of Nike, of victory. Listen for a word of God spoken to you this day, from Revelation 21: 1-6:
“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. God will dwell with them as their God; they will belong to their Maker, and the Lord’s very self will be with them; The Lord 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,” and “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true;” and “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of these words, as we too need reassurance of God’s promises.
Put the apparent Roman winning god against the God in whom we place our trust: A god of Victory versus a God of Love. I read a funny novel called, “Gods Behaving Badly,” which imagined the Greek and Roman gods were living among us today, disguised as humans, and, as the title suggests, were behaving badly. The Romans worshipped the Emperor as a god; and they understood gods as capricious, needy, insecure beings who demanded constant affirmation, attention, and allegiance from the people, and only then would the gods maybe respond to what people asked.
But what do you do if you are putting your faith in this God of love, this God of resurrection, who seems to have just lost the battle? Because look around – Whether you are a person of faith in the decades just after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, or you are a person of faith today, there are moments when doubt, despair, hopelessness, might just creep in. After last week’s sermon someone shook my hand and confessed they were praying for a miracle for a 4 year old with cancer, and not really seeing God’s presence in that situation. No, faith is not easy – Not for human beings, not in these days.
But remember, John shares this from God: “My home is among mortals….I will dwell with them …. My very self will be with them.” And these words from a well-known hymn came to me: “Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel …. Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die.” Recognize these words? They are from the second and third verses of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The Israelites wondered how the God of love and life and resurrection stood up against the god Nike of Victory – Well, of course they wondered. And the answer is this: Our God of love is right here with us – Pleased to live with us – Let’s sing Hymn #31, verses 2 and 3, and think about how God was “pleased in flesh with us to dwell,” for our God is right here, right now, pleased to be among us, pleased to be one of us, because that is really radical:
#31 V 2 & 3
Christ, by highest heaven adored.
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king
Hail the heaven-born prince of peace, hail the sun of righteousness
Light and life to all he brings risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.
Sometimes bad theology creeps into our thinking from all sorts of places, and one source is Robert Browning’s poem Pippa’s Song – Which you may think you don’t know, but surely you know these lines:
God’s in His (sic) heaven –
All’s right with the world.
Have you heard that before? That’s not who our God is. That’s not where our God is - in heaven – Or at least, not exclusively so – No, in Jesus, our God’s place in here, with us, by our side, in our hearts, in the midst of us, pleased with us to dwell.
John is reassuring the people that what they are seeing is not what God has in mind, and this is all temporary – What can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal. All seems lost, and yet, John wants to know: What could you bear if you knew it was time-limited? If you knew it was temporary? If you knew you wouldn’t be alone? That’s what John is offering these beleaguered lost people, wondering if the God of love and resurrection has anything to do with their lives here and now.
Which drew me to the hymn with these words: Christ … no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time. Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily in the midst of life” Any guesses where that comes from? It’s hymn #108, an Easter hymn – God in Jesus is here, touching every place and time, daily in the midst of life. What we bear is a momentary affliction, even though to our stooped shoulders, it feels like forever – Let’s sing verses 2 and 3 of “Christ Is Alive” #108.
And so the question is, what difference does it make? Is this life just about grinning and bearing it? Nothing we can do about any of it? The world’s problems are too big for us to do anything about? All is lost? All has to come to an end anyway if Jesus is going to return, so we shouldn’t lament all the signs that global warming is going to wreak havoc and the Middle East is once again heating up? Aren’t those just signs Jesus is on his way? Isn’t that what the Book of Revelation is really about? The end times, the second coming?
No. It’s not so clear in the English translation of the Greek, and it’s not so clear if we forget the scripture John grew up with. This new heaven and new earth – They don’t disappear so much as they are transformed. The new heaven and new earth John describes are shaped out of the stuff of the old. And the old, remember, was pronounced good by God – Way back in the first book of the Bible, Genesis: And the Creator saw all creation, and pronounced it good; and saw human beings, and pronounced them very good. John’s theology is that there is good right here, and because God is with us, transforming all of this into a home for us where death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more – And because God’s on our side, we dare do what we can to help in the transformation of this world. This world needs us – As evidenced by the report of the disappearing species. God’s creation needs us – as evidenced by the 90 degree temperatures recorded in the North Pole. God’s people need us. And we can step up. The words to the hymn “In the Bulb” encourage us in our end is our beginning, in our death a victory, something God alone can see.” Let us end by singing the first verse of that hymn – The words are printed in your bulletin:
In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity;
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
These words from these familiar hymns are not just for Christmas and Easter; these scriptures are not just for funerals and memorial services. They are for us, for every day, reminding us our God cares about walking with us, transforming us, that we might participate in the transformation of all creation, trusting that it is “unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”