The other day, I read an article about Biosphere 2, the three-acre facility built in the desert near Tucson almost twenty years ago. It featured a self-contained ecosytem, including an ocean, meant to replicate that of what its builders called Biosphere 1, our planet earth.
For two years, eight people, called biospherians, lived and worked in the enclosed environment. It wasn’t an altogether happy experience. Part of the reason is that they spent the first thirteen months as subsistence farmers who lost weight an alarming rate and as repairpeople staving off destruction of their environment by some of the insects in residence with them.
What’s most amazing, maybe, is that eventually these eight people, all originally motivated by high ideals, broke into two groups of four people each. Though it’s been thirteen years since the group emerged from their biosphere, in the words of writer Reed Karaim, “exiting like newborns...hypersensitive to smells and tastes, overcome by the plentitude in a supermarket,” they still apparently are divided into two opposing camps.
The experience in Biosphere 2 did more than replicate the physical ecology of Planet Earth. The conflicts and nastiness that the biospherians exhibited toward one another also represents the sin in which we’re born and the sin in which we too often wallow. In spite of God’s call that we love Him and each other and even though we know that life and the world are better when we get along with one another, sin continues to tear us apart.
Sin destroys our relationships with one another.
Sin prevents us from accepting ourselves or becoming what we can be.
Paul, writing in the New Testament book of Romans, says that all of creation--including us and our aging bodies--groans under the weight of our sin.
But our Bible lesson for today gives us a different vision, God’s vision, of how human beings are meant, and one day will, live.
It comes from Revelation. In it, John, writing in about 90AD, reveals a vision of heaven he was given during his imprisonment on the Aegean island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern-day Turkey. John found himself transported into the very throne room of God.
But for Christians, this vision is supposed to be more than just sweet-by-and-by stuff, more than a promise. It also shows us how you and I, as followers of Jesus, the Lamb of God, are meant to live today.
Christians are meant to be ambassadors for Christ and citizens of heaven even today. So how can we be Christ’s saints alive today? Our lesson, I think, shows us that this is to be done in at least three ways.
First: We see ourselves as part of Christ’s eternal family, a family that can’t be numbered. In other words, we understand that we're part of God's family now and that there's always room for one more!
Our lesson tells us that gathered around God in heaven was “a great multitude that no one could count.”
This past week, a Roman Catholic writing in the online magazine Slate, noted that some members of Catholic Church object to the move to name the late Pope John Paul II a saint. They do so because they think that John Paul was wrong in many things he did as pope. But, the author argued, these people don’t understand that being a saint doesn’t mean that everything they did, thought, or said was perfect.
I agree. Saints aren’t perfect. (That's why I wrote a response to the Slate article called Saint Misbehavin'.) But as one who tries to read my Bible closely, I also believe that saints are forgiven sinners. They’ve been made clean, our lesson says, by the blood of the Savior Who sacrificed Himself for us. Admission into heave is free to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
Being made saints by Christ should make Christians grateful. John says that in his heavenly encounter, the saints robed in white were grateful. They couldn’t help but singing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!” And, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Being made saints by Christ should also make Christians anxious to tell others the Good News of Jesus, so that they too can be part of the great heavenly multitude that no one can count. In our gratitude, who are we telling about Jesus Christ? What spiritually disconnected person are we inviting to worship with us?
Second: We see ourselves as a new people. The multitude in John’s vision were dressed in white. In John's time, as in ours, white represented purity. Christians are sinners purged of their sin by Christ.
But in John's time, white also symbolized victory. Saints made clean by Jesus also have eternal victory over death! We're not only new. We're eternally new!
The throng of believers observed by John were dressed in the white of purity and victory for one simple reason: Though they had gone through difficult times, sometimes even persecution or death for their faith in Christ, they persevered.
They knew an important truth you and I need to know. Gerald Mann, the pastor of Riverbend Church in Austin, Texas, hasn’t had an easy life. One child was born profoundly deaf. Another child had major health problems. He once went bankrupt and suffered a major heart attack when he was a young man. Then, when both he and his wife Lois were sixty, Lois unexpectedly died. An atheist friend called Mann and began to recite all the terrible things that had come to him. “When are you going to learn, Gerald,” the atheist asked, “that you’re all alone?” Mann says that he told his friend: “Well, I’ve given it a lot of thought. Life isn’t easy and though I can’t see God, I keep finding myself saying what Peter said to Jesus: ‘Lord, to whom can we go. You have the words of eternal life.’”
We can persevere in following Jesus. We need to persevere in following Jesus. Where else can we go but to Him for life made new?
And whether you can see it or not, when we let Jesus Christ give us new life, we begin to change for the better from the inside out. We become, in Martin Luther’s wonderful phrase, “the Holy Spirit’s workshop.”
When the Spirit lives in us, God begins to displace our inborn penchant to be concerned for ourselves all the time.
And that's a liberating thing! It’s our focus on ourselves that lay at the root of all conflicts, whether they’re within us, inside of families, or among nations. Once Christ is in our lives, we begin to get free of our slavery to ourselves, our wants, our whims, our obsessions.
William Carey was an English missionary who lived from 1761 to 1834. As he was dying, a friend talked to him for a long time about all of his achievements for Christ. Afterward, the friend offered a prayer. Then Carey said, “Duff, you have been speaking of William Carey. When I am gone say nothing about me--speak only about my Savior.” Those are the words of a new man, like the words and songs of the heavenly multitude John saw. They sang about Christ, not themselves.
Third: Christians know that, in spite of our imperfect lives today, we already are part of God’s forever kingdom. Like John, we’ve gotten a glimpse of our eternal destiny. Like him, knowing where we’re headed because we’ve repudiated our sin and surrendered our lives to Jesus Christ, we know that future is with God forever.
I’ve mentioned before the habit of my seminary professor, Walt Bouman. He was a fan of murder mysteries and had the strange habit of reading the last chapters first. That way, he said, he knew what to pay attention to throughout the book. He knew what was important and what wasn’t. Jesus’ resurrection is a forecast for all who believe in Him. Like Him, we will live beyond death. Life is a little less mysterious to us than it is to other people. All believers in Christ will one day join those multitudes in praising Jesus.
But, we can start praising Him today, not just through worshiping Him along with our church family every week. But also through our serving. By loving our neighbors. By inviting God into every decision we make. By putting God first. By sharing our faith with others.
Revelation presents us with a heavenly vision...
- of countless saints worshiping God,
- of people made forever new by the Savior they follow, and
- of people who persevere through tough times here knowing that they belong to Christ forever.