[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
I read once about a reporter who spent time with a young man whose life didn’t make sense to the reporter. You see, the life of this young man was a sad inner city cliché: His father had left when he was a baby. He and his mother lived in ramshackle government housing surrounded by kids his own age who were involved with drink and drugs and crime. Most of his classmates regarded doing well in school as a waste of time. Yet this young man was an honor student. He kept out of trouble in the evenings, even though his mother's two full time jobs kept her away from him most of the day and he, like many of his peers, had way too much time on his hands. The reporter wondered why. What was with this kid?
So, the reporter trailed this young man for a week. He had been with him for several days and still didn’t have a clue about what helped this kid to swim against the tide, to dare to be so different, to risk being weird in spite of all that pushed him to conform to the world around him. But the reporter got an answer to his questions one Wednesday night when he followed the young man to his church. There, in the balcony of the church sanctuary, the reporter watched this teen, often tempted to depart from the straight and narrow, as he was shared in the enthusiasm of several hundred others as they all sang praises to God. The reporter watched as this young man threw himself heart and soul into worshiping God. He perceived a change come over the young man. A weight seemed to be lifted from his shoulders. He had arrived at church crushed by his burdens, tempted to give in to the easy sins of his environment. But as he praised the God made known to us in Jesus Christ, he abandoned his fears and took the hand of God to walk with Jesus. He committed himself again to giving his all to the God Who, in Christ, gave His all for us.
You know what? It isn’t just teens trying to rise above the low expectations, the grave temptations, and the grim prospects of the ghetto who need to know a few things about God. We all need to know that God doesn’t want to be separated from us, that God wants to be with us forever, and that, if we truly want Him, God will come to us always.
Maybe the apostle John, exiled on the island of Patmos, back sometime between 81 and 96AD, needed to be assured of these exact same things as he lived and slaved each day in shackles as a prisoner of the Roman Empire, convicted of the crime of being a follower of Jesus Christ. And maybe for John, as was true for that inner city teen, it was easier to believe that God was with him when he worshiped. Scholars tell us that whenever the phrase “in the spirit” is used in this book of Revelation, it signals a time when John was worshiping God. Our lesson from Revelation for this morning starts out with John telling us: “And in the spirit [I was] carried...away to a great, high mountain and [I saw] the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” As John turned his eyes and his life upon Jesus, God was able to come to him with a consoling vision. And it was an incredible vision! Consider what John saw:
First: He saw what he calls “the new Jerusalem” come down from heaven. God came to him. To me, this vision is about the past, the present, and the future. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus came to our world where He died and rose for us. But He didn’t leave us orphaned. Today, we have the presence of His Holy Spirit and the encouragement of our church with us. And in the future, He will come to us bodily, too. We’ll see Him as surely as the first disciples saw Him risen from the dead on the first Easter Sunday.
Second: John describes this new Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem, you know, is a city that still exists in modern Israel. Long ago, it was the site of the Temple where pious Jews would come to worship. It was a place they had to go to if they were going to really worship, they thought, because that was where the presence of God resided in a section of the Temple known as “the holy of holies.” But John says that one day, at the end of the histories of the old heaven, the old earth, and the old Jerusalem, when the new Jerusalem comes to us, there will be no temple. John explains that, “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” This is what Jesus had been talking about when once, knowing that a conspiracy was being hatched to kill Him, He told the conspirators, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus, God in the flesh, is the temple. In the new Jerusalem that God is bringing at the end of history, believers in Jesus will have direct access to God.
But even today, though we can’t see God, Jesus tells us that if we will pray in His Name, God will hear us! Many of you here today have seen the power of prayer in Jesus’ Name too many times to have any doubts about its reality!
Next: John tells us that the new Jerusalem will be a place in which the blazing light of God will illumine us. Unlike the cities of those times, the gates will never be shut. There will be reason for gates to be closed, locks to be secured, or alarm systems set. There will be no night, no fear. And, John says, the tree of life, access to which had been denied to Adam and Eve for fear that they or any of us who descend from them, would eat its fruit and be consigned to an eternity of separation from God, will fill all who have repented of sin and trusted in Jesus with the goodness and power and life of God forever.
John presents us with staggering images of the eternal future promised to believers in Jesus. When life lays us low or when death stares us in the face, these images may be difficult to see. But even in the most dire circumstances, many followers of Christ have been sustained and encouraged by the promise of the new Jerusalem we have in Christ.
George Friedrich Handel was already writing cantatas when he was nine years old. Not long after that, he presented his music to the king of Prussia. But then, things took a turn for the worse. His father died. His music, to use more modern nomenclature, was no longer at the top of the charts. Bankrupt and hopeless, Handel locked himself away for twenty-four hours and in the end, emerged with his oratorio, The Messiah, based partly on John’s visions as recorded in the book of Revelation.
Something like 15% of all adult Americans living today have sung the The Messiah at some point in their lives. That's more people than know the words and movements to The Macarena! Obviously countless millions have also heard it. Three-and-a-half years ago at Christmastime, my family and I attended something called The Candlelight Processional, a fantastic straight-forward musical and narrative presentation of the story of Jesus' birth, at Disney World. Actor Mario Lopez narrated. A mass choir, partly composed of high school and college groups from throughout Florida, flanked him. Near the end of the performance, he asked all in the audience who had ever sung the Messiah before to stand and join in singing it. Hundreds rose. Philip, Sarah, Ann, and I also stood, Ann sandwiched between our two adult "kids." As Ann heard Phil and Sarah sing Handel's words at the tops of their lungs, tears streamed down her face. Think of that: A work of art composed at what was a low point in Handel’s life has lifted millions of people into an experience of God and of what it means to be blessed by God’s love, seen even in our own families. When asked how he was able to compose The Messiah, Handel said, “I did see the heavens opened and the great God himself seated on his throne.” Handel worshiped God and God came to him.
One of my favorite Christian heroes of more recent vintage is a man named Frank Laubach. Laubach was a missionary concerned with the grinding poverty in which most of the people of the world still live. He wanted to do something about it, but had no idea what it might be. So, this man of prayer turned his eyes on Jesus, asking for guidance. It was while praying that God gave Laubach a vision. Teach adults to read, God seemed tell him, and they could learn...about agricultural methods, about the importance of clean drinking water and hygiene, about the God Who loved them and could help them pursue love and justice in their everyday lives. Laubach began what became a worldwide literacy movement still active today. There was a Laubach literacy agency in our former community. Frank Laubach worshiped God and God came to him.
One of the lessons I have learned as a Christian is that when we take the time to worship God, praise God, thank God, and seek the will of God, it displaces things on which our minds and lives would otherwise be focused. You don’t have the time or energy, for example, to feel sorry for yourself when you’re intent on worshiping God. There’ll be room for people you would otherwise ignore when you worship God. Resentment will be replaced by gratitude to God and compassion for others when you worship God. In short, when we focus more of our lives on God and less on ourselves, we become a lot less distasteful to ourselves and more useful to God and to the people around us. When we worship God, we learn that God is still God, still there, still for us! Do you need assurance that God won’t turn you away, now or in eternity? Do you have a problem you’re trying to figure out? Is there some need in your family, our community, or our church you’d like to address, but you’re uncertain how?
Worship, give yourself over to the praise of God. Give God the opportunity to descend to you the way He did in the new Jerusalem to John. You’ll be strengthened in the knowledge that God really is with you. You’ll know that all believers in Christ belong to God forever. And even when things seem dark, God will lighten your way. Jesus says that if we will come to Him, He will always come to us.
Besides, one day in the new Jerusalem, we will be constantly worshiping and enjoying God's fellowship. So, we may as well start practicing worshiping and enjoying God right now! It’s a great way to live!