Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Spoiler You Can Love (Understanding Revelation, Part 4)

Revelation 21:1-7
Imagine that you’re the fan of a best-selling series of novels. For several years, you’ve been waiting for the last book in the series to be published. You’re so dedicated to the stories, in fact, that you stand outside in the shivering cold to be among the first million or so people who rush into a bookstore in order to snap up a copy of the latest installment just past midnight.

You purchase your copy and head home intent on binge reading through the night in order to know how the central mysteries of the series are resolved. You can’t wait to get started!

On the way home, you turn on your car radio and hear a news report on how millions around the world, just like you, are buying the book.

Then the news reader reports: “By the way, set free by the actions of the series’ protagonist, the evil princess is transformed into the embodiment of good, the evil lord turns out to be the hero’s father and repents, thereby unleashing a millennia of happiness and peace. That’s how the series ends.”

Everything you’d been wanting to learn through hours of enjoyable reading is now revealed to you in a matter of seconds by a big-mouthed radio announcer. You know the end the story.

Will you turn your car around and return the book for a refund, the experience of reading the book now ruined for you?

Will you join a class action lawsuit against the newscaster and his employers for spilling the beans?

Or will you, so in love with the universe created by the author of this series of books, shrug your shoulders and read the final book differently than you would have otherwise?

Will you now, read the book knowing that, while bad things will come, in the end all will be well?

Knowing how things turn out, in fact, may help you to go through the story with a comfort and enjoyment you might not otherwise have. You know what’s important and what plot twists are really red herrings that have no power to change the definite good end the author has in mind.

Today, as we continue our series Understanding Revelation, we near the end of a book designed to let God’s people who follow Christ know that in the unfolding history of life in this creation--in the life of this universe, in our personal and communal lives as Christians--there will be adversity, persecution, and death. But Revelation also comes to tell us that those who endure in following Jesus are part of the new and eternal thing that God began in Jesus Christ.

John, the author of Revelation, the recipient of the great vision from God that makes up the book, would agree with the apostle Paul when he writes in 2 Corinthians: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Like the big-mouthed newscaster, John wants to tell us how the story ends for those who believe in and follow and trust and worship the God we know in Jesus Christ!

Is John wrong in doing this?

Knowing how the story of this universe ends, knowing how the story of your life ends if you will daily trust and obey the God we meet in Jesus Christ, does it ruin everything?

Do you want to sue God for spoiling the story?

Or, instead, doesn’t knowing that God is in control of history and how it ends and that the Author of life wants you for all eternity, make you want to change how you live each day?

Doesn’t it make you want to side with the whole great story’s writer and hero, Jesus Christ?

Doesn’t it help you to see your life, your relationships, your life’s work and daily activities differently?

I think that knowing how the story turns out for those who follow Christ can do all those things!

And believing that as I do, let me give you a spoiler alert as I invite you to look at our second lesson, Revelation 21:1-7. John is the speaker. “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”

The problem with the old heaven and old earth, the creation you and I now occupy, isn’t that it’s intrinsically bad. It isn’t. When God first created this place we now call home, Genesis tells us: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” [Genesis 1:31] The problem with this universe with all its intricacy and beauty, isn’t with how it was made.

The problem is that the rebellion of humanity, the only of God’s creatures made in His image, has dragged the whole creation down to sin, death, and darkness.

So, God has resolved to give a new heaven and earth--a new Eden--to those who turn from sin and the death that comes from sin and turn instead to Jesus for forgiveness and new life.

In the meantime, as Paul says in Romans 8:22: “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” for the new creation.

John sees this new creation--the new heaven and new earth. In describing it, it seems sometimes easier for him to tell us what isn’t part of the new creation than it is for him to describe what it actually looks like. He starts by saying “that there was no longer any sea.”

If you’re like me and enjoy oceanside vacations, that may not sound very good. But remember that Genesis 1 begins with God’s Spirit moving over the thrashing seas of chaos. The first creation happened when God pushed back this chaos, carving out a universe of peace and order for His creatures. When humanity fell into sin, we ushered chaos, disorder, and darkness back into our lives. Jesus, the Lord Who, you remember, stilled the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee, is going to subdue all the chaos, suffering, and death which bedevils us in this world and give all who follow Him a new creation of still waters.

Verse 2: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

For the ancients, cities were places of safety and light in the midst of a dark, chaotic world, filled with thieves and wild animals. At night, people didn't want to be left outside the city gates because it was beyond the city that real danger loomed. This is part of what gave Jesus' parable of the prodigal son so much power to His original hearers. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was well known as a place beyond city gates where thieves hiding in crags of rock would pounce on defenseless travelers.

God is going to send and usher His people into a new city, a new Jerusalem, which His people will inhabit in eternal safety and joy.

The morning that my great-grandmother died, my mom woke me and said, “Mark, Grandma is walking the streets of gold with Pop today.” Mom was saying that this woman who meant, and still means, so much to me, was in the new Jerusalem. It gave me comfort to know that my great-grandmother was with God. It comforts me now to know that if I will persist in trusting Christ in this world, I too will one day walk on the streets of gold in the city God has in store for His people.

We members of Christ’s Church wait for God to descend to us like brides awaiting the return of their husband.

Verse 3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God…’”

In former times, you know, the presence of God on earth dwelt in the holy of holies at the temple in the old Jerusalem. The words will dwell translate the word in the original Greek in which Revelation was written, skenosei, literally meaning, will tabernacle. God will pitch His tent among His people.

This is the same word we find in John 1, which tells us that God in the flesh, Jesus, dwelt or tabernacled in this world.

In the new creation, we will never feel far from God. We will know intimacy with God. We won’t need a holy of holies; we will be living in the holy presence of God. Sin, death, and darkness will never get in the way of our fellowship with Him.

In verse 4, we read: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne [God, then] said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

Apparently, God doesn’t think that knowing how the story ends for those who follow Jesus--tears wiped away, death done forever, grief and pain dispensed with--will hurt us. In fact, I think it's safe to say that knowing the end of the story helps us.

When we lose loved ones, knowing that all who trust in Christ live with God forever, can give us strength.

When we know that we belong to God for eternity, it can free us to love even those who hate us and to bring God’s compassion and love to the lost and the hurting of this old creation.

Revelation tells us that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

Beyond the gates of death is perfect life in the perfect city of God!

Knowing how the story ends for followers of Christ can, if we will let it, make us downright bold and reckless about loving God and neighbor!

Verses 6 and 7: “He said to me: ‘It is done.’ [Or, we might hear God saying as Jesus did from the cross, “It is finished. I have completed what I set out to do.”] I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Apparently, those who believe in Jesus Christ, won’t miss the sea with all its chaos, darkness, and sin. Instead, we will be given oceans of fresh and living water!

God will slake our thirst for life and we will inherit a creation rich with the very life of God.

The new heaven and the new earth will make Eden look like it was, just the beginning.

In the end, there will be no end, only God and us living life as it was meant to be lived: filled with new creations, new stories, new adventures, new fellowship, new fulfillment.

God will make all things new.

I hope that knowing the end of the story for those who dare to follow Jesus doesn’t ruin your experience of the story of your life, a life that God wants desperately to make continuously and eternally new.

I hope that knowing how it all ends for those who follow Christ will, instead, help you to do the one thing God most wants you to do: To well and truly live. Amen

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