Story - Consummation
Passage: Revelation 21:1–21:1, Revelation 22:1–22:5
A couple weeks ago Emily and I were shopping at BJ’s. Tell me if this has ever happened to you. I did the one thing I needed to do and then we were going to get on with our larger list. And we’re walking down the store passing all the aisles and we keep walking and walking and walking. Then I look over to Emily and say, “What do we need, where are we going?” And she looked at me and said, “I don’t know, I was following you.”
Has that ever happened to you?
When it happens, and it’s a fairly benign and common occurrence, its mildly amusing. But what if it happened all the time? What would it feel like to constantly be following someone who didn’t know where they were going?
For the last two months we have been going through a sermon series about the big story that God tells us in Scripture. The epic story. The love story. The first few weeks were mainly about how the Word of God acts in us to draw us near to God and to name us beloved children of God. Those elements of the story saw us created out of love in order to love God and others. We were made to thrive. But the failing of our love brought about a crisis of disordered relationships. God tried to reorder those relationships through making covenant with us but only in Jesus Christ were we able to re establish and renew and correct our relationship with God. The next two weeks provided us our task of what we are to do as beloved children of God. We are called to tell the story of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and to make that love known out in the world. We are called to reach out in ministry and service to the world. We are called to embody the love for the world that God has.
But sometimes in the church we can get the feeling like we are following people who don’t always know where we are going. You see, there’s a certain logic that would say that as more and more of God’s grace comes into the world, as there are more followers of Jesus, as the story of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ gets told more and more, as more and more followers of Jesus reach out in love and compassion to the world, the world should become a better place. The world should become a more loving place. Things should be getting better and better and better until eventually the Gospel has created a utopia.
The technological advances of the modern era, the scientific advances of the modern era created this belief that one day humanity would advance in science and technology to the point of knowing all there is to know and creating perfect societies. This is called the myth of progress. Science believed that once we could split the atom we would know everything there is to know. Technology believed that we could solve all of our problems, medicine believed we could cure all our diseases. And this believe was applied to Christianity as well. Social gospel theologians believed that the Kingdom of God would be brought in through the progress of Christianity throughout society. There’s a novel about a wicked town where lying, deceit, and cheating abound. Then one person in the town converts to Christianity. He converts another. And as the people of the town find Christianity, things get better. Things get more righteous. Eventually everyone in the town is converted and the town is a utopia.
Now I believe that Christians make a difference in their communities. I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has transformed the world and disciples of Jesus Christ are meant to transform the world. However, a universal belief in progress has been tempered by two historical events: namely World War I and World War II.
Why am I giving you this history of thought lesson? Being a follower of Jesus Christ, being a Christian will mean great things for your life. Coming to worship should have real, positive benefits to your spirit and to your life. Prayer, devotion to God, basic Christian things should have a beneficial impact on who you are and on your family. But sometimes we still experience hardships in life. Sometimes we still experience suffering in life. Sometimes we still experience sadness and hurt. Life doesn’t automatically get better or perfect because we are in church on Sundays. We don’t become immune to the basic realities of living. But that can be jarring. And if we experience enough hurt and hardship, we might start to wonder where are we going? Are we following someone whose really following us and we are just wandering aimlessly?
God doesn’t want us wandering aimlessly. God doesn’t want us wondering where this is all headed. God doesn’t want us doubting whether or not our lives as Christians are worth it. God wants to give us hope and assurance. God wants us to keep the faith. And so we have the final book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, that tells us where creation and the cosmos are headed.
Most of the book of Revelation is about conflict. Conflict between good and evil, conflict that the faithful experience as they suffer. Revelation was written to a church being persecuted, it was written to a group of people suffering for their faith. A group of people dying while the wicked empire appeared to be winning. That same empire that crucified and killed Jesus. But the Gospel is that Jesus won on Easter Sunday. So why are we still losing to this empire? Why are we still losing to the spiritual forces of wickedness? Why are we still suffering? Why don’t we get the victory?
At the very end of that book of the Bible we get the final element of our story. At the very end of the Bible we get the final answer as to where all of this is headed. At the very end of Scripture we get a final glimpse of God’s grand plan all along.
So if you have ever finished last because you were a good person, if you have ever been hurt or backstabbed because you took the higher road, if you are grinding and clawing to be good and decent in a world that rewards the crafty and underhanded this sermon is for you. If you have ever come face to face with the dysfunction of this world, if you have ever been knocked down by the cosmic elements that work against goodness and righteousness, if you have ever been the victim of the disorder of this world, this sermon is for you. If you are struggling with a bad relationship, a hurtful person, if you have been bullied or abused or put down, this sermon is for you. If you have ever wondered what is the point of being good, what is the point of loving those who do nothing but hurt, what good is forgiveness or grace or hope anyways, this sermon is for you. For this is what God says will happen in the end.
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. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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. ‘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 said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. 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.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
So before I get into the passage, let me first set the stage for where we are. We are people of hope living in a world that needs real hope. We are a people of love living in a world of division. We are a people of charity living in a world of scarcity. And that puts us at odds, it puts is in conflict with the way the world works. Put another way, the world has a set or rules, the world has a set of expectations. And we are a people who are called to live in this world with a wholly different story, a wholly different set of rules, a wholly different set of expectations. The world is playing a game of basketball where the goal is to score more than your opponent and we are playing basketball saying the goal is for both teams to score the most points. Imagine that. Imagine how crazy that would seem to those witnessing that game.
And yet that is how Christians are called to operate in the world.
That difference, that cognitive dissonance can cause conflict. And yet here we have the end result of that. Here we have what happens in the end. Here we have the end of the story for those of us living in the middle, those of us living in the period just after the climax. Where are we going? Where are we headed? To nothing less than the Kingdom, the City of God.
At the end of time John the seer says that he sees a new heaven and a new earth coming down, that what is here and now will pass away and be remade. John sees that there will be a new Jerusalem, a new holy city where God will dwell fully with us. These things come here. And they come as a work, as an act of God. God will be with us and there will be no dying or hurting. God will wipe away our tears. There will be no more sorrow, no more pain.
Then John gives us a glimpse of life within the new holy city, life within the new Jerusalem. We see once again the tree of life, that same tree that God expelled us from the garden so we wouldn’t eat. That tree is forever in bloom, forever yielding fruit, and that fruit is for us to eat. We can now eat of the tree of life, we can now live forever. For we can live in harmony with God and with one another. Creation is healed, we are healed. And God is our light, God is our salvation, and we will live eternally with God forever.
The final element of our story is a healed, renewed cosmos and our eternal life with God. The final element of our story sees the putting right, the making new of all that our crisis had destroyed. The final element of our story sees us loving our God in freedom, as our God has loved us in freedom.
And the lamb of God, Jesus who is on the throne says the he is making all things new. He is working in this world to make places and spaces where this final element of the story is revealed to us while we toil in the middle of it.
So what is this story meant to do for us? How does this element of the story re-author our stories, the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories we tell about our world?
It can be hard to be a person of faith when you face hurt, sorrow, or despair. It can be hard to be a person of faith when the world seems indifferent towards love and righteousness and doing the right thing. It can be hard to be a peculiar people, living by a call to love others to love your enemy and to sacrifice for others when doing so seems foolish and irresponsible to the larger world. It can be hard to forgive others, to have grace for others, especially to people who seem only to want to hurt you. It can be hard to be a person of faith in a fallen world.
It can be hard to see God at work in the world when you don’t see things getting better. It can be hard to see God at work in the world when children still starve to death, when the wicked prosper, when parts of culture seem antithetical and anathema to your faith. It can be hard to see God at work in the world when we are constantly pitted against each other, when the larger forces at work seem intent on dividing us and making us hate one another. It can be hard to see God at work in the world when it doesn’t seem like the world is getting any healthier.
How are Christians to be resilient? How are we to press on? How are we to keep going as people who embody a different story, as people who embody faith in this world?
Martin Luther King Jr’s final sermon makes this point for us. You see Dr. King could have been a perfectly successful preacher and pastor taking over his dad’s pulpit in Atlanta. He could have had a normal life. But instead he spent his life fighting against the systemic forces of racism and evil. He taught us how to be a more loving country, a more equal country, a more compassionate country. He fought and fought and fought. And when he had gained civil rights for all, he fought some more on behalf of the poor in this country to see that everyone has an equal shot.
If anyone knew how to be resilient it was Dr. King. If anyone knew what it meant to have hope for a better future, hope for God’s beloved community it was Dr. King. And in his final sermon, just days before he died, these were his final words to the people working and fighting alongside with him.
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
How are Christians to be resilient? How are we to press on? How are we to keep going as people who embody a different story, as people who embody faith in this world? We keep going by remembering that the story has a perfect ending. We keep going by knowing that eventually God will win. We keep going because it is not by our efforts that the kingdom will come in, its not by our efforts that heaven will come to earth, but by a work of God. And God will be faithful to that promise. We will make it to the promised land.
The only good news about things not getting better is that things don’t have to get better for our ending to come true. Things don’t have to gradually progress in order for God to be at work in the world. God is working. And one day God will win. My faith is built on that promise of God. Mine eyes have seen that glory.
This element of the story, that God promises to bring about the final consummation of creation, that God promises to bring his kingdom here and that we shall be His people makes us to be a hopeful people. We don’t hope in our own ability. We don’t hope in our own power. Our hope is in God. And because of that, our hope can’t be dashed by any hurt, any pain, any setback. Our hope is in God.
This part of the story makes us a resilient people. We are a people who can’t be dissuaded from our faith. We can’t be dissuaded from our conviction. God will win. We will have victory. We will one day live in love and harmony with each other and with our God.
The final element of our story lets those of us who toil daily working for good and for God have faith that our work is not in vain. It lets us be refreshed by a new hope. It lets us go out into the world, not in our own strength, but in the strength of God’s spirit to give ourselves for others anew. It gives us the assurance we need to follow Christ and to be his disciples.
You are a beloved child of God. God created you, God loves you. God is healing you and your relationships. God is calling you to go out in the world and embody this love and this story to others. And God is giving you faith and hope that your work will not be in vain, that you will never be defeated, that you are playing for and fighting for the winning team.
That is the story. That is the grand story of salvation that God tells us in Scripture. The story ends with us living in harmony with God. But the story hasn’t ended yet. You and I are still characters in that story. How will you let this story shape your life? What part will you play in this story? How will you respond, how will you live your life? What will you do to be one of God’s actors, one of God’s characters in the world? How will you embody this story as a beloved child of God and how will you be a part of reauthoring someone else’s story as a beloved child of God?