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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 24, 2016

 Visions of What Will Be

Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6

            Time Magazine published this past week an issue that lists “The 100 Most Influential People” in the world.  As usual, the list included artists and actors (Leonardo DeCaprio was on the cover!), athletes and politicians, moviemakers and authors, and even one woman kick-boxer.  They actually ended up selecting one hundred forty-two on their list. 

            But the most pleasant surprise for me was their selection of Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who wrote Gilead, then followed it with Home and Lila, stories that circle back and around on the same characters, families and small community that she introduces us to in Gilead.  I love the mention of Marilynne Robinson because she is one of the most thoughtful Christian voices in America today, and may in fact be an intellectual without equal in writing about American life.  In a book of essays called The Givenness of Things, Robinson writes a powerful piece entitled Fear.  Robinson is succinct and profound: “First, contemporary America is full of fear.  And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”  She goes on to say, “As children, we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”  We also live in the light of Jesus’ promise found at the end of the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”  Robinson writes, “Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.” 

            So why are we so afraid?  Why does fear, often totally irrational fear, grip so many people in our nation today?  I suspect it is at least in part due to the diet we feed our minds.  The Proverbs teach, “As one thinketh in the heart, so one is.”  We feed our minds with a diet of daily news that tells of wars, rumors of wars and an endless stream of violence, trash and frightening events.  Robinson is right: “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction.  You can never be safe enough.”

            We also, I have concluded, feed ourselves a diet deficient in words or ideas that might fill us with hope and confidence in God’s goodness and power to redeem.  Many of us are suffering from spiritual malnutrition – we do not spend enough time or energy consuming calories that contain hope or feed our imaginations with the beauty and power of the Living God.

            This was not John’s problem, nor was it Peter’s!  Both were fed by powerful visions or dreams that filled them with an unlimited confidence in the goodness and power of God.  John claims to have been given a vision of final things by God while he was a prisoner of Rome on the detention island of Patmos.  Normally, today’s passage is one that is read at funerals, as well it should be.  But maybe we limit ourselves by only turning to John’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” in the face of death.

            This passage is a key part of what theologians call “Christian eschatology” – that is, a Christian view of the last or final things.  The “eschaton” for theologians is the end of all human history.  And every time I read John’s stunning vision, I am filled with wonder again at the beauty and freshness of what his Revelation promises.

            T.S. Eliot wrote his poem, East Coker, and begins by saying two times at the conclusion of key stanzas, “In my beginning is my end.”  Then at finish of the poem, Eliot turns it around, and says, “In my end is my beginning.”  In a sense, this is what John’s Revelation is telling us about the beginning and the end of all things.

            The “One who sits upon the throne,” the Lamb of God, the risen, ascended Christ, says, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”  Remember how the Bible begins?  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….”  Remember what God said about this creation, this creation of order and beauty out of chaos, this creation-ex-nihilo, that is, this creation of something out of nothing?  “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  Well, this same One who sits upon the throne, who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end,” promises, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Note God is not promising to make all new things.  This is not the promise of endless novelty.  God is promising “to make all things new.”  It is the promise of restoration, a complete redemption and reconciliation and restoration of the “God-given-goodness” of the whole created order.  The goodness of our beginning will be renewed and restored at the end of all things, and heaven and earth will be indistinguishable.  Indeed, there is at least a doorway or opening between the two today.  Remember Jacob’s dream of the ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth?  “In my beginning is my end.  In my end is my beginning.”  God is both our beginning and our end, and God is altogether good.  Remember the call and response in many Black churches in the 1990’s?  “God is good, all the time!  All the time, God is good!”

            And please note the center of this Resurrection promise: The home or dwelling of God is among mortals.  “God will dwell with them, and they shall be His people; and God himself will be with them.”  Paul said, “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.”  “The new heaven and the new earth” is simply the place where God dwells, where God makes His home.  Heaven is the place where God is and where humans are fully united with God.

            And note what is not a part of our future.  The “sea was no more” in John’s vision.  The sea, the deep, wild, unruly sea, was the Biblical image of chaos and destruction.  Psalm 74 and Isaiah 27 are good places to look to understand this view of the sea, or the waters of destruction and chaos.

            And note what else will not be there: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  And “God will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.”  This is the promise of the Bible!  It is God’s Word to us.  It is Gospel truth.  And it is the promise of the reversal, or the undoing of death, and life forevermore in blessed communion with God and with the human family in a world where “all things are made new.”

            This is why I do not fear what the future holds.  I love how P.T. Forsyth put it in his classic work, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind: “I know not what the future holds, but I know who hold the future.”  Do you know who holds the future, even your future, in His loving, healing grasp?

            I love how the Psalmist puts it:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation;

whom shall fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?”

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered.  No one was home.”

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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