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Between the Now and Not Yet

05 May

EARTHFROMSPACE(A sermon for May 5, 2013, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5)

If you’re looking for a conversation starter for your next get-together or dinner party, I’ve got the perfect one for you today: Where do you see yourselves in, say, five or ten years from now?

It’s actually a question I ask in the pre-marital counseling I do with couples wanting to get married in the church; it’s been a good way of getting to know the bride and groom a little better, while gaining some insight into their relationship with each other.  It’s about hopes and dreams, and the answers I get are always interesting.  Most couples talk about buying or building a home, or having children; sometimes they tell me about how getting married intertwines with career plans.  Granted, there are a few who really haven’t given any thought at all about their future beyond the wedding day (I remember one glassy-eyed groom responding only that they were going to the Bahamas for their honeymoon!); but by the same token there are those who have things so well-organized and perfectly planned they seem to know clearly and exactly what’s going to happen and when!  But then there are those who are content to take things as they come; I remember one particularly delightful couple, both of them well into their eighties at the time; when I asked, the groom simply smiled, and with a twinkle in his eye, answered, “I don’t care where I’m seen, so long as it’s not on the obituary page!”

Well, the point I like to make with couples is about the importance of dreaming dreams and of having a vision; after all, as it says in the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  It’s important that they have a least a small vision in their minds’ eye of where they want to be in life, even as life’s reality requires them to expect the unexpected (because as John Lennon aptly observed, “Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans!”).  Such is the glory of love, however, is that for the most part these couples do have a vision firmly in place; and undaunted by whatever difficulties life has to dish out, they move forward filled to overflowing with their hopes and dreams and love.  Their sight always seems directed just a bit beyond the next horizon, living their lives together in grand anticipation of what’s yet to come.  And God bless them for it!

Actually, it seems to me that our Christian faith is a lot like that; in that it’s a journey into a future we’ve envisioned, but haven’t yet seen in its fullness.  It’s true; so much of what we talk about in the church has to do with “what’s to come.”  The season of Advent, for instance, is as much centered on the coming Kingdom of God as it is looking back at the birth of the Christ child; indeed, a great deal of what we do in worship – most pointedly in the sacrament of communion – points to a time in the future in which “Christ will come again” and all things will be made new.

Well, our scripture reading for this morning speaks of just such a time;  of a new and “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,”  a city and a people with no need of light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”  This will be a time when caution or the need for earthly protection will be unnecessary, because all that which causes danger, fear and dread will have been set right; God will be dwelling among us, and we will walk joyfully with God!

It’s an incredible, wonderful vision with some of the richest and most vivid imagery in all of Holy Scripture; but understand, that’s what it is, a vision: not what is, certainly;  all one has to do is to survey the daily news to recognize that we’re in a world far afield from that shining imagery of scripture!  But what we have is the promise of what will be for the church of Jesus Christ, and eternally for all those who wait and rest in the Lord.  That’s what this last book of the Bible, which is correctly named “The Revelation to John,” is all about; not the “here and now” of our lives and our world, but rather the promised time “soon but not yet” when in God’s plan a new heaven and a new earth will erase the struggle and strain of this present time.  Quite a vision, indeed!

Now, I will freely admit that as a whole, Revelation can be a hard piece of scripture to get a handle on – and in all honesty, all the many books and very bad movies out there that have sought to connect the dots haven’t helped much!  Biblically speaking, it is a work that is steeped in 1st century history and tradition, not to mention the struggles of the early church; and the imagery you find across 22 chapters is so dense and multi-layered that it becomes confusing, and very easy to get lost within.  But at its very heart, friends, Revelation is simply – and gloriously – the affirmation that however bad it appears at this moment; however hopeless life seems to be at present; and however dark the world has become in these times, it’s not the end of the story.  There will be light that overcomes the darkness; there will be a time when there’s to be “nothing unclean” or full of falsehood; there will be a new heaven and a new earth, for “surely, [he is] coming soon.”

This is a vision of hope, friends, and it’s central to who we are as Christians.  It’s no coincidence that the very verses we’ve shared today are among the first that we turn to in times of tragedy; and it’s what we cling to in the moments when our world appears mired in hopelessness; because what we have here is sure and certain hope for the future, God-given hope that will sustain us until the time when the “now” becomes this “not yet” that will come in God’s time.

Not that living unto such hope is easy, or automatic.  In fact, I would submit that perhaps the greatest challenge you and I face as Christians in these times is to be living faithfully between the now and not yet.  Not to sound morose here, beloved, but the truth is that there are plenty of reasons to despair in this world as we know it; my two college student sons, for instance, are well-versed in matters of global economics, political science, and world-wide environmental crises.  They have a deep and, might I add, valid concern for the state of the planet; and I’ll be honest, sometimes after talking to them for a while, you begin to wonder if in fact, the end really is near! Realizing all that has and is going wrong in the world, I could find it very easy to allow the seeming hopelessness of it all envelop me; but then I remember that you and I who are named as God’s people are called to live in hope, the kind of hope that rises up defiantly from the pits of despair, and manifests itself in love, mercy and justice.

It was quite a number of years ago that I saw the cartoon in one of the papers; but it could have just as well run in these weeks since the Boston Marathon bombings.  The caption read “Counter-terrorism,” and it was actually a collage of drawings of those who had responded in the aftermath of tragedy, each in their own way: sketches of rescue workers, doctors and nurses and paramedics on the scene, blood donors who immediately went to the hospital; churches and outreach agencies who bringing food and support to the victims; and finally, up in one corner, a writing out a check.  The message there was loud and clear, and very apropos for today: you can battle the evils of this world with deeper despair and equal anger, or you can come back at it with caring hope and relentless love, overcoming evil with good.

That’s how we’re called to live, beloved; seeking justice when injustice runs rampant in the world, doing that which creates an atmosphere of peace and unity in precisely in those places and systems that seek to divide and conquer; holding our heads high with the kind of sure and certain hope that knows that this shall not be the final word.  We who dwell in Christ dream the dreams that someday will be; we have a vision of the future that prophets have foretold and which our Lord Jesus gave to us a glimpse in his life, death and resurrection; and which will come to us in its fullness upon his return.  But here’s the thing:  we not only dream the dream, but here between the now and not yet we are to carry this vision into our own reality, seeking to live as persons and as a people as though the visions have already come to pass!

It was that great theological luminary, legendary football coach Vince Lombardi who once said that “good football coaches always have in the back of their minds a picture of that perfectly executed offensive play, the perfectly run defensive formation.  Although the coach probably has never seen a group of players execute it perfectly,” he said, “still the coach has in his mind a vision of what it would look like if anyone ever did it correctly; because only then, only in having that vision in your mind, can you begin to coach toward it.”

Well, as the church we also have a vision of a perfected future: a future in which the hungry are fed, the sick are given healing, the naked are clothed and the lame leap for joy; in which people not only “get along,” but who love one another as they’ve been loved; in which God’s righteousness is reflected in the care and concern of people who are stewards of the earth and its people; and who are committed to doing that which build bridges rather than that that creates walls and promotes hatred.

I know, that’s not our reality; not yet, anyway.  But it is our hope; not only for the world that we want our children and grandchildren to inherit, but also for the world where we’re living right now; in the God-given life of grace and love that we’ve only begun to discover in preparing for the coming of the Lord.

Make no mistake, beloved, there will be a day, soon and very soon, when God who is the Alpha and Omega will close the gap between what is and what ought to be, a moment when God will take up this vision we’re slowly trying to help take shape, and make a new heaven and a new earth.

Until that glorious day, let us keep dreaming:  let us stand on tiptoe, looking toward the horizon for a glimpse of God’s promised city.  And let us not merely dream with our minds, but also with our hearts and our hands.  Let our very lives embody the dream so that all may see in us what’s to come:  a city made not of bricks and mortar, but a people gathered and unified by the grace and glory of God almighty.

Thanks be to this God who gives us the promised vision and who will bring it to fruition.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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