God’s Dwelling Place

“God’s Dwelling Place”

Rev 21-6 Alpha and Omega

Revelation 21:1-6 – April 24, 2016

It’s spring! It is finally spring! Bushes and trees are budding, the grass is greening up, the spring flowers are in full display. After the long, cold winter, everything finally is blooming and budding—showing signs of green, fresh, new life.

It seems like it’s been a long, long time since we have seen the last leaves fall from the trees, last year—in the autumn of the year. This past week I read several books to the four and five year old children at Kids Academy about trees. In one book, I read about what happens to trees during the winter. They certainly appear dead, from the outside. But now in spring time, life starts shifting into forward motion. Full speed ahead, with the new growing season!

Imagine the newness of spring, of exactly this time of year, with everything outside budding and blossoming and growing. See that in your mind’s eye. Now, imagine it, 100 times bigger and better. No, 1000 times bigger and better! Now we’re getting the beginnings of an idea of what the new heavens and the new earth are like. That’s a little of what Eugene Peterson meant when he wrote his translation of Revelation 21:1; “I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea.”

Doesn’t it say somewhere that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good?” As the book of Genesis tells us, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and God created everything good.

God gave humanity the world and everything in it for us to enjoy. It is all a gift, everything, for us to enjoy together with God. Not only that, God wants to be in relationship with us. Can you imagine, daily strolls through beautiful gardens, in the cool of the evening? That’s just the picture that is painted for us by Genesis chapter 3.

You all know the plot line. God did have a close relationship with Adam and Eve. Then, one day, God came looking for Adam and Eve, but what happened? Sin happened. That relationship was fractured. Humanity was separated from God by sin. Now, today too, I am separated from God by my sin. We all are separated from God. Alienated from God.

When the world was created, everything was created very good. God says so, at the end of Genesis 1. Beautiful, glorious, magnificent Earth was created, and humans were placed on it to be good stewards of the Earth, and to take good care of it. But, we all know what happened. Sin happened. Not only we—us humans—were separated from God, but something catastrophic happened to the Earth, too. The world has been suffering from the catastrophe of sin, inside and out, ever since.

Another word for sin is separation. I know I sin. I displease God. And when I sin, I am separated from God. I feel it. I know I am alienated from God. I feel intense sadness, sorrow, and longing to be back in relationship with God. (And with other humans, too.)

This separation and alienation is a problem. Not only for you and for me, but for the Earth, too. The Bible is not specific on this point, but when Jesus died on the cross, the gospel of Matthew tells us that the Earth shook and the rocks were split. Somehow, the Earth knew when the Son of God died. The Earth reacted when the Creator of the heavens and the Earth died.

Thank God that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became a human being. Just like us. Thank God that Jesus reconciled us to God, so that we don’t have to be separated from God for eternity. And, this passage from Revelation reminds us that the world is going to be renewed, reconciled to God. The Earth is going to become that fresh, new, spring green place that it once was.

Remember, the book of Revelation was written by John. This book of amazing, fantastical visions was written for our edification and to help us get ready for things to come in the future. When you read this passage, this description in Revelation 21, what is your reaction? Do you think this description is pie in the sky? Is it way, way far-fetched? Or, is it a blessed promise of things to come?

Let’s read more from Eugene Peterson’s translation. Starting with verse 3: I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.”

That doesn’t sound like this crazy, messed-up world, at all. Does it? Especially the part with God moving into the neighborhood!

How would you like God—the Lord God Almighty, who created the heavens and the earth—to live in your neighborhood? On your block? Across the street, or maybe even living right next door?  For some, it’s a scary, daunting thought.

Some bible scholars say that cities—like Chicago—are scary! Sometimes, they are. Dark, dreary, dangerous places, where sin, evil, violence and alienation reign, and keep the good Christian folk huddling inside their homes and buildings. However, that is not the case here. John tells his readers that the New Jerusalem is a bright, shining city! The city of God, where God dwells. That’s God settling down, getting comfy in our very own neighborhood!

The commentator Dana Ferguson describes urban settings and cities in a fascinating way: she talks of cities being places of cooperation, interdependence and welcome. (See Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 2). Let’s go with that description, and think like that. What a positive, encouraging way to think of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.

Yes, this bible passage provides a vision of the future, of where we’re going. These descriptive words tell how wonderful it will be. Not only a bright, shining city, but also a welcoming snapshot of what God has promised to us. And, just think. That’s where God is settling down. As Peterson translated, “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!”

Theologian Frederich Buechner gave a telling response: “What does it mean to be ‘with God’? To say that a person is ‘with it’ is slang for saying that whether he’s playing an electric guitar or just watching the clouds roll by, he’s so caught up in what he’s doing and so totally himself while he’s doing it that there’s none of him left over to be doing anything else . . . In other words, to live Eternal Life in the full and final sense is to be with God as Christ is with him, and with each other as Christ is with us.” [1] [italics mine]

Let’s enlarge that vision to include all of Earth. Have you ever thought of caring for the Earth as caring for God’s creation? We just celebrated Earth Day on Friday. Earth Day is a day of responsibility and caring for this wonderful world. And, it serves as a tangible reminder of God’s unconditional love, extended toward all humanity.

We can celebrate God’s love, God’s presence with us, and the gift of God’s creation.

Sometimes, I hear language like, “Jesus lives in my heart.” Or, “My heart, Christ’s home.” Is it, really? How welcome is Jesus Christ in my heart? Am I generous and kind with my heart and my attitude, or does Jesus feel unwelcome when He knocks at the door of our hearts? Great question! An intriguing thing to think about. Sometimes, a serious thing to think about.

I know, I know. We aren’t there yet. The new heavens and the new earth are not here, yet.  However—what are we going to do with these Bible words in this in-between time? How can these words from Scripture impact our lives, today?

We can take these words as hopeful, encouraging words: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!”  We can celebrate God’s presence right by our sides, today. Now, in the in-between time, and at the time of the new creation, too.

Alleluia, amen!

(Thanks to Kathryn M. Matthews and her online commentary, Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_24_2016 Several of the ideas in this sermon were used in Kathryn’s article.)

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1973, 21-23.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)

 

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A Great Multitude

“A Great Multitude”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 7:9-17 – April 17, 2016

This past Friday, April 15, 2016, I convened a Peace Breakfast at Kappy’s Restaurant, here in Morton Grove. We had a diverse group assembled! Not quite as diverse as this great multitude that John talked about in Revelation 7, but still, diverse. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from one another.

Let’s step back, and think about the book of Revelation. This is not your typical bible passage to read on a Sunday morning. Not your usual sermon text, either. The book of Revelation is a series of interconnected visions alerting believers to the last days of the church.

Chapter 7 comes towards the beginning of John’s visions.

I’d like everyone to think of an old-fashioned radio or television serial, in multiple parts, or episodes. Here we have yet another fantastic episode of this amazing book.

For centuries, many preachers, teachers, and bible interpreters have read Revelation, and completely pick it apart. Find all types of supposed references to actual people, places and things. Use it as a guidebook for the End Times. It sounds like the political hype we lament but can’t quite seem to escape. (Let me say—bible interpreters have been “identifying” people, places and things in Revelation for centuries. Different anti-Christs, different identifications for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all the rest—every century, every era, every place.)

If John wrote this book to bring hope to his readers, how in the world can this passage of Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us, today?

Our bible passage today opens with a great multitude. It’s like John has a huge video screen in front of him. He’s watching this fantastic vision play out in front of him.

I encourage you all to get into the spirit of this passage. Shut your eyes, and imagine yourself seated in a heavenly theater (an iMax theater, if that helps you). John is seated right next to you, and suddenly, you see a great multitude on this massive screen in front of you. Every racial group, every ethnicity, every language spoken. All of them! All the things, as the young people say today.

Yes, in the larger picture, all of these people in the great multitude are going to go through a time of great trial. However—I would like to focus on this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude of people.

We are all aware of other separations and designations for groups of people. Upper class, working class. City folk, country folk, North side, South side. With all of this fantastic stuff going on in the book of Revelation, on that huge theater screen in front of us, who has time to think about these divisions? Who would be concerned—in heaven? Standing before the throne of God Almighty, in the full sight of God.

Yet—here in this world, here in the United States, in the Chicago area, those things do matter. As a pastor, I talk to a number of people many times in a week. Some of these people share about their fears and hopes for the future. More and more, I notice a shift in the mindsets of people—a shift towards deeper feelings of uncertainty and general anxiety.

I am distressed and dismayed at the overt anger, undisguised racism, and blatant xenophobia that is increasingly happening in this country. The shouting, yelling, name-calling, and general mud-slinging in this political primary process, just for an example. Note: I am not taking sides, but I am truly dismayed by the marked increase in such attitudes due to people’s ethnicity, culture, or religion. That is what I see as a big problem today.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to believe that we as a nation are truly a melting pot. This country is one of the most like this image, this part of the vision that John saw. That is such a strength of the United States! Yay! Go, us!!

We are going to switch gears. Let us look at the beginnings of the church.

In Acts, shortly after the day of Pentecost, a disagreement came up in the church. As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church—all Jews, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Now, multiply that 100 times. No, 1000 times. And, you begin to see the problems we all have today with rampant, widespread hatred, racism, fear, and xenophobia.

I guess I was one of those people who wanted to believe that we as a country and maybe even as a human race were becoming more open, integrated, and generous. I wanted to believe that humans were moving past this kind of hatred, fear, and violence. I thought we were on the way towards making it as difficult as possible for anyone to intimidate or harm others simply because they are of a certain religion, or racial background, or culture.

What can conquer such deep set feelings?

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. So much promise, so much love, so much grace. And—so much power!

Let us consider John 3:16. I suspect many of you can say it with me. We are just going to quote the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” I wondered: let’s unpack this verse. God loves? With a God-sized love. We all agree. God gave His Son—God’s ultimate Gift. Again, we all agree.  

The last phrase of this sentence? God so loved—the world.

Who is not part of the world that God loved? Let us consider racist feelings. Does God love the racist person? Yes. How about the person who is racially profiled? Yes.

Let’s consider xenophobic fears. Does God love the person who is so afraid of people who look different from them, or speak another language, or come from another part of the world? Yes, God does. God loves everyone. No matter what.

That is the hope we can gather from this passage in Revelation 7 today. God loves you. God loves me. Even though we may be flawed, and make mistakes, and do or say bad things. God still loves us.

The Peace Breakfast was a beginning, a chance to continue the conversation. We all live and work together, in community. Let’s promote positivity and friendship, not distrust and alienation. Here, in Niles and Morton Grove—and in Des Plaines, Glenview, Skokie—all over the Chicago area—we have such a multitude of diverse people! And it’s an opportunity to shine forth as a light of the Gospel, right here on this corner of Shermer and Harlem.

Finally, we can all praise God along with the great multitude from Revelation, and say, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)

Seeing is Believing!

Seeing is Believing!

“Seeing is Believing”

Jesus and Thomas illustration John 20-24

John 20:24-29 – April 12, 2015

Seeing is believing! Or . . . is it?

I wonder what things come to mind when I mention the phrase, “Seeing is believing”? Or even, “I won’t believe it until I see it!” Sometimes, people can be really doubtful about things. I can just imagine several people I know folding their arms across their chests and saying, “Unless you show me . . . “

In the gospel account we read today, from John 20, the disciple Thomas had just that reaction. After the resurrection, the first time Jesus came to the disciples, Thomas was not there. We’re not told why, simply that he wasn’t there. Maybe he was scared, maybe he was away, or out of town. Maybe he was sick. We just aren’t told why he wasn’t there.

The ‘why’ is not the important part. The fact that Thomas wasn’t present is. Thomas had doubts. Sincere doubts.

Truth to tell, the other disciples’ story was a little farfetched. I mean, how many people have you known who came back from the dead, and walked through walls into a locked room?

I wonder. I wonder if Thomas’ reaction strikes a chord with anyone here today. How many of us today are like Thomas? Doubting that Jesus has risen indeed from the dead? Or, completely missing Jesus, and doubting that Jesus is even here at all, today?

Let’s think some more about Thomas and his reaction. Thomas not only doubted, he also refused to believe! He not only doubted, he wanted concrete proof. Tangible proof, proof he could touch and feel and handle. Thomas wanted to put his hands in the nail marks on Jesus’ hands. That’s pretty concrete.

As I thought more about Thomas and his reaction and attitude toward Jesus and His first appearance to the disciples, I was reminded about my children. Generally, children have concrete thinking processes, especially smaller children. I have four children, and I’m accustomed to talking with them and communicating in more appropriate ways for their age groups. My children are just about grown up now. But when I used to explain something about God to my children, sometimes it was difficult for the younger ones to fully grasp the ideas I’m trying to explain. And they can ask some pretty hard questions. Gee, sometimes it’s difficult for me to know how to explain things about God to anyone who asks!

Maybe Thomas needed more concrete explanations, too. We just aren’t sure. The Gospel of John isn’t clear at this point. We as readers don’t know why Thomas had difficulty believing. But the gospel account says he did.

How many of us today are like Thomas? Not sure? Not believing? Closed up behind the locked doors of feeble faith? Not believing that Jesus can make a difference in our lives today? Could Jesus come and reveal Himself to Thomas? Can He come and reveal Himself to those today who are fearful, doubting, and unbelieving? . . . Can He reveal Himself to me?

Perhaps Thomas even had difficulty finding something to believe in, since he had so recently seen his Master and Teacher arrested and crucified. Grief, fear, anger, dashed hopes, shattered dreams. I strongly suspect several, if not all of these, were operating in Thomas’ life at this time.

These strong feelings and emotions inside are intense, and raw. From what is known today about the stages of grief, Thomas could very well have been feeling awful, angry, fearful and upset. Thomas could have felt like his life was falling apart. But Jesus can break through all of that. Jesus could enter Thomas’ life with new hope, standing right in front of him. In the same way, Jesus Christ can enter through the closed doors of our hearts, and meet us where we are, with open arms.

Just as Jesus did not leave Thomas high and dry, to figure things out on his own, so Jesus will not leave us. Our Lord came to Thomas in the upper room, despite his doubts and unbelief, and Jesus also comes to us in our doubts, and in our unbelief.

Now, Thomas didn’t actually see Jesus, at first. He had just heard from others who had seen Jesus. But then, a second time, the risen Lord appeared to the disciples. Again, in the locked room, and this time, Thomas was there.

What were Jesus’ words to Thomas? “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”

Thomas responded with that tremendous affirmation, “My Lord and my God!” Praise God for the sincere, heartfelt response of Thomas.

Jesus’ words to His doubting disciple serve as words of comfort and reassurance to me. I know I have doubts and fears, sometimes. And just as Jesus did not leave Thomas doubting, so too, Jesus will not leave me doubting, either. He will welcome me with open arms, coming through the locked doors of my fear, anger, doubt and unbelief.

Thomas saw Jesus. Seeing was believing, in Thomas’ case. Moreover, the risen Jesus continues with the statement, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” –here’s the best part of all. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What was that Jesus just said? Did I read that correctly? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” So–the Gospel of John says here that all who have not actually seen the risen Lord and yet have come to believe are indeed blessed.

That means Christians throughout the centuries are blessed, since they have come to believe in Jesus Christ and yet have not actually, physically seen Him as risen from the dead. That means you and I are blessed, since we have come to believe in Jesus Christ, too. How awesome is that? I am–you are–we all are blessed because the Lord Jesus says so!

Just as Jesus helped Thomas to believe, so the Gospel of John helps us to believe, too. This Gospel was not only written to bear witness so long ago, in the first century, some years after Jesus was raised from the dead. This Gospel was also written for the many generations which have come to believe throughout the centuries. And that includes us, too. Even though we may have doubts, and unbelief, and wonder whether, and why, or even why not, Jesus comes to us in our doubts and unbelief. Our Lord comes to us with reassurance and open arms and says “Do not doubt, but believe!”

Praise God that as we come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, we can have life in His name. And Jesus can come to us, at any point in our walk with the Lord, no matter what the circumstance happens to be, no matter where we are in our lives. Thank God that Jesus will be there for us and with us, no matter what. May we all be able to affirm, with Thomas, that the risen Jesus is our Lord and our God.

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)