Come to the City of God

It's the new year, and towards the end of the book of Revelation, the Bible talks about God recreating a place for God and humans to live together. Let's look at it together, a sermon that I gave on New Year's Day.

Revelation 21:1-6

Happy New Year! We are entering a New Year, and our biblical reading tells us about a new creation.  Revelation is such a funny book of the Bible. Well, there aren’t a lot of laughs in it, but it is interesting. What’s interesting about it is more than the fact that it almost seems like a science-fiction movie.  There are epic battles between good and evil. There are enough fantastic creatures, symbols, and images to make your head spin. We are given glimpses into heaven and what it’s like. Evil reemerges again and again, but at last good achieves its final triumph.  What’s interesting to me is how everyday people, not to mention biblical scholars and theologians, run so hot and cold about it.

People, especially in the western world, either seem to avoid it entirely or they delve into it trying to figure out the code, thinking it will help them to predict about the end of the world.  Martin Luther didn’t really have any use for the book of Revelation. Yet, it was included in the Bible and has remained so through breaks between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox, through the Protestant Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation.

Strangely enough, after the Reformation, the Protestants stopped considering several books as part of the Bible, such as Sirach and 1st & 2nd Maccabees. It seems to me that if other books were going to be removed from the Bible, this would have been the time, but Revelation was not.

What is its value?  I said that it is in the western world where people usually either dismiss Revelation as too complicated or dig into the details trying to figure out when Jesus will return.  However, there is a group of people for whom this book is very important and popular.  That is where the Christian Church is severely persecuted and oppressed.

But Wait, There's More ...

We are lucky. We live in a country that protects our right to worship as we choose.  The American culture is the child of a European Christian culture that, at one time, was supreme. There might have been bloody wars between and among Christians. But there was no question of whether someone was a Christian. That was understood.

But, that was not the situation with the people that John was writing to in Revelation. They lived in a Roman culture where it was your civic duty to worship the local god and to worship Caesar as a god. By being a Christian, they were risking being imprisoned or killed. (In fact, John was in prison as he was writing this.) As you can imagine, this posed quite a problem for people whose 1st commandment was “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3).

Even though that circumstance doesn’t plague us here in the United States (unless you count things like worshiping money or celebrities), there are places around the world where it does. In Nigeria, there were bombings at churches during the Christmas Day worship services where over 40 people died. In China, there is both an officially recognized church, over which the government asserts control, and an underground church. People, who participate in the underground church, risk torture and prison.

I have many Christian friends from South Korea, and naturally, they are quite anxious about the Christians in North Korea. If their worship is discovered, they may be executed.

For these people and others like them around the world, Revelation is about the most popular book in the Bible. It gives hope, hope that despite all of the terrible things happening around them and to them that God is supreme and is in control.  There is a battle going on, and God will win.

And if we look it in that light, Revelation can provide that hope for us too, particularly the passage that we read today. This passage is perhaps one of the most comforting in the Bible. Death is over. Creation has been made new, and God lives among us in a way far beyond what we can experience now.  All of the battles are over. The judgments have occurred.  Everything is new and fresh and clean.

And on this New Year’s Day, we also get a chance to start over, to reassess, and to renew.  Last week, we celebrated the birth of Christ, the beginning of this renewal, the shining of the light on a dark world.  All we have to do is look at the news … It’s still pretty dark out there, but we can have hope because we already know the ending. God wins.

Surprisingly, the text does not say that God will create a new earth, but a new Jerusalem. It’s a city, a community where all the people can live with God, be in relationship with God and with each other.  But why Jerusalem?  Well, perhaps it’s not so remarkable when you think that Jerusalem has been one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate in the history of the world. And why is that? Not because it’s lush and green. Not because it had valuable natural resources. The Jews will tell us that Jerusalem is where God lives. That is where the Temples were, God’s tabernacle or dwelling place.  When God was not in heaven, he was in Jerusalem.

So, here we run into one of those symbols that I mentioned earlier that fills Revelation.  Of course, God is going to dwell or live in the New Jerusalem. Then, as is the New Jerusalem translation of the Bible, we hear God say, “God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God” (Rev 21:3).

What we have here in this passage is the ideal. No war, no pain, no death, no suffering.  All of humanity is living in the presence of God. It’s wonderful; it’s hopeful, but the question is what do we do between now and then?

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary subtitles this particular section of Revelation as “The New Jerusalem: Establishment of God’s Kingdom.”  The whole thing reminds me of two lines from the Lord’s Prayer, that we just said a few minutes ago, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

One thing that this passage makes clear is that we cannot make our imperfect world into a perfect one.  God is the one who makes all things new.  God is the one that takes away all pain and death, and yet, Jesus calls us to do more than sit around and wait for his return.

In Mt 28, Jesus tells his disciples to teach others about what he commanded (Mt 28:20). We can learn both from what he said and from what he did. He healed the sick, took care of the poor, fed the hungry.  He knew the Scriptures, so he must have read and studied the Bible. When Jesus was having confrontations with Satan, the Pharisees, or the scribes, in other words, his critics and detractors, he didn’t have to wonder about the right thing or the right answers.  He had them because he had studied the Hebrew Bible, what we think of as the Old Testament.

Jesus was also generous with forgiveness, and yet he also had a very high standard for behavior. He would forgive, but tell those people to sin no more.

When we participate in all of these things (helping those in need, studying the Bible, forgiving others), we also get to know God better and develop our relationship with God.

So often, people get stuck on one side of this or the other. We have our natural comfort zones. Study or action. Contemplation or missions. Study builds us up. It helps us to know and build a relationship with God.  It’s what the Apostle Paul refers to as “equipping the saints.” Then, we can go out into the world and do God’s work there.  Feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick. But, the time comes when we need to come back to renew and refresh.

Another thing that we can learn from Jesus is the necessity of community. Jesus surrounded himself with it, his disciples.  Luke tells us that when Jesus sent out disciples to the countryside, he sent them in pairs (Luke 10:1).

Mission … ministry is something done together, for support, for confirmation that we’re on the right track.

Yet, in today’s society, there’s a lot of independence. “I can do this all on my own. I don’t need the community, and I can help the community (if I so desire) by myself.  I don’t have to get involved.”  However, we need community.  Even introverted, independent people like myself.

We need people to hold us up. We need people to lift us up, and likewise, we need to be that for other people. We need to be inspired. We need relationship. We need camaraderie. We need community.

Can we get that from a worship service? I used to think so.

First, I thought, “If I read the Bible that should be good enough. Shouldn’t it? Besides, I don’t want someone else telling me what it’s supposed to mean.”

Well, I read a lot in that book, the Bible, about worshiping God. You need to go be a part of a group for that. So, I could hang out anonymously in a big room with a bunch of other people, while we worshipped God together, but I didn’t want to actually talk to anybody. What would I say? And I certainly didn’t want to go to Sunday School! That was for kids.

But I kept hearing from the pulpit, “Community … Community … Community” And I thought. “Ah, they just don’t want more people leaving the church. It’s not really important. I should still be able to do everything on my own.”

Then, through the extraordinary circumstance following my father’s death, I found myself in an adult Sunday School class. I wasn’t planning on joining it. I was just checking it out.

I stayed there for the next 5 years.  Why? Because I learned the importance of community.

It wasn’t just some, “get the numbers up” thing from the pulpit. It was bonding and making friends with people in a way that you can’t do in the corporate environment of a Sunday morning worship service. That’s not what worship is about. Worship is about God.

It is true though.  Being part of a smaller group is more likely to keep you from drifting out of a church, but that’s because you start feeling connected in a way that you can’t by simply being here on Sunday morning for worship.

Sunday service is about worship, but smaller groups are about how we get through the rest of the week. It’s a more intimate setting. As a friend of mine says, it gives the opportunity for, “the Christ in me to meet the Christ in you.” It’s about figuring out how we do and live how God wants us to live. It’s about being there for other people when they’re going through the rough patches in life. It’s about those people being there for us. It's about our group working together to help other people who are trying to go it alone.

The thing is that you can’t hide and be anonymous in a small group. If you’re not there, people notice.

There are opportunities coming up this month and next to connect in different ways here at the church. For example, we have the Exploration class starting in a couple of weeks, Tables of 8 towards the end of the month. In about three weeks, there’s going to be a visioning summit for our church’s committees and work groups. Do you have an interest in anything, an idea? Come and be a part of it!

Not sure what to do? Come to our exploration class. Next month well will begin some studies for Lent. Be a part of the community rather than watching it from the outside.

It’s a New Year.  It is a time for reassessment, renewal, and that other “R” word, RESOLUTIONS.  How will you respond?

There’s a story by Dorothee Soelle about a rabbi, Rabbi Mendel, who wanted to know what heaven and hell looked like, and the prophet Elijah took him to show him. Elijah led him into a large room where a big fire was burning, and where there was a large table with a huge pot of steaming soup on it. Around the table sat people with spoons that were longer than their arms, and because the people could not eat with these spoons, they sat around the table … and starved. Rabbi Mendel found this room and what he saw there so terrible that he quickly ran outside.

Then Elijah took Rabbi Mendel to heaven and into another large room where a big fire was burning and where there was a large table with a big pot of steaming soup on it. Around the table sat people with the same spoons, but they did not have to starve because they were feeding each other.

Let’s help each other. Let’s work together. Just come and see. Get your hands dirty; get them messy. If you’re in a group, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you don’t know what you’re missing.  You don’t have to do it all by yourself. God didn’t wire us that way.

Together, we can make a difference, not just for ourselves but also for the world (whether that be in Africa or Pocatello, ID). Until God creates the new world, we can do our best to help this world look like the Kingdom of God.


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