The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered yesterday at the Brookline Church of Christ, and an attempt to respond both theologically and pastorally to the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
“All Things New”
Rev. Chad Smith
Brookline Church of Christ
28 April 2013
Text: Revelation 21:1-6
I’ve been thinking about you all over these past two weeks, praying for your safety, your healing, your sense of normalcy. I’ve been thinking about the streets where you live, where you were locked-down, where you returned to work and to school. I’ve been meditating on the questions your children, and parents, and friends have all been asking you, and reflecting on what you’ve told them about the bombings, about your experiences, about how you’re holding up. And I’ve been doing all this thinking about your trials of the past two weeks through the filter of today’s text from Revelation, trying to see what you’ve endured through this vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the end of mourning, crying, pain, and death. And I’m wondering how that vision may make a difference for us, in how we live, how we love, how we be this strange, sometimes awkward body we call “church.” In our class following service today we can talk about specific action points, but here in this sermon I want to offer a series of images, a kind of sketch that will hopefully put some contours and color to a vision that might seem, well, a bit far-off and unrealistic given the world as we usually see it.
See if you can follow me into the first image. I don’t know where you were on April 15, at about 2:50 p.m. As for me, I was sitting at the table in 7th period, with eight curious, sharp, insightful students gathered there as well, and we were all engaged in an animated conversation about the possibility of nonviolence. Somewhat ironic, I suppose. The text we were considering was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We had spent the past two weeks mining philosophical and religious traditions for help in answering the question of what it means to be a human being. All of them had read snippets of this letter in their history classes when learning about the civil rights movement. None of them had read the full letter, nor did they have any conception that King’s remarks were addressed to white clergypersons, whom he viewed as his brothers in the Christian faith. And none of them had yet made the connection that King’s campaign of nonviolence for the civil rights of African-Americans, and his dream of one beloved community, was impossible to conceive apart from his understanding that something new had broken into human history in the gospel. Were it not for that conviction, there is no reason for him to sit in jail, no reason to suffer violence to achieve a noble end, no reason to be assassinated 45 years ago this month. I picture Martin sitting in that jail, and wondering if this was even worth it. Is it possible that in that jail cell, the vision of all things being made new, of new relations between black and white, and no more tears – did that vision help him choose to keep going? I see him there in my mind, and I wonder. That’s the first image.
Hold that image in your mind, and for the second image travel back with me about 2,500 years. A prophet is standing in the midst of ruin. His face is lined with grief as his sandals kick up the dust of the rubble around him. Broken stones litter what once was a great courtyard, and as he looks up he sees the shell of what used to be a temple to the Most High God, looking now like some abandoned archaeological dig. There used to be commerce, and sacrifice, and worship here. And now, nothing, not even the sound of a bird. Were you able to see the prophet’s face, you’d see his eyes well up with tears, leaving trails as they roll down his cheeks. He is among those left behind, left with those too unimportant to be taken into captivity, left without leaders and without protection. Who will lead them now, now that their king is gone? Where will the Law be read and sacrifice performed now? Where will God be worshipped, if not in His House? When will these stones be rebuilt, and the streets of his beloved city be restored, and cleansed of the blood spilled when the city was sacked? I see him there in the midst of desolation, and I wonder if it wasn’t then that this word came to him: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Can you see him there, surrounded by all the evidence to the contrary, and yet convicted with this new vision? I see him there, and I wonder if he knew he might never witness the day he longed for, and yet he dared to speak the word for those who came after. That’s the second image.
And finally, with Martin in his cell, and Jeremiah in the temple ruin, hold them there in your mind, and go back with me even further to the third image – back before history, back before time, back to the beginning. The grass is greener than we know it in springtime, and the air is fragrant with blooms and buds. A river runs through the garden, the sound gentle, and calming. The squirrels are chattering in the trees, and the birds are calling to one another. And in the middle of it all, there is a tree, so tall and strong and ancient, with fruit so delicious that, when you take a bite, you get a taste of life itself. It’s the perfect place to spend a Sunday morning. Except the man and the woman are on the outside, peering through the hedge, and that taste of life seems nothing more than a faded memory. What would it mean for them to return to the garden? What would it mean for them to once more commune in the evening breeze with the Power that brought all this into being? How would it even be possible for them to be restored to their intended destiny? I see them there, looking with longing for their home, and wondering if they will ever get back. That’s the third image.
Martin in his cell, Jeremiah in his ruined temple, and the first man and woman on the outside of the garden. I offer these images to you for the same reason the writer of Revelation offered readers a new vision: to remind us that we are not alone in our sufferings, regardless of what they are. What are you longing for today? Are you longing for work that isn’t drudgery? Are you longing for a relationship with a parent or spouse or friend to mend? Are you longing to see God’s church be something more than a self-help club? Are you longing for there to be real peace and an end to needless violence in our world? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you need to know that you are not alone, and you are in good company. Like Martin, like Jeremiah, like our human parents whose experience is an archetype for every human experience, we have all suffered greatly, and we all long for something new to be born into this less-than-perfect, less-than-good mess we know now.
Revelation’s vision reminds us that we do not struggle alone. We struggle with the saints. And we have One who struggles on our behalf and who will complete the work begun in creation. The new heaven and the new earth will come. All things will be made new. But something has to happen for that day to arrive. And you so you aren’t under the impressions that we preachers never learn anything new, this text struck me in a new way this week. In Revelation’s vision, something crucial has to happen before the new heaven and new earth make their appearance, and before the sea of chaos is wiped away forever. And that crucial event happens just a few verses earlier than our text. Back up into chapter 20, verse 11. Satan, the deceiver and father of lies has just been defeated permanently. And the seer has a vision of a great white throne with One sitting on it. And here’s the crucial part: the old heaven and the old earth flee from the presence of the One who will make all things new. And the text says this: “no place was found for them.” The new heaven and earth cannot make their appearance until the old heaven and earth have left. Why do we expect anything new to emerge on this planet, in this church, in our own lives, when we are still fundamentally committed to preserving all the old habits, and patterns, and violence and dysfunction of everyday, normal human life? Why would we expect that? Why do we think we can maintain a place for the old heaven and earth?
Friends, I believe with all my heart that God wants to make our world new, and indeed is making our world new, if we have eyes to see where that work is happening. I also believe that God’s preferred way of working in our world is through us. And each of us individually, and we as a church body, have to examine what parts of the old heaven and earth we are still committed to. Otherwise, the new heaven and new earth will remain far-off, and we will peer at our true home and destiny like our ancestors peering through the hedge on the outside of the garden of Eden. It doesn’t have to be that way. God wants to do a new thing – in you, in me, in us, and in our world. Do you believe it? Do you believe this vision: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the old things have passed away.” Amen.