While this might show my age: Have you ever started to write something only to erase it repeatedly over and over until you end up with the paper almost worn through? You erase it so that you would be able to take another stab at writing what you really want to write- in other words, you try again- but you might have to throw away that piece of paper and start over. I remember playing with an etch-a-sketch when I was a child. It was one of my favorite possessions. Perhaps you had or your child had an etch-a-sketch too. I would create a picture or a word with lines using two control knobs that wouldn’t always do what I wanted them to do. It was a very rudimentary contraption compared to any kind of technology we have now. If I wanted to change my picture or something about the word or words I had created I would carefully shake the etch-a-sketch trying to only erase what I wanted to change. Again, because it was so rudimentary that didn’t always work for me. Sometimes, everything I had created was gone and I couldn’t merely try to correct my picture, I had to start all over again. That was a bummer! I simply wanted to try again not start again.
What the book of Revelation is about may be similar to my creations on the etch-a-sketch. First, from the first book of the Bible to the last, we are familiar with stories of origin. For Christianity and Judaism, Genesis is our story of origin. Now we may disagree about how literal to take that story but the point is that we do understand Genesis in terms of God creating us, human beings, and all of creation. These stories tell us something about ourselves, especially who we are in relation to God. God created humanity and all of creation and saw that it was good as told in the first book of the Bible. These stories focus our attention on our root, the foundational element of who we are. They tell us of the ultimate source of our lives.
From stories of origin we move to stories of destination such as we find in the last Book of the Bible, Revelation. It may lead us to think, where are we going? Our cultural tends to focus more on stories of origin because it is easier to look into the past than to our destination at some point in the future. However, both are important to the journey of our lives. Something that may help us is to think that stories of destination are much more than a sequence of future events. This concept needs to be more broadened in order to truly benefit the Christian. It isn’t simply ‘where are you going?’; it is also ‘in what direction is your life taking you?’ and ‘what is your true goal?’ There is more purpose to where we are headed as believers than just trying to think of a sequence of events that will take us to a place, somewhere at some time. A story of destination is much more than taking us to the place of a temporal ending. God’s purpose and goal for our lives is a continuous destination. In other words, we aren’t simply aimlessly wandering around from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’, from birth to death. We are guided by God in a cyclical fashion. That is what stories of eschatology, end times, may do for us. We don’t have to argue if they are literally true of not. We need to discover what purpose for our lives these stories teach us.
The book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is eschatological in nature. They are end-time stories in the broader sense. At least for the purpose of this sermon, without focusing on the stories as a particular linear sequence of events on into indefinite points in the future, we know we are the product of past, present, and future in a more circular way of purposing our lives. That is a challenging way for us to think and I know it is likely not an easy one for us to wrap our minds around but, we can try.
You see, I hope, our faith stories explain to us that humanity was and is with God, dwelling with God from the beginning in the Garden of Eden, whether or not you take that story symbolically or literally, all the way through our lives to our earthly death or, in the case of Revelation, the end of time as we know it. That is the process of God’s creative approach to life. God’s creating process is continuous. This creation goes through a continuous cycle of God’s purpose for it, including for us.
I actually came across two forms of thought when reflecting on this passage. When we talk about a new heaven and a new earth, one thought is a “starting over” approach and the other is in the sense of being renewed and restored. The first thought is a story by Zach Hoag in his article “Don’t Ever Be Afraid to Start Over: All Things New in 2015.” He focuses on verse 5 in our passage that states, “Behold I am making all things new.” Last year, he and his family moved to Portland, Maine from their long-time home in Vermont. To greatly summarize his point, he and his wife were sure that God wanted them to start a new church in their city in Vermont. They took Jesus’ teaching to “forsake all and follow Jesus” to be the purpose for this vision. So they did. They gave up much to plant a new church in Vermont. But, as time went on, it became abundantly and painfully clear that this fledgling church wasn’t going to survive. They were absolutely devastated! It was a crisis much like a death of a loved one for them.
Zach declares that at the time they were at their “wit’s end” with this crisis, God intervened- not necessarily in the way they may have wanted. Zach says that deep within himself he began to hear that God had another plan for his ministry and he was to literally “start over” and move to Maine where a ministry awaited him. For Zach, “Behold I am making all things new,” from Revelation chapter 21, was telling him to start all over again.
The other thought I came across when working with our version in chapter 21 was quite different. This article’s author, Pastor Wes of the Houghton Wesleyan Church in New York, explains that our passage in Revelation talks not about starting over but about being renewed and revitalized in our lives, ministries and God’s purpose for our lives. He states, “It seems to me that a new heaven and a new earth” do not mean destroying the old ones. Pastor Wes explains that when God created the heavens and the earth and all that was within them, as the story in Genesis tells us, God said they were good. Why would God completely destroy what was good- why start all over? Instead, his thought goes, a new heaven and a new earth receive a spiritual breath, I’ll say, of fresh life blown into them so that they take on qualities of newness. They aren’t first completely erased and the new heaven and new earth started all over again. To Pastor Wes, scripture doesn’t tell us that God wants to completely abandon the Lord’s creation, only make it a much better form of itself. He believes that God continually seeks to make creation better, even though it is corrupted by sin and evil, and we are to assist God in achieving that goal. Pastor Wes’ conclusion is that we are to be good, even stupendous, stewards of all of God’s earth. That is our constant destination. We are to take “radical” care of the earth because the Creator created it to be good and made us stewards of keeping it that way.
I tend to agree with Pastor Wes so far as his point that God wants to breath renewal of life into the old heaven and earth. This process transforms them into a “new heaven and new earth” more in the Creator’s image of goodness as opposed to completely starting over. As our passage tells us, the old reality will pass away into the new reality, newness springing out of oldness, and God will wipe away the tears we experience because of pain, death, evil and sin in the complicated time in which we live.
For the past several years, Rodger and I have gone to a wonderfully festive overnight package at a hotel in Pittsburgh for New Year’s Eve. The package includes a wonderful buffet of appetizers, entrees and desserts, including a chocolate fountain (yummm!). There is a live band that we hear every year and really enjoy, dancing and a countdown to the New Year. The checkout time for the next day is extended into the afternoon and there is a buffet breakfast as part of the package. We have thoroughly enjoyed that overnight together. At the midnight hour, we really don’t have a sense of wiping the slate of our lives clean and starting over. However, there is a sense of new possibilities for our lives. While the New Year is actually a rather arbitrary line of delineation, we still do mark it as part of the cycle of our story looking forward to new and exciting and hopeful possibilities and experiences in that new year. It isn’t starting over. Life is both continuing on renewed and trying again those things we need to work on.
Even in all its rather bizarre storytelling, Revelation, especially our passage, gives the believer hope that God continues to desire to dwell with us in harmony. Verses 3 through part of 4: And I heard a loud voice (notice the voice is loud- a proclamation comes forth) from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. The Lord will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them.” Our passage explains that mourning and pain will be no more. That is probably an extremely difficult concept for us to wrap our heads around because there is so much desperate sadness and darkness in the world that surrounds our each and every day lives.
When we think of homegrown terrorists and far away terrorists causing people to die in buildings and airports and subway systems such as in the Twin Towers in NY and the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City and more recently bombings in Paris and Brussels; when we think of the death of loved ones or terminal illness that ravages bodies of those we deeply care about, some examples of which we hear in sharing of joys and concerns here most every Sunday morning; when we think of the devastation of flooding in Texas and in Illinois a couple years or so ago, and earthquakes such as in Haiti and lately in Ecuador and Japan, we know that we fear and grieve and we wonder, where is our hope?
People of God, the hope that we yearn for is in the God of Jesus Christ who made heaven and earth and saw it was good. Our hope is in Jesus’ death upon a cross to wipe away the great stain of humanity’s sin. Our hope is in the continuous cycle of life- not merely linear, finite points- in which God’s purpose is to renew and revitalize us and all of creation. Our hope is in God forever wiping away our tears of distress so that we can look forward to no more pain, mourning and fear. That is a hope- filled destination. Perhaps our greatest hope is that God dwells with us and has always dwelt with us in that continuous cycle of life. That is God’s promise. We have this hope so that we can unceasingly ‘try again,’ with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, until we can’t try anymore, which is in God’s timing, not ours.
What does hope and trying again mean for our church? Well, it means that we continue trying new things while we learn from our past and while we joyfully live in the present because Jesus Christ is our Lord. We move forward in this circular fashion and we don’t give up. This congregation has abundant life in it even while you look around at our average age and how many people are here. Through this way of thinking, we ought to focus more on the figures Rev. Rodger puts in the bulletin and The Profile newsletter about how many people are actually involved and active in the life of this congregation in any given month.
This hope also means having faith in God’s plan for us to continue our ministry here in this place now. We focus more on the cycle than we do on some specific point in the future when this congregation may not be here anymore. With hope we continuously move forward. God continues to have a plan for us as our Lord wipes away our tears and renews and revitalizes this congregation for Christ’s ministry in this community and in the world. Amen.