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God's Dwelling Place

First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Daniel E. H. Bryant
May 9th, 2004

Revelation 21:1-7

The scripture reading this morning is from Revelation chapter 21, verses 1 through 7:

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘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;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

 

Preaching from Revelation on Mother's Day probably makes about as much sense as celebrating New Year's with the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld J.  Not exactly a cheerful thought at the moment.  Or asking for investment advice from Martha Stewart.  It just sounds crazy on the face of it, but I am in the midst of a little mini-series on the book of Revelation.  

And rather than deviate from the series I thought this morning I'd attempt to sum up the meaning of Revelation with the story of a mother.  I have to warn you one of my pregnant young mom's in the first service said I just added to her worries!  But it is really intended to be a story of hope, but one of the difficulties is that stories of hope that have the greatest meaning arise in times of great trial.

This story is told by Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief.  Dr. Pagels teaches at Princeton and has devoted her career to the study of the extra-canonical writings of the early church, those writings that did not make it into the bible but nevertheless tell us much about the history and origins of the church.  Beyond Belief, Pagels' latest book, is not about Revelation at all, it is rather about the relationship between the gospel of John (which of course is in our New Testament) and the gospel of Thomas (which is not).  This very scholarly book about the origins of Christian faith begins with a very personal story of Dr. Pagels rediscovery of her own faith.

It was early on a February Sunday many years ago that she found herself drawn to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York.  She did not intend to go there that morning, she was on her morning run, dressed as you can imagine in New York in February in a t-shirt and running shoes.  She thought the church would be a place where she could warm up and catch her breath.  Despite her fitness attire, she entered anyway.  It was her first time back to church after a long absence.  She says she was startled by her response to the service that she found there in progress.  The soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation.  The priest (a woman--something she never saw in her days growing up in the church) dressed in bright gold and white vestments, her clear, resident voice proclaiming the prayers of the people.  And a voice said to Dr. Pagels:  here is a family that knows how to face death.  

She had gone for a run early that morning while her husband and her 2-and-a-half year-old son slept because it had been a long sleepless night for her and she needed to clear her mind.  Two days before, doctors informed her and her husband that their young son, Mark, had pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disorder that invariably led to death.  "How long?", she asked.  "We don't know", they said, "a few months, perhaps a few years".

She writes:  "Standing in the back of that church, I recognized uncomfortably that I needed to be there.  Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child.  Here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.  Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope.  Perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable.  Before that time, I could only ward off what I heard and felt the day before.  I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there (and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement), my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope.  In that church I gathered new energy and resolved over and over to face whatever awaited us, as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us".

Dr. Pagels goes on from that very personal experience of a profound crisis to discuss the origins of Christians faith.  Or more precisely, of the faith community.  For part of her thesis is that community and faith emerged together in the first three centuries inseparable in a time of crisis.  And it was precisely the creative ability, or we might say the spirit-led ability, of that early Christian community to relate to the gospel story and to Jesus in such a way that it became part of their own story.  That it gave meaning and guidance to their own lives that sustained, nurtured, and enlarged their faith.  Receiving baptism and gathering every week or even every day to share the Lord's supper, those who participate weave the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection into their own lives.

So again, Pagels writes:  "This, then, is what I dimly recognize as I stood in the doorway of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  The drama being played out there spoke to my condition, as it has to millions of people throughout the ages because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while paradoxically nurturing hope.  Four years later when our son, then 6 years old, suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter.  Among words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that seemed impassable."

This is precisely the function and purpose of Revelation.  It is the drama that speaks not so much to my condition or yours but to the world's condition.  Simultaneously acknowledging the reality of evil and the fear, the grief and the death it creates while also giving us hope.  That the impassable will be bridged by God.

Do you remember the story of Forrest Gump?  A much more hopeful, uplifting story.  A wonderful movie, it came out years ago when our children were too young to appreciate it, so we rented it again so our kids could experience that heart-warming story.  The main character, played by Tom Hanks, is what we used to call a 'simpleton'.  A person with very limited cognitive abilities.  An IQ of 75.  Probably pretty close to my own, I think J.  And one would think that such a person is doomed in life, lacking the necessary intelligence it takes in order to make it in this world.  What hope was there for him?  And yet over and over again the movie tells this story of Forrest Gump who finds himself in the national spotlight one way or another, and towards the end of the story he narrates that he went to the White House, 'yet again!', to meet the President, yet again!, like that's really a dumb thing to have to do.  And what struck me as we watched this movie, yet again!, was the role that the mother plays in it.  Portrayed by Sally Field.  It's not a big role in terms of the movie, but it's a huge role in terms of Forrest Gump's life.  He says many times throughout the movie:  "Mama always said, life is a like a box of chocolates".  "Stupid is as stupid does".  And with those little pearls of wisdom guiding his life, he managed to make it through.  But it wasn't just what she told him, it was the way she believed in him.  How she insisted on the best for him, and how in the face of overwhelming odds against him she gave him what he needed to beat those odds.  To rise up above them and to do the impossible.

And that is my image of God.  The mother who is the one who believes in us, who inspires us to do our best.  Who challenges us to beat the odds against us and enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible.  And that's precisely what Revelation does too.

It acknowledges that the world is stacked against us in so many ways.  There are beasts, terrible beasts in this world that would destroy us.  As Martin Luther wrote:  

A mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing,
Our Helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great; and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them.
Their rage we can endure, for lo! their doom is sure;
One little word shall fell them.

 

And thus Revelation portrayed that one little word of the slain lamb defeating the imperial beast with nothing more than the sword of his mouth.  And then we are presented with this vision, once again of God on his throne, only now, in contrast to the earlier portrayals of God seated on his throne with all of the heavenly creates attending to him that we looked at the previous two Sundays, now this God comes down to earth to dwell with us once and for all, putting an end to all misery, suffering, and even death itself.

Now as I shared two weeks ago, Revelation almost did not make it into our Bible.  The reformers almost excluded it from their editions of the Bible.  But it has been kept not because the church fathers and others thought that it predicted the future, but rather because they understood it was written for their time.  And that's why they kept it--for its vision of how things should be under God in stark contrast to how they were under Caesar that gave them hope.

Now especially when you remember that when the elder John was writing from the island of Patmos, the ruins of Jerusalem were still smoldering.  The stench of death in Palestine covered the land from the war, including in 70 C.E. the complete destruction of the temple.  And the stones carried away, so that it could never be rebuilt again, in contrast to the song that Adam wrote with the man standing next to the temple and envisioning this glorious new city.  When John wrote, there was no temple.  It was gone.  And think, then, how powerful this vision would have been to those people for whom that memory was so vivid and so recent of the new Jerusalem descending from God.

And what is especially remarkable in this vision is that this paradise is not achieved when we ascend to be united with God in heaven, but rather when God descends to be united on earth with us.  That is paradise.

Note, too, that God's dwelling place is neither the mountain nor the temple, but rather the city.  And this is a challenging vision for us.  For all the nature lovers that find God out in the wilderness, the forest and mountains, etc, and for the keepers of religious institutions who want to put God in buildings, and erect these wonderful, glorious places as holy sites to God.  And it's not that God cannot be found in the mountains, cannot be found in temples, but rather that the home of God, literally the place where God pitches his or her tent (here in the Greek), that dwelling place of God is with the people.

Thus, in the city, for there is no temple, no meaning of the temple anymore.  Because God dwells with us.  And if God's home is to be here with us, then that can only mean that we are part of God's family.  That all who follow this way that we have called "Lamb Power", the way of the slain lamb, are our brothers and sisters, children of God, our mother and father.

This is not just a trite saying, to say that we are all part of God's family.  It's not something simplistic, even if it may be simple.  Because the social divisions in both ancient Palestine and the Roman Empire were incredibly deep and strong.  And when the early Christian community rejected those time-honored distinctions, separations, and divisions between slave and free, between male and female, between aristocrat and peasant, between black and white, between citizens and foreigners, it was seen as a challenge to the very structure that held the fabric of society together.  

And I will dare say that it is still such today.  The church was and is in effect creating a new world order, based not on birth or wealth or education or economic status or marital status or tradition or language or any of those other traditional standards by which we structure our world.  It is rather built on the ethic of love.

Bishop Turtullian wrote in the early 2nd century that outsiders ridicule Christians because we call each other brothers and sisters.  What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice loving kindness.  "Look", they say, "look how they love one another".  

And that love is the love of Christ.  It is the love of Lamb Power.  It is the love that we find with God dwelling in our midst.  And it is that love that found, or dare we even say, that saved Dr. Pagels.  Not her knowledge from her work achieving her PhD.  Not all of that studying of the ancient writing.  Not all of her teachings and writing.  But the love of God.

She said it was Christmas Eve, two years ago, she went to the midnight service with her second child, Sarah.  She had first carried Sarah as an infant to the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  And there, she says, her infant daughter would raise her head to listen intently to the singing cascading down from the choir loft.  Sarah joined the choir at Trinity in Princeton, at the age of 8, because, she said, "the music helped my heart."  That's why we love it when the children sing for us, because it helps our hearts, doesn't it? 

And now they came together at the age of 16, on this Christmas Eve, to a full church where the only seats they could find were on the stone steps behind the lectern.  Dr. Pagels said that she had always loved this service as a child and had come to love it again as an adult after the birth of her three children.  But after her son's death, it was difficult.  This year, however, she said, this year she found herself wholeheartedly singing the carols and listening to the stories of the child born in Bethlehem.  Angles breaking through darkness to announce the miraculous birth.  Stories that most New Testament scholars, knowing that we have little or no historical information about Jesus' birth, regard as a mixture of legend and midrash.  Story telling that draws upon Israel's stories of miraculous births of Isaac and Samuel and the rescue of the infant Moses.  On that night, writes Pagels, "my own associations with those stories seem to be embraced with the joy and sublimity of the festival, laced as it is with the intimations of Jesus' impending death as well as the promise of his continuing radiant present.  Attending to the sounds and the silence, the candlelight and darkness, I felt the celebration take us in and break over us like the sea.  When it receded, it left me no longer clinging to the particular moments in the past.  But born upon waves of love and gratitude that moved me toward Sarah, toward the whole community gathered there at home or everywhere.  The dead and the living."

This is John's vision of the new Jerusalem.  The promise of Jesus' continuing radiant presence and God's everlasting parental love.  It is a vision of the whole community, the dead and the living, at home with God.  It is a vision that beckons us, that calls to us, that urges us to sing with angels, and to join in the story to make it our story, our family, our hope.  

Because it is our God who dwells here, with us.  Thanks be to God.    

 


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