May 1, 2016 – Easter 6 – Year C
You have got to admit, it is a fantastic vision. In fact, it is almost a science fiction image. A vision of extravagant hope. And what does that hope look like? Would you believe the picture is one of a city! No – not some serene pastoral scene, but instead a city! It is the new Jerusalem which will come down from heaven like a giant perfect cube, radiant with light, sparkling with gold and glass and every precious stone imaginable. Every person will have an entry point into the New Jerusalem. And in the visionary city, the endless activity of the people will be encompassed by the River of Life. It’s as if the writer had something utterly fantastic to proclaim, but couldn’t quite find the words that were rich enough. So the writer piled image upon fantastic image, stretching the imagination almost to the breaking point.
But there’s something else fantastic about this text besides the imagery. It is a vision of a city – the City of God, the New Jerusalem (the same Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified, now transformed and holy). The final vision in the Bible is a political entity – a city. A city in which people from all nations live together before God in peace and justice. A city in which there is no violence, no seething hatred and anger, no poverty, no tears. The night is no more, for the city is filled with the glory of God.
And, quite honestly, that vision is more fantastic to me than the precious gems and the golden streets. For cities today are more often symbols of despair and hopelessness. They have become the living symbols of problems we don’t seem to be able to solve. They remind us of energy and commitment we cannot seem to muster, of the vision we lack and the status quo to which we cling. Can you imagine holding up Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver as the vision of the future?
It is indeed a fantastic vision. But it is also a humbling vision. For the New Jerusalem is not the result of human achievements or human progress. At the end of history, we find no great triumph of human initiative and ingenuity. At the end it is God who is at work, doing a new thing, bringing in a new creation, as much despite us as because of us. The Book of Revelation finally directs our gaze beyond our little human possibilities to God’s impossibilities. It directs us beyond our narrow vision to God’s miraculous possibilities.
And maybe that is the most fantastic part of the vision of Revelation – the extravagant hope in God. That kind of hope seems very foreign in our world today. Maybe it was all right 2,000 years ago for that small group of persecuted Christians who thought the end of the world was near. They would gather together behind closed doors and read the book of Revelation – the whole thing in one sitting. They would hear that the future of the world does not belong to Caesar – the ways of the ordinary world – but instead to Christ – the Lamb who was slain. They would peer beyond the possibilities of history to the impossibilities of God. They would enter into a new and different world, and they would leave their worship with renewed courage and patience to follow the way of Jesus in desperate times.
Maybe that extravagant hope was appropriate for those disciples. But for many of us, such hope seems kind of crazy. That kind of hope is for the fringe groups who go up in the mountains and wait for the second coming – always only to watch in vain and be disappointed. Or is it a possibility? What might it look like? Surely a new heaven and new earth would include the Jews and Palestinian’s coexisting in peace – Protestants and Catholics worshipping together in Ireland – Kwaitis and Iraqis living side by side trusting one another – Canadian First Nations people and others sharing land and resources without bitterness – Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostal, Presbyterians, and United Church folk in Penticton working together in support and love for our community’s street people – long-time church member and newcomer being valued and cared for equally … and the list goes on.
The extravagant hope of John’s vision just seems plain, old crazy at times. And yet! And yet, maybe deep down within us a little of the madness remains – waiting, longing to be raised from the dead. Surely we’ve heard the old, old story enough times to know deep down that after Jesus’ resurrection nothing can ever be impossible again. Surely deep within us there remains a longing to be the kinds of disciples who take risks based on God’s impossibilities, rather than always following the safe path of reasonableness and realism.
Deep down, I suspect that many of us relish the extravagant hope of those early Christian martyrs, who went to their deaths with a song on their lips – and fooled Old Caesar who thought the final power belonged to him. Deep down, I think many of us are stirred by that crazy, extravagant hope.
It is the hope of slaves who sang their gospel hymns even in the midst of slavery. They had fooled the wealthy owner who lived in the big house and who thought that power belonged to him.
It is the hope of a woman who works on West Hastings streets in Vancouver – supporting and caring, week in and week out. She stands in solidarity with the poor and needy and still has blessing in her voice and on her face. She has fooled old greed and wealth who think the future belongs to them.
It is the hope of a man from Saskatchewan who lay dying in hospital, fighting for every breath and fervently wanting to die. It was nearly Christmas and a local choir came to the hospital. In his deep baritone voice this man joined in singing “How Great Thou Art”. The next day he died – peacefully and surrounded by his family.
That is the hope of those early Christians who gathered behind closed doors to read the Book of Revelation.
That is the hope that peers beyond the possibilities of history into the impossibilities of God. And maybe some of us have seen that crazy hope in the life of a friend or heard that hope in the voice of a stranger. And maybe that hope has struck something in each of us that longed to be raised from the dead.
A few years ago a local newspaper carried an article about a small church that had a ministry with persons who had AIDS. Every day volunteers prepared and delivered lunch to people with AIDS who were too ill to care for themselves. The article focused on one particular woman. She agreed to help prepare the lunches, but refused to deliver them. “I don’t want to be around those people, she honestly stated. “And I certainly don’t want to go into their homes and visit with them.” So every week she came and prepared the meals while other volunteers delivered them.
One day, however, one of the volunteers who delivered meals was sick. So the supervisor asked the woman if she would deliver a meal – “just this once.” She hesitated for a long time, but finally agreed to take the meal. “But don’t ever ask me again,” she replied. So, that day the woman delivered a meal to a young man with AIDS. And the next day she decided to deliver the meal again. And the next. And the next. And finally, months later, when the young man died, the woman returned to the supervisor and asked, “Is there another person to whom I can deliver meals?” – Extravagant Hope!! “Imaginings” Don’t you agree?
The Good News is the future of the world does not belong to the military powers – to monarchs and elected rulers – or even to the wealthy leaders of finance and industry. The future of the world rests with God – who shares with us Jesus Christ – as our leader, guide, and companion. Now that is an extravagant hope! And it is a hope that aches to be resurrected in us!
A few years ago this hope was voiced by a black preacher from South Africa. In the midst of Apartheid, he dared to stake his life on this extravagant hope:
Let us say responsively the Affirmation of Faith:
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH
“It is not true, that this world and its inhabitants are doomed to died and be lost;
THIS IS TRUE: FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT GOD GAVE THE ONLY SON SO THAT EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES IN CHRIST SHALL NOT DIE BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE.
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction;
THIS IS TRUE: I HAVE COME THAT THEY MAY HAVE LIFE, AND HAVE IT ABUNDANTLY.
It is not true that violence and hatred shall have the last word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever.
THIS IS TRUE: TO US A CHILD IS BORN, TO US A SON IS GIVEN IN WHOM AUTHORITY WILL REST AND WHOSE NAME WILL BE PRINCE OF PEACE.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil that seek to rule the world;
THIS IS TRUE: TO ME IS GIVEN ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH, AND LO, I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS TO THE END OF THE WORLD.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the church, before we can do anything;
THIS IS TRUE: I WILL POUR OUT MY SPIRIT ON ALL PEOPLE, AND YOUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, YOUR YOUNG PEOPLE SHALL SEE VISIONS, AND YOUR OLD FOLK SHALL DREAM DREAMS.
It is not true that our dreams for the liberation of humankind, our dreams of justice, of human dignity, of peace, are not meant for this earth and this history;
THIS IS TRUE: THE HOUR COMES, AND IT IS NOW, THAT TRUE WORSHIPPERS SHALL WORSHIP GOD IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH. AMEN
(The Iona Community Worship Book, 1987)