...and I feel fine

The text today is taken from the 21st chapter of the Revelation of John, verses 1 through 6. In this passage, we are privy to John’s vision of a new heaven and earth. He imagines the decent of a new city out of the heavens, which is often the focus of preachers who take the words of this passage literally. Searches across the internet will divulge artist renderings of the descent of the new Jerusalem. However, this passage is about so much more than just the plopping down of a series of buildings onto the earth. In fact, if you read this closely even the idea of a new Jerusalem is nothing more than a metaphor for the ways in which God dwells among us and calls us into community with one another. Moreover, the main message of this passage may be found in the latter verses rather than the imagery of the first few. Let’s take a look, and listen to how the Spirit speaks to the church today.

Then 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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And 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; he 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.’ 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.’ Then 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.

No court of law would have ever convicted me. Technically, I wasn’t lying; and any halfway decent lawyer would have saved me from any punishment I would accrue for my actions. After all, I was spending the night with a friend. I just didn’t happen to tell my parents where.

This was how I found myself sitting on a sidewalk at a strip mall at 3 AM. About a dozen friends and I were enduring a humid night in the concrete jungle in order to be the first in line to get concert tickets. In those days it was a risk to try and wake up early to phone in an order. The internet was no help, because, really, the internet as we know it today did not exist for this kind of purpose.

So we sat at our urban campsite, leaning against the bricks with copious amounts of snacks and distractions, watching the music store to make sure we were going to be first in line. Every once in a while one us would break out in a frenzy, flailing at the thick blanket of mosquitoes that hung over us on that Florida night. In our minds, there was great value in being the first in line for tickets to see a favorite band. And so we sat, and ate, and played guitars and held Olympic quality shopping cart races.

A few hours later we would migrate to the other end of the strip mall and camp out in front of the door of the store to buy our tickets to see REM in concert. A year earlier REM, a little band out of Athens, GA, hit the big time. And though we knew many of their older songs, in 1988, REM released one of their biggest hits entitled “It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)”

Like most years, 1988 was full of well-known and obscure events. We were wearing: Acid washed jeans and denim jackets, leggings, leg-warmers, shoulder pads and Hawaiian shirts; we were watching for the first time, the Wonder Years, Murphy Brown, Yo! MTV Raps, and America’s Most Wanted; we went to the movies to see Rain Man, Die Hard, Big and Bull Durham.

In 1988 we would celebrate an Olympics, elect a president, and mourn those who died on a plane blown-up by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland. But, one of the main things I remember about 1988 was probably one of the more obscure things for others.

Early in the year, a little book was introduced to the world by a former NASA engineer and student of the Bible. The book, entitled “88 reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988”, sold 4 million copies and was freely distributed to over 300,000 pastors around the world. It claimed, among other things, to have scientifically and mathematically deduced the end of the world. So convincing was the argument that even Trinity Broadcast Network interrupted its regular programming during the second week in September to play, over and over again, a show dedicated to teaching people how to survive in a post-rapture world.

As you can deduce, 22 years in hindsight, the author might have been a little off on his calculations. In fact, in the months afterwards, he went on to publish new versions of his book in 1989, 1993 and 1994 before people stopped listening to him. You know I have heard it said that the popular definition of insanity is when someone tries the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

I am not even going to venture a guess as to what you might have expected from a series of sermons on Revelation. Our series this summer on eschatology (say it with me, eschatology, which means the study of the last things), our discourse on the eschaton (or last days) has taken a different course than popular literature or those late night ecstatic and erratic preachers.

This summer, we have spent time understanding that there is more to the Revelation of John than fantastical creatures, gory subplots and the destruction of the world. In some ways, I imagine that it might be a little disappointing that we didn’t spend more time with the four horsemen or the seven signs and seals. After all there is much more entertainment value in the imaginative parts of Revelation than the practical ones. And where a television preacher like a John Hagee might try to scare you into believing, by pointing to the death and destruction that awaits your mortal soul at the end of times… we focused our energies on things like love, patience, fear, tolerance and hope.

One of the major critiques I have of the fire and brimstone preaching I hear on late night television is their seething disdain and even hate for life and the world. There seems to be a deep seeded fear of change on one hand and a groping for some kind of ultimate change on the other. It fascinates me that people feel as though this world lives on a precipice and their only mission is to push us off the cliff.

This is a world, that God created and called good; these lives and bodies that help us navigate the world, that are gifts from God; and the relationships that we share with others, which are indicative of the community God calls us into; Some might even say that those who are trying to bring about the end of the world, are hell bent on doing so.

It’s as if, for these preachers, God has abandoned this world. That God is so far removed from us that nothing good can come of this life; and the best they can do is try to force God’s hand into making the rapture a reality.

And so you won’t often find preachers of this ilk working for peace, because the more destruction that is around them, the greater claim they have for the imminence of the end of the world; they don’t have to genuinely love, because hate proves their point about images of the anti-Christ, persecution of Christians and the coming rapture; they don’t have to be patient or seek hope in or for this world, because God is coming at any moment, and according to their prophecies, they and their followers are ready to go.

It is as if they took a look around the world in disgust, and threw their hands and heads to the heavens expecting that Jesus will just funnel down onto their shoulders saving them from this mortal coil. They, in effect, have become so heavenly-minded that they are truly no earthly good. And their position about the apocalypse and a New Jerusalem, through this lens of disdain for the world, becomes one of the more nonsensical, non-theological and unbiblical positions any one can take on the life of faith.

I am of the mind that you cannot simultaneously love God and despise God’s creation; you cannot honor God and do nothing to show that you understand what the Kingdom of heaven is like; this is why we spend a summer talking about the pastoral impact of John’s Revelation.

I can pretty much guarantee you that anyone who promises to know when the end of the world is coming, is lying. I can also assure you that most people who spend their time looking for signs about the end of the world, or predicting the future of God’s world, lack any significant measure of faith in humanity and the world God has created and ordered. When you read Revelation, you are reading a pastoral letter to a community suffering under a political nightmare; it is much like some of the letters Paul sent to other communities, only it is written with a lot more zeal and imagination. When it comes down to it, when we read Revelation, we are reading a call to live a life of deeper and greater faith.

When we reach this part about the New Jerusalem, I believe we come to find one of the most important messages of the Biblical witness. Namely, that God dwells among us; that God is with us, luring us into new moments of life where endings and beginnings become muddled and murky. For me, the story of revelation has less to do with destruction of the world and our eternal rewards and more to do with God’s presence and how God holds us in God’s memory.

The most meaningful acknowledgement we can make is not that God is coming, but that God is already here, that God has never left in the first place. The New Jerusalem is the realization that each new moment brings about the possibility for novelty, for creativity, for comfort and for hope. Every moment we feed the hungry, a New Jerusalem descends washing away an old world by refreshing life through the waters of a living faith. Every time we care for those who are sick, a New Jerusalem descends from the heavens and the tears that cloud our eyes and cause so much pain are wiped away. Every moment we tend the wounded, gather in community, confess our sins, forgive and are forgiven, A New Jerusalem descends from the heavens reminding us that everything that was old is new again; that even in death, life can be found in the presence of God; that with each moment of life, our God, the Alpha and the Omega, extends a cup of living water that renews our souls; in each moment of our lives when we plant a mustard seed of faith, the Kingdom of Heaven descends upon the earth and begins to grow once again.

As John Cobb, Jr. put it, “what we are and do from moment to moment matters to God, and what matters to God now matters to God forever, and therefore what we are and do truly matters. We should not be tempted into being observers of a meaningless show. We must be participants in the healing of the world.”

It is no lie that this world will end for each one of us. In fact, each moment we live is a moment of death and resurrection. Our comfort lies with our faith in the presence of God, with the idea that even though our worlds end, they will begin again; and in that process we are not forgotten. We can rest comfortably knowing that God’s memory is long and true, and that no matter the circumstance of our arrival at a particular moment in time, we do not arrive alone, nor do we leave alone.

Our world is a constant cacophony of beginnings and endings, of old cities and new Jerusalems; and in this way, Revelation does reveal “the end of the world as we know it…”; but it also reminds us that God is with us, that God comforts us, and that through a living faith “we feel fine”.



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