Seeing What God Sees
[Tis Good to be Here]
In the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and his troop are traveling through a dark, dangerous forest which is infested with gigantic, poisonous spiders. Just being in that kind of place was a frightening experience. And each member of the group, especially Bilbo, wanted to get out of that dreadful forest of darkness. As they traveled on, hoping that the edge of the dangerous forest was near, one of the leaders orders Bilbo to climb the tallest tree he can find in order to have a look around and to see where the dark forest ends.
Reluctantly, Bilbo climbs the tree, with limbs, branches and leaves scratching at him all the way. Several times he nearly falls. Having pushed his way through the forest canopy, he is nearly blinded by the sudden and intense sunlight. It takes some time for his eyes to get used to the light, but once they do, Bilbo finds the view was beautiful up there. Now, the canopy above him is the most beautiful blue sky, and around him is an ocean of green tree tops. After being in the darkness below, he enjoys the sunshine and is able to soak it into his weary, tired and aching bones. The fresh air blows softly in his face and invigorates his lungs and cleared his mind. What a wonderful place to be! And no doubt, if we could have asked Bilbo, he would have said, "Yes, 'tis good to be here" (1).
That story reminds us of a time when John was in exile on Patmos. There in exile, under the control of a hostile ruler, with the world assuming he was done for, God gave him a vision of the future that God holds in promise. He understood that the vision was God's promise to those who believed and a warning for tyrants and hostile crowds wherever they might be. That vision was John's hope because it assured him that Christ, the Lamb of God, was his hope. If you want to imagine something, imagine John at the end of the Revelation saying to everyone who read with him: "Yes, 'tis good to be here – to see the Revelation of God."
Did you follow the news this week?
According to the news announcer, on Tuesday, the Republicans and the Democrats found something to agree on. Sitting as a Senate Committee, they joined in grilling executives from Goldman-Sachs for eleven hours. The questions were tough; the reporting on the answers was critical. As someone put it: the four executives who testified first have become the face of the villains in the economic meltdown that has paralyzed the world for the past two years.
This economic meltdown has become the modern version of the Great Tribulation which John saw and reported in the book we call “The Revelation.” Think about the impact of the economic meltdown:
+some of us lost jobs – good jobs;
+most of those who lost jobs found other jobs but often not as good as the ones they lost;
+the value of our houses, which represent a significant part of our family wealth, as been eroded;
+and now the economic troubles of smaller countries like Greece and Spain sound a warning that reeling in the debt generated by the economic rescue measures will continue the pain;
+as a result people have lost confidence in our national and world leaders. It is a thankless time to be a President or a member of the Congress.
And even though the economy and the stock market are picking up, the reality is that the unwinding of the measures taken to save the nation from economic collapse will take many years. Worse, there are still many places to make a mis-step in this economic recovery. That the situation is getting “Better” is not the same as declaring it “fixed.”
Most of us think of the Book of Revelation as painting a picture of warring spiritual forces attacking each other on the battlefield of human experience. We have God and the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse on one side and Satan, the Dragon, and the Beast on the other. They might be interesting, but they have little to say about our practical lives. But, look at the Revelation a different way: think of this book as a commentary on the human condition – written with bold strokes and vivid images. Think of this book as the Bible's effort to point out what human beings do to other human beings. From this perspective, Revelation becomes very, very practical indeed.
II. The message of John’s Revelation is that there is no easy recovery from the dire situation in which human beings have put ourselves. He believed that neither human will or market forces could be counted on. The evils of this world must work their way out, taking lives, fortunes and hopes down with them. John sees a world so broken that no human effort can repair it.
There are still some who have experienced no economic recovery yet. For these John provides the words to describe their worst fears coming to pass. For all of us, John gives us the words to describe the impact of two years of economic decline.
For John, the only hope for humanity and for earth itself is the action of God. Now, after 20 chapters, in which John details all manner of calamities and evils, he is finally ready to share his vision of the future which God alone brings.
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.
Even if you are, like me, optimistic that this nation will eventually find a way to recovery, John’s Revelation offers us a tantalizing vision. It is a vision that answers the gut question:
+Where is God when we struggle against the odds to make a living?
+Where is God when government stumbles in its efforts to lead the nation through an economic meltdown?
+What is God’s place in our daily and economic life?
John’s answer is a vision that begins with all of this old and broken and troubled world being swept away. Then, a new heaven and a new earth come down from heaven where God has held it in preparation. Imagine!
+a new earth where the farmer’s work always bears fruit,
+a new earth where children walk to school without fear,
+a new earth where death and mourning and crying and pain are a thing of the past;
+a new earth where traffic light cameras stay turned OFF;
+a new earth where every wage is a “living wage,”
+and Fred really can quit smoking.
To those who wonder where God is when the world is hard place to make a living, John says:
+Just see what God is preparing.”
+Just see how God wants the earth to work.
+Just see what God sees.
IV. Now, with that new heaven and new earth, God is bringing the New Jerusalem. Think about it: at the beginning of the Bible, God created a garden, the Garden of Eden. Here at the end of the Bible, God creates again in a sense but, this time, *a city*. Is anything important about this difference?
The difference is that
1. GARDENS are created by God, but cities are uniquely human creations. Gardens are plants and water and rocks arranged to be fruitful or pleasing to the eye. You and I might move a few items, but all the elements are God's doing.
2. CITIES, on the other hand, are the work of humankind. We build buildings, houses, palaces, hospitals, schools. We build roads and utilities and infrastructure. Cities are human creations. And cities are beset by human problems: homelessness, poverty, crime, political strife, and, my personal favorite, *ROAD CONSTRUCTION*. (Orange barrels are the sign of the beast.)
By bringing the new Earth in the form of the New Jerusalem, God is affirming and redeeming the cities where human beings have found our highest expression. And God is stating love for the city where we make our homes and where we make our living. God loves:
–this city from boundary to boundary,
–out *west* with all those shopping centers,
–the University area along with the Cumberland Avenue strip;
–Old North Knoxville, Fountain City, and all the way to Halls;
–South Knox and everything on the other side of the river;
–Magnolia Avenue and all the neighborhoods along its length to Asheville highway;
–the Old City and the Market Square district.
God is working to redeem the city where we make our homes. The next time you are in a part of the city that worries you, remember this scripture from Revelation-21:
2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
God loves and redeems the cities which human beings have made.
V. We have to deal with the last part of this passage; it is the darker portion.
7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death."
What should we make of these words? Just this: God is gracious and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is like the faithful Father who waits, watching the road for the Prodigal Child to come home. God is like widow who pestered the judge with her claim until he did the right thing. *But*, we are finally held accountable. John sees in the *Revelation* that there will come an end to God's patience when those who are faithful and courageous will be separated from those who are not.
So, John is warning us – even in this passage filled with hope and grace – that we must respond to the invitation of the Gospel. We must respond with lives shaped by the Gospel. We must respond by turning away from all that destroys human life and human community.
William Sloane Coffin said:
"I'm driving at what I think is the central problem of the Christian church in America today: Most of us fear the cure more than the illness. Most of us prefer the plausible lie that we can't be cured to the fantastic truth that we can be. And there's a reason: If it's hell to be guilty, it's certainly scarier to be responsible - response-able, able to respond to God's visionary and creative love. No longer paralyzed, our arms would be free to embrace the outcast and the enemy, the most confirmed addict, . . . No longer paralyzed, our feet would be free to walk out of any job that is harmful to others and meaningless to us, free even to walk that lonesome valley without fear of evil. Everything is possible to those whose eyes, no longer fixed on some status symbol or other, are held instead by the gaze of him who can dispense freedom and life in measures unheard of" (2).
We are finally, accountable before God for our lives, our words, our deeds, the faith by which we live.
X. Well, I don't want to leave you with the idea that this vision is just for the distant future – or in "the sweet by and by" as they say.
If this is our hope, what do we do in the MEANTIME PRESENT? If this is our hope, how shall we live today? The answer comes from the Gospel reading recommended for today. It comes from the Gospel according to John, the 13th chapter. The *last supper* is finished; Judas as gone out to find the *High Priest's* soldiers so they can arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now, Jesus turns to the remaining disciples and makes the most tender statement:
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." [Jn 13:34f]
This is Jesus' teaching on what we should do in the present meantime. This is heroic; this is what we have always been learning from Jesus; this is out of the very D.N.A. of the Christian faith. If you would follow Jesus until he comes, do this: "Love one another."
1. Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit
2. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., "The Courage to Be Well"