April 24, 2016 Easter 5C
Will your mourn with me? Will you rejoice with me? Twice before I have preached on this text from the book of Revelation, but they were both funeral sermons. Twice this week, we have gathered in this sanctuary to celebrate the promise of eternal life for members who have gone to be with the Lord.
Friday night, as I finished one funeral sermon and sat down to review my notes for this one, I was listening to a live broadcast of The Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra performing the Brahms Requiem under the direction of Helmuth Rilling. Some of you know that I sang under Herr Rilling’s direction for eight years, and we performed this beautiful work by Johannes Brahms at least twice in that time. I knew what to listen for on Friday night. “How lovely is thy dwelling place… blessed are they who die in the Lord …”
Brahms didn’t use the standard Requiem Mass Latin text, but put together selections from scripture, using the Luther Bible. He wanted the words to be easily understood in the language of the people. It was a new way of presenting a Requiem. No composer had ever done something like this before. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. All flesh is grass.” This beautiful music has given comfort to many who grieve.
But something stood out to me this week, as we laid Mike and Florian to rest, and as I listened to Brahms. In mourning, we also rejoice. We rejoice in the good memories we treasure of our loved ones, and we rejoice especially in knowing that they are no longer bound by the limitations of this broken world. They have entered eternal life with the Lord, and that is something to celebrate. Even more than this, we celebrate the fact that God is doing a new thing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of resurrection extended to all who believe in him.
John was a very old man when he was exiled to the island of Patmos. He had outlived most of the other disciples. He had seen the church under his care flourish, and then scatter under the pressure of persecution. It was this persecution that concerned John. He knew that suffering can give rise to doubts, and he knew that some believers had already given up hope. John wrote to these Christians, suffering for their faith, to encourage them to endure.
In the book of Revelation, John pulls open the curtain of heaven and gives us a vision of what is happening in the heavenly realm, in a cosmic battle between God and Satan. The turf they are fighting over is your soul, and mine. As we read, we are given a glimpse of that battle. It is a battle that God will ultimately win. John uses the term overcome extensively throughout this letter to the churches. Good will overcome evil. God will overcome Satan. We can overcome the hardships that come with a life of faith, and there is no greater hardship for us to endure than the hardship of facing death.
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. – Revelation 21:1-6
We often think of the term “pass away” in connection with death. But here, in the vision that was given to John on the island of Patmos, it is the first heaven and earth that have passed away. Here, the term doesn’t speak so much of death, as it points us to eternal life. In Revelation, death itself passes away. Death will be no more. Mourning and pain and sorrow will be no more. The old order of things must pass away to make room for the new heaven and the new earth.
And what a picture John gives us of this new creation! The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Theologian Craig Koester writes, “Death is real for those whom God has created. Yet in Christ, there is also the promise of resurrection–and resurrection is a new act of creation. Resurrection is the promise of a new existence, a transformed existence.
“The resurrection of all the dead brings an end to death itself (20:14). Therefore, in the new creation there is an absence of death, mourning, crying, and pain–for all those marks of the former, fallen world have passed away (21:1, 4). At the same time, the new creation is characterized by the presence of the God who gives life. A voice from the throne declares that God’s dwelling will be ‘with humankind’; he will dwell ‘with [us],’ and ‘God himself will be with [us]’ (21:3).”
It may surprise you to learn that there is nothing in the Book of Revelation about us going up to heaven. Revelation never mentions anything about a Rapture. Those ideas come from a completely different place in the Bible. In First Thessalonians, Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess 4:13-18)
Paul’s words were intended to bring encouragement to a church that was struggling under persecution, to remind them of the hope we have in resurrection. He was drawing on the image of a bridal party going out to meet the bridegroom to bring him into the marriage feast in a great procession. First the dead in Christ would rise to meet him in the clouds, then all who are alive will join them to bring Christ into his completed Kingdom. Somehow, over the centuries, as marriage customs changed, people forgot about bridal processions that bring the bridegroom home. Somehow, they got the idea that we would stay up in the clouds with Jesus, instead of bringing him to the New Jerusalem to live with us forever, as John’s Revelation describes.
Brian Peterson writes, “The New Jerusalem descends from God. In John’s vision, the final hope is not that we go to heaven when we die. Salvation is not us going to God, but God coming to us. … Salvation is found only in God.”
Salvation isn’t going to heaven. Salvation is living with God. It was never God’s idea for death and separation to be part of human lives. God’s plan was always to be with us, to love us and live with us in close relationship.
But God knew that, in order for that plan to work, we would have to choose to love God the way God chooses to love us. We had to desire God as God desires us. And in order for that choice to be completely our own, there had to be an alternative.
So God planted two trees in the Garden of Eden. One was the Tree of Life. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve chose the wrong tree, and humans have been suffering the consequences ever since. Here’s the thing: God has been suffering those consequences, too.
In order to win us back, God had to watch his own Son die a horrendous death. In order to win us back, God had to allow us to experience the consequences of sickness, pain, and death, hoping all along that in our need, we would turn to him and seek his presence.
What a comfort it is to know that God is present with us, and plans to be with us throughout all eternity, that our whole existence is framed by the presence of God. And God will wipe away every tear. Not only the tears we shed now, but every tear ever shed, for every pain ever felt, throughout the entire history of humankind, will be erased. Not only the tears we weep, but the tears we cause, will be gone.
This is the hope of resurrection. The old order of things has passed away. God makes everything new. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, Jesus tells his disciples, who live in close fellowship with him. Behold, I make all things new, the risen Lord tells us.
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue to celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection. Resurrection promises that we will be the same, but totally different. Verse 5 says that everything will be made new, not that everything will be replaced by new and different things.
God is faithful (verse 5b), and creation is not being abandoned, but it is being transformed. The former things, the evils that cause pain and suffering in our current world, those will be gone forever. Rebellion against God, oppression, deceit and sin – all that is gone, and gone for good.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
O Lord, who makes all things new, we are weary of doing things the old way, our own way, the way that leads to suffering and pain and death. Change us, God. Transform us. Make us new, so that we can claim your promise of eternal life that starts now. Forgive us for all the tears we have caused, and wipe away all the tears we have shed. Help us to welcome your Kingdom as it comes in its fullness, when everything, including us, becomes new. Amen.