My phone tells me what is newsworthy now. I have a relatively new feature on my phone that picks which news stories it thinks that I want to see.
It doesn’t do a very good job.
I was struck as I was writing the sermon this week how often the news stories that it picks – and frankly, most of the news stories being written – are about division. Disagreement and fractured relationships. I was curious so I took a look at the four articles that it chose for me. The first was about the political fight over Obamacare. The next was about the ideological fight between Trump and the intelligence community. The third was about a celebrity dispute, a fight between two famous people. And the fourth was about a legal fight of a woman suing Chipotle. All about two sides, at odds, against each other.
Which seems to be the narrative that much of the media capitalizes upon…that the world is a divisive and disagreeable place. At heart of these articles is the idea that we don’t like each other much. That divisiveness is normal and to be expected. Is it any wonder then that we see such divisiveness in our political context? Or in the media? Or in our family life?
Even in our church. When the Spiritual Leadership Team began asking how we might respond to the question of gay marriage, some in the church asked if we were going to divide up the committee, and put x number of people on this side of the issue and an equal number of people on the other side of the issue. Because there are clearly only two sides. So draw the line. Build the wall. Begin the fight. After all, CNN and our iPhone apps tells us that the world is a divided place, that that is normal.
It is a narrative that we too often buy into. Which side are you on? Democrat or Republican. For or against Obamacare. Pro or anti- gay marriage? KState fans who think that Svi travelled before his final shot….and KU fans who acknowledge that Svi travelled before his final shot.
But seriously, how often do we let our media and our phones and our world tell us that we must be a divided people?
I wish that we could say that this was a new dynamic – as recent as my newsfeed on my phone. But I cannot.
Today’s Scripture passage comes from a context that was very, well, divided. Revelation is a bit of a confusing book, to say the least. It is filled with images of four-headed beasts and demons and angels and pretty crazy stuff. If we read the book with no knowledge of its background, it is rather confusing.
But the background makes it a little easier to understand. The book was written in a time and place where Christians were persecuted – killed for their faith. The Roman Empire was on the lookout for anyone who claimed to be a Christian, especially Christians who spoke or wrote against the Empire. So, if the Christian community wanted to offer a counter-cultural voice, they had to do it in a way that wouldn’t be obvious. They had to write in code. So, instead of saying that Rome was evil and the emperor Nero was against the values that Christ taught, they wrote about the Prostitute of Babylon. Instead of speaking about the Christian community, they wrote about the faithful 144,000 dressed in white. Instead of writing about the clash between the Church and the culture, they wrote about the archangel Michael and his battle with the forces of evil. Any Roman official reading such a book would think it fantastic folly. Any Christian who knew the code would understand what was really being said.
Thus, the book of Revelation represents a time and place where there was clearly a division. An Empire in charge and a Church at its mercy. A dangerous and anti-Christian government and its victims attempting to do the work of Christ. The division was clear. Throughout the book, when we see the Greek word “meta”, it is usually used to describe either violence, as in “make war with,” or in terms of fornication, or to be physically with someone in ways that are inappropriate or unhealthy. Whenever Revelation uses the word “with,” it means it in unhealthy and divisive ways:
Until Chapter 21. In Chapters 21 and 22, the last two in the book and the last two in the Bible, the Greek word “meta” is used again, but in a very different way.
“The home of God is with mortals.”
“He will dwell with them.”
“They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
God with us.
This is what the whole crazy book of Revelation is talking about. In a lot of ways, this is what the whole Bible is talking about! God is with us.
Revelation 21 and 22 paint this beautiful picture of the new heaven and the new earth. They paint a picture of the future transformation of all things – on heaven and on earth – by the God who chooses to be with us. And how do we know that God is with us? There will be no more tears. Or death. Or pain. Or thirst. All things will be made new. God will take all of our pain and fear and division and transform it into something new. Read again both chapters – it is a multisensory experience: Open your eyes to the new heaven and new earth – the brightest of bright; in fact, there will not be a need for lights or even the sun, because God-with-us will be all the light we need. Listen to the new heaven and new earth – the river of life runs through it and we can hear the peace of the bubbling brook as God-with-us invites us to rest. Smell the fruit of the tree of life; it blossoms every single month, continually offering sustenance to those who are weary. The new heaven and new earth are exactly what our bodies and our souls long for. Jean Lukehart was recently placed in Hospice care, and as soon as I sat down, she told me, “I’m ready to go home.” She knows. God will be with her. And she looks forward to that day.
But it is not only a future home that we look for. Not only the Sweet By and By. Because of that future home, our present is effected as well. From these last words of Scripture, the future promise reaches back into our world today. Now.
How many of you have seen the new Star Wars movie Rogue One? I made Chad Johnston promise that I wouldn’t give any spoilers to the movie itself. But, most of you who care about the movie probably know that it takes place just before the events of the first movie made in the series, back in 1977. Many of us remember that first Star Wars, subtitled “A New Hope,” and those famous lines that scroll up at the beginning. Rogue One tells the story of that scroll. The producer of Rogue One was asked if there would be sequel to this movie, and she joked, “yes, it will be directed by George Lucas and called Star Wars: A New Hope.” And so, while watching Rogue One, we all know basically what is going to happen next. If there is a painful or sad scene, we know the end of the story. We know who wins. We know that there will be “A New Hope.”
That’s Revelation 21 and 22. There is good. There is evil. Good wins! There is a New Hope! And that future story reaches into the pain and tears of our current reality, and changes its very nature. The future changes the present.
And that changes the way that we live today! Richard Foster writes about this life – what he calls the “with-God life.” He says it is absolutely relevant for us today that the Bible ends this way. The future changes the way that we live the present. The transformation of heaven and earth into new heaven and earth has begun today, and it takes place with us. God-with-us of Revelation 21 and 22 is with us now, transforming our broken and divided reality.
This has been an important learning for me this week. I have talked before about the things which divide us. I have been talking for months, and really years, about the importance of us coming together as a church, despite ideological and theological differences. That if anyone can overcome the divisions of our world, it’s the Church. We can, after all, come together under the cross of Christ, even if we have very different ideas of what that looks like. And I believe that to be the case. But what I have been trying to do is organize graceful engagement. Force it. Create it on my own. To that point, the first draft of the sermon this week had me gathering everyone together in small groups and talking about controversial issues – Obamacare or politics or gay marriage or whatever – just to prove that we can do it.
But Foster’s words this week hit me hard: “Our goal is not to try and control the Bible – that is to try and make it ‘come out right’ – but simply seek to release its life into our lives and into our world. We seek to trust the living water that flows from Christ through the Bible, to open ourselves to it and to release it into the world as best we can, and then get out of the way.” Amen. He reminded me that we cannot create engagement. Force intimacy. We cannot do these things by ourselves. The only way to live the “with others” life, trusting each other in unity, is to live the “with God life,” trusting God in our lives together.
So, I don’t want you to pair up and talk about gay marriage or Obamacare or political ideology this morning. I want you to pair up with someone…and pray. Share with them something you are praying for. Just one thing each – I don’t plan for this to last forever – and then pray together. It doesn’t have to be flowery or long. Anne Lamott says that sometimes the best prayers are one word: Help! Thanks! Wow! That’s enough. But practice together this morning with with-God life. And as you do, ask God to create in you the awareness and willingness to see God is with you. God is with us.