Sunday, April 28, 2013

A New Heaven and a New Earth (J. Barry Vaughn, Apr. 28, 2013)

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..."


I want to draw your attention to two verses from the Book of Revelation - "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" and "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true" - and one verse from the gospel reading - "I give you a new commandment."


One of the most provocative interpretations of the Book of Revelation is that it was the first work of science fiction, but  I don't buy it. The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse ("apocalypse" is a word derived from Greek that means "revelation") is part of the canon of scripture. It is part of God's word or God's way of communicating with us, so I don't think for a minute that it is fictional. But there is no doubt that it is thick with symbols and metaphors, and that all too often these symbols and metaphors are over-interpreted and misinterpreted.


But my NT teacher said that "few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation" (Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, p. 512)


On the other hand, there is an interesting correlation between Revelation and science fiction. Revelation is about a journey from this world to another world. It is not a physical journey through outer space, but it is a spiritual journey through inner space. Also, much of science fiction has to do the future. What if this world passes away? What becomes of us?


I want you to think for a moment about how strange the Book of Revelation is. In chapter 21, the author has a vision of a "new heaven and a new earth." The idea of new worlds comes easily to us, but that was a completely new idea in the first century.


A resident of the Roman Empire in the first century knew one world - the world of the Mediterranean basin. That was the world. of the first century. A few centuries earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato said, "Like frogs around a pond we have settled down upon the shores of this sea."


But all that began to change in the 15th and 16th c when European explorers began to venture out to the edges of Africa and Asia and finally crossed the Atlantic to North and South America. Suddenly, Europeans began to think and speak in terms of "new worlds."


In Shakespeare's play The Tempest the character Miranda exclaims, "O brave new world that hath such people in't." She was reflecting the wonder that people of that age felt at the discovery of new worlds. But already in the first century, John the Seer imagined a new heaven and a new earth.


But a new heaven and a new earth mean that this earth will come to an end, and that is a fearful idea.


Well, one person's fear is another person's opportunity to make money, and popular culture loves to play on our fears of world-ending scenarios.


Have you noticed the number of movies and TV shows that deal with so-called "post-apocalyptic" scenarios? What happens if the world comes to an end? The movie Oblivion that just came out deals with this. Forgive me, but I hope that Tom Cruise is not the only representative of the human race to survive the apocalypse! But from zombies to nuclear annihilation to plague, popular culture seems to be fixated on apocalyptic scenarios.


Of course, that is precisely what the Book of Revelation is about. This world that seems so permanent is actually passing away. It is finite. It has a sell by date. So what happens after the worst thing that can happen has happened? What happens AFTER the end?


This is where the Book of Revelation has good news for us. It tells us that the world in which we live will indeed come to an end, but it tells us that this is part of God's plan, that God is in charge, and that although there will be wars and plagues and all kinds of disturbances, God will protect his people, God will bring us through.


Make no mistake: God loves this world, finite and fractured though it is. God created it and declared it to be good and never changed his mind about it. And God gave it into our care and one day will demand an accounting of how well we have taken care of it. And I fear that we will be judged and found wanting for our care, our stewardship, of the earth.


But this world is not permanent. The Book of Revelation tells us that a new earth is coming. It's a bit like a new product roll out: "Coming soon - Earth 2.0 - new and improved!"


This world, we are told, is a "vale of tears." But a new world is coming in which "death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more."


Now, think for a minute about another verse in ch. 21 of Revelation: "Write these, for these words are trustworthy and true."


"...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." 


"Write this" was a very odd thing to say in the first century because very few people could write. Furthermore, paper or papyrus and ink were very expensive. If you could write, you would write only the most important things.


Presumably, you would only write down something of the highest importance. And perhaps John was commanded to write because it would be easier to believe something written rather than something spoken.


One of the sad tasks of every minister is to write down the names and dates of those who have died in the church register. In doing research for my doctoral dissertation I carefully studied the parish records of a small village in seventeenth century Buckinghamshire. Such records documents life’s joys, to be sure, such as weddings and baptisms, but they also chronicle so much sadness—women who died in childbirth and children who died in infancy.


Richard Holloway, former Episcopal bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland, wrote this of his feeling in going through the records of a parish in that city: “I often think  of . . . all those glad lives and dancing feet, all gone down into the grave . . . I grieve for all those lives which are unrecalled . . . As one contemplates the teeming prodigality of human history, one is tempted to meaninglessness at the thought of all that being born and going down into death.” (Holloway, A New Heaven, Mowbrays (London, 1978), p. 61)


Any minister writing down another death in his or her parish register might be tempted to feel as I did searching through 300 year old parish records or as Holloway did in his Edinburgh parish, but in the Book of Revelation, John was instructed to write something different. “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev. 21.6)


Finally, consider this verse from today's gospel reading: "I give you a new commandment."


The strange thing about this new commandment is that it was really a very old commandment.


Leviticus 19.18 says, "... you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (19.18)


So what was new about Jesus' "new commandment"? I believe that what was new was the one issuing it and also the way he modified it - "as I have loved you."


In Revelation, the author speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. In John, Jesus gives his disciples a "new commandment." The theme of the Celebration of New Ministry that we will have next weekend is "a new beginning for Christ Church."


I want to be as clear about this as possible: I believe that Christ Church is a healthy parish with a bright future. I would not have come here if I did not believe that. But as I said in the Epilog, there are some troubling signs, and one of them is the fact that we have so few young families with children.


But I also believe that we can grow and be healthy by attracting new members who are middle aged or even older.


I believe, though, that we need younger families with children not just for the long term health and stability of this church, but because we have an obligation to pass on our wisdom, our values, our faith to a new generation. To be perfectly frank, we are part of the world that is coming to an end, passing away. The young are part of the world that is coming into being.


When I speak of a "new beginning for Christ Church" I do not for a minute believe that all that has come before needs to be changed. I love this church's tradition, its way of worshiping God, and its music. But I do believe that from time to time, we need a fresh start, a new beginning.


And I believe that part of the message of the Book of Revelation is that we need not fear the new. We need not fear a new beginning. We need not fear letting go of the past and reaching out toward the new because God is the one who is bringing the new world into being.


I believe that the new world that God is bringing into being will be characterized by the "new commandment" that Jesus gave his disciples: " I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."


To love as Jesus loved is to forget self, to give one's self for others, it is to let go of all that is familiar and be open to the new.


Change is frightening. The older I get, the less I like change. But I took a chance on Christ Church and uprooted myself and moved here to become your pastor, your rector.


I took a chance on Christ Church because I believe in a God who does new things. And I invite you to take a chance on God as we work together for a new beginning for this great old church.


Like the European explorers of the 15th and 16th c. we are on a journey, but our journey is very different from theirs. They traveled from their homes to distant, exotic places. We are journeying from a place of exile to our true home in God.


For in this world, death and sorrow are at home and God is a stranger. But we journey toward a world in which death and sorrow will be no more and God will make his home in our midst.