Monthly Archives: May 2007
Elaine in our church youth group always had a pungent way of putting things. ‘I
think after a few hundred years of singing and playing my harp, I’ll get bored
with eternal life,’ she said once.
Elaine’s problem is a common one, even if we don’t put it
that way. We have a truncated view of the life to come, a limited view of
heaven the resurrection life.
Revelation 21 expands our vision of the resurrection life,
with its picture language that is meant to stimulate a holy imagination. And
John gives us this vision so that the vision of the future might give us the
hope and motive to prepare for it by the way we live today. It’s a ‘Your will
be done on earth as it is in heaven’
passage. It deserves to reading more than at funeral services, although it
gives great hope there. It’s for everyday Christianity as well as times of
grief and crisis.
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.
Sometimes our expectations of heaven are not very physical.
If you want to float on a cloud, plucking a harp, fine – so long as you like
harps. We talk about leaving the body behind and just being spirits. You get a
flavour of this in old gospel hymns like ‘This world is not my home’:
This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more
(Full lyrics here)
However, this language is foreign to the Bible. If ‘this
world’ means the values of a society hostile to Christ, it’s OK. But it’s not
OK if it implies something that lacks the physical and material dimensions. We
believe, after all, in the resurrection of the body. Since God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, we know that he
cares about his physical creation. And God promises ‘a new heaven and a new
earth’. The old earth and heaven pass away, but God replaces them, he doesn’t
do away with earth and heaven forever.
Exactly what this new heaven and earth constitutes is futile
to pursue, because this is picture language. The words, ‘the sea was no more’
give the clue that this is not meant to be taken literally. They also point to
what this new creation involves. The sea was quite a metaphor in the ancient
world. It stands for everything that is opposed to God’s ways. Earlier in
Revelation the sea is the place from which the ‘beast’ who had made war on
God’s people had arisen from (Revelation
13:1, 6-7). Isaiah had compared the wicked to a tossing sea (Isaiah 57:20). Hence, the
catalogue of wickedness with which our reading ends that God excludes from his
future. (The Lectionary excludes this verse! Is that shortsighted political
correctness?) The power of the sea made it a suitable symbol of dread and fear
for ancient people. Therefore, the new creation will contain no wickedness or
reason to fear.
What, then, does this mean for us? If God’s new creation
shows that he is interested in the physical and the material, and if it
banishes evil and fear, how might we go along with the grain of his new
creation? One simple thing is that God calls us to emulate as faithfully as we
can his concern for the physical world. So a major factor I took into account
when deciding where to cast my vote on Thursday was, which party would be best
for environmental care (or ‘creation care’, as I would call it as a Christian)?
It means concern for people’s material needs – and not privileging those closer
to us on the planet. So God calls us to care about politics, health care,
economics and science as well as our personal concern for people we know.
In addition, if God’s new creation also excludes wickedness
and everything that causes fear, then we have more reason for involvement in
public life: law making, law enforcement, the judiciary and campaigning for
justice. The list of evils in verse 8 that are God will exclude is a
wide-ranging one: ‘the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers,
the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars’. It reminds me of
a summary I once heard about the sins condemned by Old Testament prophets as
covering idolatry, immorality and injustice. It transcends left wing and
right-wing concerns. And God’s faithful church will do the same, if she is in
tune with her Lord’s new creation.
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.’
The holy city, the New Jerusalem: it’s not about the
buildings of the city; it’s about the people. The holy city is ‘prepared as a
bride adorned for her husband’ and it is where ‘the home of God is among
mortals’. Salvation was never just individual: God was always about building a
new community, a people for his praise, a kingdom of priests.
Therefore, we are not a religious club (which is why we
never take up a collection but make an offering). We are God’s missionary
community. We are his alternative society. We are his vision for how he always
intended society to be. If we live up to that, we shall be a prophetic
community, whose love rubs society up the wrong way, and thus we shall earn
suffering for our troubles. That is why God promises to live in our midst and
wipe away tears, death, mourning, crying and pain.
The challenge comes as to whether we are allowing God to form
us into some kind of alternative community. In Christ God calls us and forgives
us; he grants us new life in his Son. Then he moulds us together so that we
live out our forgiveness together, and we live out the new life in Christ
corporately. We are creating a new culture:
But that culture is not defined by certain types of music,
liturgical practice, language etc., but by certain qualities: forgiveness,
patience, kindness, hospitality, chastity, generosity etc. That is the culture
of church – those are the values we hold to, try to inculcate and we do it
by telling the Christian story over & over because it reminds us who we are
– deeply loved and forgiven children of a heavenly father.
audio clip here)
Here is our vision – to get beyond the shallow understanding
of culture based around our tastes in style and entertainment to something much
more substantial – a community that loves and forgives; a community that cynicism,
snide comments, sarcasm and put-downs behind herself; a community that
practises forgiveness instead of harbouring bitterness; a community that builds
reconciliation. This is to anticipate the New Jerusalem, the holy city. This is
what it means to be the bride prepared for Christ, her husband, doing the
things that please him, because they are the things that he loves to do.
So out with the spite, the pride and the snobbery; in with
ongoing prayerful reflection on the ministry of Christ and the life of the
early church. It won’t be some instant, whizz-bang change, but slowly the Holy
Spirit will change our hearts and infuse in us the life of Christ as we pray
the Bible and open ourselves up to his work. Then we shall anticipate the
culture of the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride of Christ.
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. Those who conquer will inherit these
things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the
cowardly, the faithless,<!– +fOr the unbelieving+e –>
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 sulphur,
which is the second death.’
Conquest is a strong word – a negative word, perhaps. It can
imply aggression and violence. However, the conquest recorded by John is rather
different. ‘Those who conquer’ (verse 7) and who will be children of God are
those who overcome opposition to their faith, who remain constant in the time
of suffering. That is not about being violent, but about enduring and remaining
faithful to Christ. It’s about patient perseverance that holds onto Christ. Loyalty
to Christ is about being the opposite of those who end up in verse 8 suffering
the ‘second death’. Instead of being cowardly it involves courage; instead of
faithlessness there is loyalty, even under pressure; in contrast to the
polluted we refuse to accept the warped values of our society; rather than
being murderers we value and uphold life; instead of being fornicators we display
exclusive loyalty and seek purity; in place of sorcery and the magic arts of the
occult we humbly trust God and the power of his Holy Spirit; rather than being
idolaters we seek to worship God alone; and instead of being liars we seek to
speak, uphold and live truth, the truth which is Jesus Christ.
This is how those who have been raised to new life in Christ
live, or at least aspire to live. It’s a tall order. It means living in
contrast to the values that surround us. How often do we look back with shame
and realise we have succumbed to society’s pressures rather than conquering and
overcoming in the name of Christ? Don’t we long to live differently?
Perhaps we get a clue from the description of those who
conquer in the preceding verse, that is, verse 6. There they are called ‘the
thirsty’, and they are promised the water of life. Thirsty people conquer. Those
who are thirsty for God receive the inner resources to overcome opposition to
their faith. Those with a deep desire for God, those for whom God and nothing
else will do, who long for him with all their hearts – these are the ones who
receive the water of life and are strengthened to conquer.
Yes, it is thirst
for God. A sip will not do. A nod of the hat to God and getting the religious
duty over as quickly and painlessly as possible do not constitute thirst. Developing
an appropriate disciplined spiritual life, pursuing him in Scripture, prayer,
fellowship and the world is thirst. As the psalmist said:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Those who long like this, who – in the words of the American
preacher Tommy Tenney are God Chasers – are the ones who will
receive the water of life that gives strength to overcome opposition and
conquer evil. My thirst varies – the challenge for me is to live on the proper
Christian assumption that all my life’s longings are only truly met in Christ.
When I do, I shall be truly thirsty. And God will strengthen me.
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we may feel we are starting to get a distance
from the Easter story again and the risen life of Christ. But Revelation 21
gives us this vision of resurrection life. We anticipate the new creation with
our public life; we anticipate the new community by living the forgiven and
forgiving life; and we conquer evil as we thirst for God and he supplies our
needs. May this vision call us forward into God’s future.
The wonderful American theologian Robert Webber has died at the age of 73 after eight months battling pancreatic cancer. I first came across his writings in the 1980s when I read his book ‘Evangelicals On The Canterbury Trail‘, about the rediscovery of liturgy among evangelicals. He recognised the dangers of superficiality in the evangelical church and sought to restore depth and discipleship to evangelism, with books and courses such as ‘Journey To Jesus‘.
As a result he was seen as a member of the ‘Convergence Movement‘, bringing previously separated Christian strands, traditions and groups together. It was something that characterised his life. Thus in the 1990s he famously coined the phrase ‘Blended Worship‘, in which he tried to bring together traditional and contemporary worship in a way that delivered style over substance. (The field of worship is one in which he has written countless books.)
In recent years this has seen fruition in his ‘ancient-future’ series. It began with ‘Ancient-Future Faith‘, in which he prophetically saw the need for evangelicalism in a postmodern era to draw on the ancient traditions of the whole church. He developed this theme with books on evangelism, the Christian Year and spirituality.
This ancient-future emphasis made him a kindly older friend of the emerging church movements. His most recent book listened to their beliefs, something he had begun with his book ‘The Younger Evangelicals‘.
Robert, you will be greatly missed. The Church Militant is poorer for your passing, the Church Triumphant deeply enriched. May you be at home in the worship of heaven.