LIFE OVERFLOWING: A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH
Yesterday, we tried to look into life overflowing for our task of proclaiming God's Reign amidst the reign of greed. We were reminded once again about the need to guard ourselves from every kind of greed and to realize that true life is not consisted in what we have but in what we share.
This morning we'll try to look into life overflowing for the task of healing and transformation. Our text is taken from the Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic writing that found its way into the New Testament canon.
Apocalyptic writings have several characteristics that may help us understand their message. First of all, this kind of literary material is written in period of crisis, which is usually persecution in the hands of powers-that-be. For instance, the Book of Daniel, an apocalyptic writing in the Old Testament, was written when Israelites were persecuted under the Greek Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. And in the case of the Book of Revelation, the crisis was the impending systematic persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Domitian.
Hence, apocalyptic writings have a very pessimistic view of the world. The world is perceived to be entirely in the hands of evil powers. The only hope is God's intervention to create a new world, a new beginning. The basic message of apocalyptic writings is a call for total faith and hope in the Living God, who alone can make all things new.
Since people are living in dangerous times, apocalyptic writers are therefore constrained to deliver their messages through visions, images and symbols familiar only to the Early believers for obvious reasons. This is what makes apocalyptic writings for present-day believers difficult to understand and vulnerable to varied interpretations, which are sometimes dangerous in their implications and consequences. The images and symbols, being unfamiliar to present-day believers, can easily be manipulated to suit some vested interests.
But nevertheless, I do believe that apocalyptic writings are relevant for us today for a number of reasons.
First of all, they are expressions of hope. Apocalyptic writings affirm that God is involved in the struggles of history. God is not far away from the world, but he cares and he struggles against the evil powers that destroy human beings and the world. Apocalyptic writings affirm that God is in control, and he will win in the end. Evil powers do not have the last word. Apocalyptic writings confirm that God's kingdom and reign will be in this world, after the old world. The world as it is will pass away.
Apocalyptic writings provide hope for people who suffer, people who are persecuted, deprived and oppressed, because for them the announced 'end' is not a disaster, but rather the end of their suffering. It is their liberation from persecution and oppression.
Second, apocalyptic writings are also realistic assessment of the present situation. Apocalyptic writings affirm that the struggle against evil powers still goes on. God is fighting against these evil powers, and we are involved. Therefore, the present time is not a complacent, peaceful time, but a time for struggle.
Believing God is involved and in control of the world, apocalyptic writers distance themselves from the dominant values of the world in order to see and assess it clearly. They refuse to accept that the world's dominant powers are the ultimate point of reference for the world. By showing another dimension to human existence, apocalyptic writings question present arrangements. Apocalyptic writers can see the world as it is. They do not have to idealize it. They can perceive injustice, oppression, and violence.
Third, apocalyptic writings are also protest against the situation as it is. For instance, John's question in the Book of Revelation is: "How long will this catastrophic history continue to run as it is doing? Will it never come to an end? By making martyrs cry out 'How long?' John maintains that their death remains a protest against the situation as it is. It is a rejection of idolatry and the emperor worship. It is a refusal to adapt to the rulers.
Though oftentimes in a dangerous situation, apocalyptic writers express their protest and their hope for a better world, because they believe that God is in control and that the powers-that-be do not have the last word. This enables them to endure suffering.
Fourth, apocalyptic writings also expose or unmask the destructive powers. Apocalyptic writers are not contented with the world as it is and with the normal perception of the world. They view history from the underside and challenge the normal common sense. They use symbolic language to unmask the destructive powers of their time.
For instance, John's presentation of the Roman emperor as beast helps us to see the evils in the Roman Empire more clearly. Through clear and eloquent symbolization, John snatches the masks off the lofty claims of Rome and shows its murderous aspect. That's why the Book of Revelation is called as such partly because it reveals the real nature and characteristics of the Roman Empire and of the Emperor.
Fifth, apocalyptic writings also call for withdrawal of support to the powers-that-be as a form of resistance, and call for endurance on the part of the believers. Apocalyptic writings are often misunderstood as apolitical, because they simply want us to wait until the evil ends, until God brings in a new and better world.
Of course, the Book of Revelation is not a call for a revolutionary action, but rather for passive resistance. John calls on the believers not to collaborate with the powers-that-be. That's why he is strictly against eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:14, 20), because this would mean collaborating with the powers-that-be.
John calls for separation from the Roman world and its culture. He is against any form of assimilation. By refusing to collaborate, by contradicting and resisting, Christian believers disagree that the world belongs to those who claim to rule over it.
This form of passive resistance is not apolitical at all, especially in the context of John's time. As a matter of fact, the Book of Revelation, I would say, is perhaps the most political book in the Holy Scriptures. It should not really surprise us to hear from Justin Martyr, the great apologist of the Christian church that in his time the reading and dissemination of Jewish apocalyptic literature was considered a crime.
Revelation 14:12 says, "This calls for endurance of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus." Enduring resistance is a testimony to the rule of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This endurance puts Christian life into the role of an outsider, and will heighten the danger to the physical existence of Christians.
Finally, apocalyptic writings are also against compromising with the powers that be. Perhaps, no other Biblical writing can point out better the danger of compromising than the apocalyptic writings. Anyone who compromises and conforms and accommodates himself with the situation supports the status quo. Compromising may include being attracted to wealth, worshipping the emperor, conforming to the dominant view of history, accommodating the world as it is, and leaving the world and its destiny to the powers that be.
Compromising is being lukewarm. John's critique of those people could not be more drastic. In Revelation 3:16, it says, "...because you are lukewarm –neither hot nor cold- I am about to spit you out of my mouth."
Apocalyptic hope as such is not one that ignores or turns its back to the world. It does not opt to be out of this world. Apocalyptic hope has been born out of the sufferings in this world, and it holds itself responsible to declare to the world the true state of reality, the true course of history, and to work in the world, in so far as it is possible, to hasten the coming of God's kingdom from beyond.
THE BOOK OF REVELATION
Now, this brings us to our text from the Book of Revelation. I have chosen Revelation 21:1-8 for our reflections, because first of all, I would like us to identify with the sufferings and hopes of Christians who lived when the Book of Revelation was written. For basically their situation was no different from ours. Hence, we do share I would like to believe, in their longings for the coming of a new heaven and a new earth.
We have to understand the Book of Revelation in the context of the persecutions of Christians during Emperor Domitian's reign (81-96 C.E.) when this book is believed to have been written. Towards the end of his reign, Emperor Domitian claimed to be worshipped as "Lord and God". Many compromised their faith for fear of repression, but John called for faithfulness, endurance, and resistance on the part of the believers.
Moreover, I have chosen Revelation, because I would like us to affirm that this book is not only for those desperately waiting for the end of this world, but also for those who are zealously working for the healing and transformation of this world in total obedience and hope in the God who created the heavens and the earth.
THE OLD WORLD
Now, our text pictures to us, in the first place, the kind of world that we have which would be replaced by the new world in God's own time and in God's own way. Verse 8 tells us that this old world is where you can find the cowards, the traitors, the perverts, the murderers, the immoral, those who practice magic, those who worship idols, and the liars. It is in times of crisis, indeed, that we could find most likely such kind of people. For it is in such a time that one's faith is tried and tested to the limits.
Our text says first of all that in this world, there are cowards. Cowards are not only those who deny Christ for the sake of safe and secured life, but also those who accept Christ then live a secured and comfortable life. Their discipleship is a discipleship without the cross. Cowards are not only those who deny the truth for their own safety, but also those who accept the truth and use it for their own selfish gain. Oftentimes, we are very much willing to die for faith, but not quite willing to live for our faith. The real test of courage is not only to die for Christ, but more importantly to live for Christ.
There are also traitors in this old world, our text says. Traitors are those who say one thing and do another thing. We could perhaps find a lot of them in government, but of course, we could also find them in church.
Perverts also abound in this old world. Perverts are those who allowed themselves to be saturated by the abominations of this world. John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, was said to be writing from Ephesus. Heraclitus, who was known as "the weeping philosopher", was the most famous philosopher Ephesus had ever produced. And he said that he could not help weeping while he lived in the sinfulness that was life in Ephesus. Jesus Christ our Lord also wept over the City of Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41). I'm just wondering if we also wept over the cities or places where we live.
In this old world, our text tells us, we could also find murderers. Murderers, in John's time, were those who, in persecutions, slaughtered the Christians. Today, however, some people murder for reasons other than religious, although Christians in the Early Church were also killed not so much because they were Christians, but because they were perceived to be a threat to the Roman Empire. Their Gospel message and its practical implications were so radical that they had shaken the very foundations of the Empire.
Some Christians today have also the same kind of experience, they are persecuted not so much because they are Christians per se, but because of living out the practical demands of their faith. Needless to say, I belong to a church whose leaders and members were brutally killed for putting into practice what they truly believe. Yes, some are killed today by weapons of death, but many more are also murdered by criminal neglect as in the plight of the poor and the powerless.
The immoral are also found in this world. Immorality is not only a question of sexual perversion; it is also a question of justice. Perhaps, there is nothing more immoral than a situation where people live in abject poverty, while a few are wallowing in their riches. Just recently, Forbes Magazine Asia listed down 15 billionaires in my country, while about four million Filipinos go to bed each day with an empty stomach.
Those who practice magic are also seen in this old world, our text says. Magic was the stock in trade of the ancient world. Magicians earn their living by deceiving people. In my country, magic is another term for graft. That's why grafters in government are sometimes called magicians. In the Book of Acts (19:19), the magicians burned their books after listening to the preaching in the name of Jesus. It is our hope that "magicians" in my country and elsewhere would also burn their books of magic.
Those who worship idols also abound in this old world. Martin Luther onetime said, "Where your heart is, there your god is also." In a materialistic world like ours, money is perhaps the number one idol. In my country, hired killers are willing to snuff off the life of someone for a price as low as five thousand pesos. But there are also idols in the church. The Bible and theology can also become idols if they distract us instead of inspiring us to do our more essential task as believers, and that is to love God and our fellow human beings.
Then, finally, our text says that liars are also found in this old world. Liars are those who are guilty of falsehood, untruth, and insincerity. In my country, the other name for lie is public relations, advertisement, and statistics. Everybody gets paid handsomely to tell lies. Nobody is paid well to tell the truth. In fact, truth is perhaps the only thing in my country that does not follow the law of supply and demand. It is scarce, yet it is cheap. And worst of all, the bearers of truth oftentimes suffer the cruelty and hatred of liars.
This is the old world that is to be replaced by the new world, the new heavens and the new earth. It is the world of the cowards, the traitors, the perverts, the murderers, the magicians, the worshippers of idols, and the liars. But all these, our text says, would suffer death in their souls when the new heavens and the new earth, the new world will be established.
THE WORLD AS GOD'S HOME
Moreover, our text also tells us that this new world, this new heavens and new earth, will come down from heaven, and that God's home is now with His people. The voice from heaven says,
"God's home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever" (Rev. 21:3-4).
This is an exact opposite of today's common understanding about God's world. We have always thought that God's home is beyond this world. Whenever we talk about God's dwelling place, we always think of a place beyond this physical world. Ironically, while God would like to come down, many of us would also like to go up.
Sometimes we could not blame people for having this kind of understanding. In crisis situations where people suffer so much, oftentimes the only option available for them is to escape – either to escape to other countries physically or to escape to heaven spiritually. Such kind of escapist attitude has some serious implications in terms of our own discipleship. Since this world is not God's home, and therefore, it is not also our home; then, we do not take this world seriously. We do not care whether the mountains are denuded or the waters and the air are polluted. We do not care for people. For this world is not God's home; it is not our home. There's an old Gospel hymn that says, "This world is not my home; I'm just passing through." This hymn somehow influenced a lot of our evangelical theology.
Just recently about 50,000 people from all over the world gathered together in the City of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the United Nations' Rio +20 Summit on Sustainable Development. This was actually a follow up of the 1992 summit held in the same city. It was meant to make an assessment on what governments have done so far since the first summit 20 years ago.
On the eve of the recently concluded summit, retired South African bishop Desmund Tutu said,
"We cannot continue to live as we do now. Climate change is threatening food production and creating more extreme weather. Fresh water is drying up. Fertile land is running out. Plants and animals are becoming extinct at alarming rates. Our seas are overexploited. In equality is increasing as the incomes of the poorest fall even further behind those at the top, and the current economic crisis is pushing millions into deeper poverty. The lifestyles and choices made by the wealthiest threaten all our future security and prosperity, while almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night."
United Nations' General Secretary Ban ki-Moon warned us that without a change in the way food, water, energy, economic opportunity and the like are generated and distributed among the world's people, "we may be heading toward the end – the end of our future."
But here is the good news! Our text says that "God's home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people" (v.3). The cowards, the traitors, the perverts, the murderers, the immoral, the magicians, the worshippers of idols, and the liars of this old world have certainly brought many tears in the eyes of people. But when God dwells in the midst of his people, and he will be their God, these things will pass away, and their tears will be no more.
God's presence among his people has significant implications in terms of our discipleship. This would mean that we could encounter God among our people. We could serve God by serving our people - by participating in God's work of salvation in wiping away all tears from the people's eyes!
Wiping away all tears from people's eyes would mean dealing with the causes of people's cry. Our people's cry of anguish is a cry for justice. Being victims of the cowards, the traitors, the perverts, the murderers, the magicians, the worshippers of idols, and the liars of this world; the people seem to be so powerless that oftentimes their only response is to cry – to cry in anguish with the hope that the God of justice and compassion will open the doors of heaven and listen to their cries. Our text tells us how God would respond to people's cry: "He will wipe all tears from their eyes!" (v.4)
To wipe away people's tears, therefore, is to do justice, to work for justice, to pray for peace. Without justice and peace, people's tears will not be wiped away.
MAKING ALL THINGS NEW
Our text finally tells us that God is making everything new. Verse 5 says, "I am making everything new." This sounds like a campaign slogan of traditional politicians in my country. Indeed, what makes this claim different from the traditional politicians in my country, who promise the people every election time that they make everything new, but nothing happens?
Our text says,
"My words are true and can be trusted. Everything is finished! I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will freely give water from the life-giving fountain to everyone who is thirsty. All who win the victory will be given these blessings. I will be their God, and they will be my people." (vs. 5-7).
The claim in our text is different from that of the traditional politicians in my country, because first of all it is believed to have come from God himself – the God who alone is able to make everything new. God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
On one hand, "beginning" means that God is the source from which all things draw their being; it means that all things have their beginning, their birth, their creation, their origin, their coming into being in and through God. On the other hand, "end" means that God is the goal, the consummation – that in God, all things come to their completion. In short, all of life begins and ends in God.
Ultimately, it is not us, but the God of all life and creation who really makes everything new. With or without us, God is doing his work of healing and transforming his creation. Healing simply means restoring creation into wholeness. What we only need to do is to see and to discover ourselves what God is doing in the world, and to participate actively in God's work of making all things new.
To realize this is to create in us a sense of humility in doing God's work, trusting that what matters most is not what we can do, but what God can do in us and through us. This would also create in us a sense of hope that though God's work of healing and transformation can be difficult, dangerous, and frustrating at times, we are comforted by the thought that God is with us and that God's grace is sufficient for us.
We must also bear in mind always that God's work of healing and transformation involves "all things". The transformation God desires is a total transformation. Everything must be transformed – all areas of life: religion and politics, church and society, physical and spiritual, individual and social, human and environmental.
In the words of the Statement of Faith of my Church, "God is at work to make each person a new being in Christ, and the whole world God's Kingdom – in which love, justice and peace prevail." We would not be faithful to God's work of renewal and transformation if we would emphasize only one thing at the expense of the others.
Our participation in God's work of healing and transformation should start not from elsewhere, but from ourselves. Transformation of all things in God's creation should begin with us – especially we who claim and continue to proclaim that our God is the God who is able to make everything new.
Let me now take this time to express our heartfelt gratitude for this wonderful opportunity to share with you our Bible reflections, songs, and faith experiences, and also to learn from you. We do thank you, indeed, for your warm welcome and generous hospitality.
It is our earnest hope and prayer that with Andrew's leadership and with your support the mission and ministry of the Uniting Church will continue to prosper in the years ahead for the glory of God.
We especially thank Andrew, Christa, Kerry, and Kathy for flying us in and for this grand vacation.
Thank you very much! God bless.