I remember when I was in Cornwall, where the Annual General Meetings were an occasion where the congregation stayed away in droves. Seriously… on the one Sunday where people could come and participate in the life and work of the congregation, there was a more-than-measurable dip in the congregation’s attendance. From the vantage point of the pulpit, it was extremely obvious… it was almost on part with the Sundays that follow Christmas or Easter… what us clergy types have come to call “cannon” Sundays. You know, the type of Sunday where the attendance is so low, that one could fire a cannon off in the sanctuary and not hit anybody.
Oddly enough one of the principle reasons that people stayed away in droves is that the ministers had a habit of getting mad that people didn’t show up, but take it out on those who did. A lesson learned for me… praise people for coming out and participating in this reflection of the congregation’s life. Encourage members in their own ministry and work, and to affirm God’s continuing guidance and presence… and allowing ourselves to look ahead at what God is calling us to next.
The early Christians that John was writing to were a tiny minority, scattered across an empire and very much in isolation from each other. The threat of persecution from the authorities was very much present. It’s not a great place to be when the powers-that-be decide that you are a political threat.
You may remember a few weeks ago, I talked about how small the early church really was. By 100 AD there were only about forty Christian communities numbering probably no more than 6,000 people total across the entire Roman Empire. When you get a moment, do a search of the numbers of churches in Calgary, and see how that compares. I’ll give you a hint… there’s a lot more than 40. So while we may not relate well to that same sense of persecution that the early church did, we have more than enough going on in our lives that the feeling of being overwhelmed is perhaps something we can relate to… and then maybe we can begin to hear those poetic words of encouragement.
For the early Christians, this vision of hope is that when all is said and done, no conflict, no power, nothing can stop God’s ultimate plan of living in perfect harmony with all of creation. In the midst of the uncertainties of the future, John of Patmos pulls back the curtain and gives us a glimpse of what God’s ultimate goal really is. By using this image of the New Jerusalem coming and God living amongst the people, it is a word of encouragement that not only is the suffering they are experiencing or are fearful of in the present does not define who they are. Heaven and earth become one in the same…
When John of Patmos describes this new city in such wonderful language, he paints these pictures that the magnificent doors to the city are always open, and that all people of all nations are welcomed. The darker elements of our human nature are stripped away and left outside. It’s message is that nobody is beyond redemption, and that the message of hope is for all people.
I think the biggest mistake we make with the book of Revelation is presume that it is a proclamation of doom. It’s not. Not by a long shot. The second mistake we make is that Revelation is telling us to sit on our hands and do nothing. Again… it is not…
Written at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty, it acknowledged the reality that people were facing, but then has the audacity to point to something more hopeful. Revelation speaks to this by reminding us that this is all temporary, and that nothing is capable of overcoming God’s desire to be united with all people in peace and in hope, celebrating life to its fullest.
This vision of hope and calls us to strive to be a part of something better. Don’t be afraid, don’t be overwhelmed, because Jesus works with us to make the world new. We’re not alone in this. We are far more than observers, but actually part of the God’s commonwealth… and this is fundamentally true no matter where we find ourselves. For us, here at St. Matthew’s, we are in the midst of some serious changes, which brings with it uncertainty, and all of the emotions that go with it. The world around us has changed, and things that we once took for granted aren’t there anymore. But one thing that I will not say, and I will fight tooth and nail to proclaim, is that God has not abandoned us. God is still here in our midst, preparing us for the next step in our journey together.
We would irresponsible in saying that being followers of Christ somehow spares us from the grief and pain that comes with loss. It doesn’t. John of Patmos, tells us of a hope that God will wipe away our tears… not that the tears won’t happen… Grief and loss is a part of being human. What is more powerful and profound is that death does not consume and define us… as difficult as it may be.
We have an opportunity in the midst of our own upheaval, to get a new perspective on what our faith really is about. We have an opportunity to have an enormous impact on the people and the community around us, even if we can’t see it in the moment. We have a genuine opportunity to experience what resurrection means in the 21st Century. It’s going to take some trust in what God is doing, and that leap of faith we hear a lot about.
Our faith is about looking ahead… and looking outward. That is what we are about, to look ahead, to define ourselves in terms of the hope that God gives us in Jesus Christ. We have a whole lot for which we can be looking ahead. Not the least of which is the confidence that God is leading us, guiding us through the Holy Spirit, to be faithful to God’s call. Let’s look ahead, and see what’s in store!