Heaven on Earth (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Revelation 21:1-6a


The words we just heard, full of such incredible hope, were written, like such words often are, in the midst of a time of severe persecution and suffering. The writer himself, John of Patmos, is in exile. The seven churches he is writing are feeling the heavy hand of the Roman Empire (under Emperor Diocletian) coming down hard. The forces arrayed against these Christians in the last years of the first century must have seemed overwhelming. And for good reason – they were overwhelming.

Most of us are familiar with the imagery that John uses in his Revelation (perhaps especially those of you in the adult Sunday School class focusing on that Revelation now), which for the most part is mind-boggling and a bit like reading the writings of someone on LSD. It’s apocalyptic. It’s end of times writing. John speaks of beasts and threatening armies and lakes of fire and strange creatures beyond imagining and cataclysmic cosmic disruptions. It’s awful. It’s like a terrible nightmare. Only the people with whom John shares his Revelation cannot wake from their nightmare. Even though the imagery John uses is symbolic, the evil realities to which those symbols point are very real.

Here are little groups of Jesus followers up against the beast – an all-powerful force that will not countenance any religion that would answer to any authority higher than that of imperial Rome. What do they do? It is go along with the status quo or be ostracized and persecuted, maybe even killed. What do they do? The one at the head of the Roman beast is a mad man. There is no reasoning with him. There is no wooing him with niceness. What you are as a Christian is a threat to him and he wants to bear down so hard that you and your kind will go away forever.

Sometimes the forces that are stacked up against people can seem overwhelming. Sometimes the darkness can seem all-powerful and never-ending. Now, looking back 20 centuries, we see what those Christians, with whom John shared his revelation, could not see. The ministry of Christ survived and spread over much of the world and is very much alive today, and all-powerful imperial Rome has long since become ancient Rome, a subject for history books.

But how could they have known at the time? How could they have known that there was another force at work in the world that was in the process of bringing something new to birth? How could they have known that the God who was at work in them was far more powerful than any evil force that they were up against?

If you are like I am, you picture the John who shared his revelation with these people as wild-eyed and crazy-looking like some street preacher. But at least in one important way I think he is not so different from the many others for whom we pause to give thanks on this Sunday following All Saints’ Day. He stands among that great cloud of witnesses through all the ages who stare harsh reality in the face and will not give into it or be overcome by it. He stands among the faithful of every time and place who see the tears of their people and speak of hope, who witness tragic endings and look for new beginnings, who confront despair and point beyond that despair to the God who is in the process of doing a new thing.

“See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them; they will be his people, 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 nor more, for the first things have passed away.”

John gave his people hope. This is what saints do. They help us to see what we do not always see amidst the struggles of life. They help us to believe what we find difficult to believe when we are hurting and don’t know where to turn. Amidst all the voices of fear and cynicism that drone on about how terrible and awful things are, they invite us to open our eyes to the new things God is already in the process of doing and to imagine that this is only the beginning of the glorious future that is to come.

Just yesterday, I was given the opportunity at a memorial service to speak about a saint who came into my life when I was a seminary student. Like every saint, she and her husband had their flaws. They had their struggles and self-doubts. Even so, when I came to work under the leadership of her husband when he was the pastor of the church where I worked as a student assistant and youth minister, he was a continual source of support and encouragement. She was too. They came into my life when I was discouraged.

My experience working with a church the year before had been a bad one. My own understanding and experience of the faith seemed at odds with much of the church I was being called to serve. I was beginning to doubt myself and my call. My first Sunday with him, Jim gave me one of his pulpit robes and invited me to lead worship with him, and so I did for the next two years. It was as if I was the prodigal son with a robe thrown around my shoulders and welcomed home into the arms of love. Affirmed and encouraged by Jim, his wife Nancy, and his church, I began to believe in my calling and gifts for ministry again. I began to hope again. This is what saints do. They give us hope.

Several years ago Ted Kennedy, Jr. shared at his father’s memorial service a pivotal moment in his relationship with his father. He was 12 years old and had been diagnosed with bone cancer. There was nothing to do to stop the spread of the cancer but to amputate his leg.

A few months after this amputation a heavy snow fell. His father, always the adventurer, went into the garage of their Washington D.C. home and came out with the Flexible Flyer sled.

“Let’s go sledding,” he said to his son. Ted, Jr. was willing to give it a try. But walking up the steep hill that they would sled down seemed daunting. He was still struggling to maneuver with his prosthesis after the amputation. Sure enough he and his father had taken only a step or two before he slipped and fell. He sat there on the snow and ice, feeling utter despair. For a 12 year old boy to have his leg amputated is not an easy thing. “I can’t do this,” he said with tears running down his face. “I’ll never be able to climb up that hill.”

“O, yes, you can,” his father said. “I know you can do it. There is nothing you can’t do. We’re going to climb this hill together, even if it takes us all day.”

So Ted Kennedy put his arm around the waste of his son and together the two of them slowly but surely made it up to the top of the hill. As they went flying down that hill together on the sled, the son knew for the first time since his surgery that he was going to be OK.

Saints give us hope. They are never perfect, but they help us to imagine what can be. They help us to look beyond the hardships of the moment to the possibilities that lie ahead. They are the nearest thing to heaven on earth because they embody what God intends for us and for the world.

If, as our mission statement says, we mean to be “a community where people are finding hope amidst life’s struggles,” then it is surely our intention to step into the shoes of the saints who have lived this life in faith and now live eternally with God. It is our intention not to give into the cynicism or fear around us and to keep our hearts and eyes focused on the one who is still in the process of “making all things new.” There is work to be done, gifts to be given, encouragement to be offered, dreams of a new world to be kept alive.

We are here because of the hope kept alive by the saints who have gone before us. Now, imperfect as we surely are, we take up their mantle of hope trusting that one day those who come after us will call us saints.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, November 5, 2017

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