Monday, May 28, 2012

The Impact of the Untouchable

Nursing is hard. You see people at their worst: in pain, demented, afraid, sometimes drunk or high. You're there to help them but they may not appreciate that, especially if you have to give them a shot, or do a dressing change on a painful wound, or tell them something they don't wish to hear. Add to that the long hours, unrealistic and dangerous nurse to patient ratios, the ungodly amount of charting done largely for legal, not medical, reasons, the physical damage and emotional toll that are part of the job and it's not surprising that you find nurses who act more like disgruntled bureaucrats than angels of mercy. Yet what you need when you are sick and in pain are caregivers who are caring and giving. If the physical part of the job were all that mattered nurses could be replaced by robots with pill dispensers in their torsos. Don't laugh. Companies in Germany and Japan are working on them. The German model looks like a robot with a TV screen for a head on which a real nurse can look in on the patient remotely. The Japanese version looks eerily human but not quite.

But most people would not relate well to a machine. In fact, I would not put a robot nurse in the same room as someone with dementia or even conditions like urinary tract infections which often have mental side effects. And of course a machine would lack human judgment. I met a man whose wife is battling Social Security over being classified as a male, despite having a female name. It's obviously a computer error. Someone clicked the wrong box. Can you imagine what could happen should the computer in question be the one that is taking care of you? Say, after bladder surgery? That might not be a problem in the German model, where a nurse is driving the hardware by remote control. (I just hope it works better during bad weather than cable or satellite hookups do!) But if you're dealing with Artificial Intelligence, as in the Japanese model, may God have mercy on your soul! And body!

The real problem is that a caregiver should not merely look alive or human but be so. How do you program a machine to be empathetic or compassionate or comforting or considerate? How does a computer recognize the subtle signs of disease or discomfort, like distaste for one of the foods on a plate, or sudden irritability? How does a robot pick up on loneliness? You don't replace the dispirited with the soulless.

Spirit is one of those indefinable but undeniable elements in this world. Perhaps that's why the Holy Spirit is manifested in the events of Acts 2 as the phenomena of fire, wind and speech. Each is real and incredibly powerful but none can be grasped or, in the case of wind and speech, seen. None of them can be totally controlled and so all must be respected. Yet each can, if properly approached, yield great good.   

What do these 3 tell us about God's Spirit?

Fire is often a metaphor for energy, which it physically is. It also is used for excitement and passion. We talk about an idea catching fire or a person being on fire or having fire in the belly. And when we talk about encouraging someone to act, we speak of lighting a fire under them. You could say that in Acts 2, the Spirit lights a fire under the apostles! Jesus has been raised, has taught them for 40 days and ascended to the Father. It's time for his followers to spread the news. The Spirit starts the fire. Like a fire with multiple points of ignition, it can't be stopped. The apostles use every language imaginable to proclaim the wonderful works of God, the chief one being what he has just done in Christ Jesus. And the message spreads like wildfire.

Fire also illuminates. Nowadays if we want to show a cartoon character getting an idea or an inspiration we draw a light bulb over his head. In those days, I'm not sure how one would depict such a thing but if they had cartoons it couldn't be a lightbulb; it would have to be a flame over the head. Which is what you would have seen if you had been in that house on Pentecost. Did those tongues of flame mean anything more than the presence of the Spirit? Did it mean an insight or an idea as well? Possibly. It could have been the idea that "now is the time to get started on the commission Jesus gave us!" That seems to be the heart of Peter's sermon: that this is what the prophet Joel was talking about. The outpouring of the Spirit was a dramatic sign of the beginning of the Messianic age, the next step in the spread of God's Kingdom.

Fire also is a metaphor for love. When we are in love, our heart beats faster which can cause our faces to flush and look red. We get hot under the collar. Our hearts burn with love. Cool is never a descriptor of love. We are hot for the person we love. We never want the flames of love to be extinguished. 

Fire also purifies. It is necessary to refine metals. The impurities must be separated if we want our iron to be strong and our gold to be beautiful.

Wind is an exhilarating but powerful force. When I was working at the radio station, some storm chasers brought us video of what a recent hurricane did on the mainland. We saw roofs peel off of buildings. We saw signs go airborne. We saw trees bend and boats capsize. But the scariest sight was one of the storm chasers out in the hurricane. He got blown off his feet and started to tumble and slide across the parking lot like a sheet of newspaper. It was frightening to see a human being get knocked down and rolled around helplessly by an unseen force.

Early on, people harnessed the power of the wind. They made sails for boats, creating the first vehicles not powered by muscles. But they learned that you had to respect the wind. You could not command it. Wind came and went on its own. It could blow fair or foul weather your way. It might be on your back or blowing against you. It could sail your ship or sink it. But without the wind, you are dead in the water. 

In both Hebrew and Greek the word for "Spirit" also means "wind" and "breath." There is a parallel between the movement of air that fills sails and that which inflates our lungs. Breath is a vital sign, an indication of life. It doesn't matter how good your heart is, how low your weight is, how much you exercise--if you can't breathe, you won't live long. After 4 minutes without oxygen, brain damage begins to set in and your revival is increasingly less likely. Of course, in biblical times, no one knew CPR. So no breath meant death.

That's what underlies Ezekiel's vision. He was a prophet in exile in Babylon. After 586 BC, Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Temple was burned, the reign of the Davidic kings had ended, and Judah was no longer an independent nation. It looked like it was all over for God's people. Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself transported to a valley that was the site of a great battle. And the victor denied the dead proper burial but left them to the elements and the scavengers, a grave dishonor in the Middle East. It's a picture of the utterly devastated Jewish nation. The Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. They come together and are covered with flesh but they're still dead. So God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind and winds come from the 4 corners of the world and breathe life into the bodies. With the divine breath, the Spirit, God will bring back his people from death.

The Spirit breathes spiritual life into us as well. Without the Spirit, all you can have are the bare bones of a Christian life. You can say prayers and worship and read the Bible and volunteer and tell people about the Gospel and still find your efforts lifeless.

But doesn't the Spirit enter us at baptism? Yes, but just as you have to continue to breathe after that first breath you take as a newborn so your spiritual life is sustained by the continual inspiration (literally "breathing in") of the Holy Spirit. A lot of Christians get so busy that they get out of breath, so to speak. They need to stop and take a deep breath of the Spirit. Go on a retreat. Go for a walk, a run or a hike. Meditate. Meet with a spiritual mentor. Read their favorite Christian writer. I have a playlist on my iPod of music that stirs me up  and connects me with my feelings of nobility, peace and love. You need to go wherever God usually meets and speaks to and refreshes you and just let the Spirit flow into and through you.

Like breath and wind, speech is invisible but powerful in its impact. Like fire, it illuminates and once it begins to spread you can't stop it.

Speech is a miraculous gift. Unlike other animals, our mouth, tongue, lips, throat and brain are designed for it. Our thinking is influenced by it to the point that we can't think clearly about something if we have no words for it. Speech allows a person to take something that exists only in his or her brain and pass it into the brain of others. And by being passed from one person to another, an idea can become immortal.

Speech can unite or divide. At the Tower of Babel, miscommunication brought down a grand enterprise. Here at Pentecost it not only draws together people from all over the known world but they will become the means of spreading the gospel worldwide.    

But words are not magic. As a radio copywriter, I had to disillusion people who thought a good-sounding ad would make people flock in and buy what they were selling. But content is important. If you're giving away a gold bar with every purchase, I can have the person who does NOAA weather radio broadcasts record the ad in his deadly monotone and people will come in droves. If you're giving away a dead dog with each purchase, it doesn't matter if James Earl Jones records your ad, not many people are going to take you up on it. Memorable words spoken in an appealing manner are good but content is king. You have to have something vital to say.

You do have to get your message listened to and the uproar of people speaking in every language all at once did the trick. People stopped what they were doing. At first they thought the apostles were drunk. They were in fact filled with the Spirit.

That's not the only instance in Scripture that being filled with God's Spirit is mistaken for being drunk. And there are some parallels. People under the influence of either find their tongues loosened, though those filled with the Spirit aren't going to insult people or drunk-dial ex-girlfriends. One fruit of the Spirit is self-control, after all. But the Spirit will lead those under his influence to say the right thing at the right time, especially when it comes to sharing the gospel.

Both those filled with distilled spirits and those filled with the Holy Spirit will find themselves braver than they normally are. But while a person who is drunk might be reckless and foolish--they say the last words of many an inebriated person is "Hey, wanna see something cool?"--those filled with the Spirit will be emboldened not only to pass on the good news to those who need to hear it but to do good works for those who need them.

And the expansiveness of the Spirit is not like the maudlin "I love you" an intoxicated person says to all and sundry, only to have that emotion evaporate with the morning after. When filled with the Spirit, the genuine and unstoppable love of God moves us to see and serve Christ in everyone we encounter.

The outpouring of the Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church. In embryonic form, it grew and developed during the disciples' time with Jesus but here it burst into the world, took a deep breath, and let everyone know loudly it was here to stay. Like any child, it set out to explore every part of its world with lively wonder and making a racket while doing it. As adults we often lose that. The church today sometimes sounds like old men pontificating rather than the joyful noise that heralded the baptism of the Spirit.

In keeping with the original Pentecost, let us be more enthusiastic in our worship, filled with the Spirit, on fire with the Spirit, using our gift of speech to praise the giver of all good things. So let us really hear it for God the Holy Spirit!          

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Did You Get the Call?

This sermon is based on notes of a presentation given by the Rev. Thomas Weitzel. The main points are his; most of the illustrations are mine. 

When I went to Wheaton College I met a lot of PKs. I even dated one--a Preacher's Kid, that is. Talking to them is enough to put you off the idea of entering ordained ministry. And sure enough, only about 10% of Protestant clergy is made up of PKs. I don't know if they get tired of church or tired of having to be the perfect child. But whatever the reason, it means that 90% of people called to the ordained ministry have parents in different occupations. Mine were a bartender and a nurse. Which makes sense: one heard a lot of sinners' confessions and the other helped make people better.

I can't find any reliable statistics on what professions contribute the most people to the ordained ministry. I did an informal poll on Facebook and got an agricultural engineer, a high school computer science teacher, the head of a construction company, a music teacher, and a manager at Office Depot. But one thing I do know: all of the Twelve were something entirely different before they were called to be apostles. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. Paul was a tentmaker. We don't know what Matthias was! We do know he wasn't one of the original Twelve. But Jesus called them and they followed him. Their primary vocation became spreading the Good News of God in Christ. And who they were changed.

When we think of being called, we do so almost exclusively in regards to the ordained ministry, as if every other person in a church just sort of wandered in by accident. But when Jesus as the Good Shepherd spoke of calling his sheep, there was no indication that this applied to clergy only. We are all Christians because Christ called us. He doesn't always call us to change jobs. Often he needs us to be his agents in place, so to speak. But we are nevertheless called by him to serve him.

There are many ways to serve Jesus. Figuring out how we should do that may not be obvious. At least to ourselves. A lot of people, when they realize what they are called by God to do, find that those around them are not the least bit surprised. They've noticed what our gifts are even if we haven't. And God provides and equips us with what we need to accomplish what he calls us to. Often when we discover our call, we say to ourselves, "Yes, this is what I was meant to do!" When you find your call, you find yourself. 

That vocation gives us a role, an identity. Not every identity comes from a call; it could come from some other external motivator. Like your situation in life, such as marriage or becoming a parent. It can come from a job we get or a career we choose, such as becoming a cop, a teacher, a nurse, a fisherman, or a builder. Or it may be your role within a group: the leader, the spokesperson, the facilitator, the negotiator, the advocate, the joker (every group has one), the cheerleader, Mr. Fix-it, etc. It may not be our sole identity but it is something that is true and important about us. And having a clear identity is crucial. If you know how you fit into a group or into the world, it can give you a measure of peace. 

When we have a clear identity, it gives us a purpose. You know that you are to educate. Or to nurture. Or to protect. Or to make peace. Or to envision the future. Or to figure out the details of realizing that future. A recent study found that having a sense of purpose actually extends your life. It is also an important part of personal happiness. 

Once you have a purpose, you can work out how to translate that into action. If your identity is a nurse, and your purpose is to make and keep people healthy, that leads you to work in a hospital or a doctor's office or a home health agency. If your identity is an artist, and your purpose is to create works that affect people, that could lead you to create works of beauty or that question stereotypical thinking or confront people with reality.

Having a clear purpose is essential to ministry as well. Again if your identity is a nurse, your purpose is still to make and keep people healthy, and you might become a parish nurse, a ministry many churches offer. Or you could see your purpose as helping those who are at the end of life and your ministry could be working in a nursing home or for hospice. If your identity is an artist, your purpose is still to create works that affect people, and your ministry could be creating art that questions or confronts or inspires. You have a ministry, whether inside or outside the church. But it's impossible to do really effective ministry if you don't have a sense of purpose. Which goes back to having a clear identity. Which goes back to having a call.

You can lose your identity. Your situation changes. Get a divorce and you lose the identity of being a spouse. Lose custody of the kids and you may feel like you've lost your identity as a parent. Lose your job and you lose your identity as a manager or scientist or just as a breadwinner or a productive member of society. Loss of identity leads to feeling that you are lost in other ways, too.

When people lose their identity, they often lose their purpose and action. This can lead to depression and paralysis. But usually it leads to seeking another external motivator because we can't stand having an identity crisis. This can be good. A person who lost a business may create another. A person who is divorced may resolve to be a better parent. But losing an identity can lead to bad choices of a new motivation and identity. The divorced person could decide to a player or party animal. Or to be a bitter enemy of his or her ex-spouse. Or a stalker.

If one's identity as a member of a group is lost, it can also lead to an identity crisis. My mother's increasing hearing loss meant she could no longer continue as head nurse of the recovery room at her hospital. She got a degree in librarianship and found a position in the hospital as tumor registrar. Whenever cancer was discovered or treated at the hospital, she kept track of the patient and his or her treatment and progress. This is a vital position because the statistics help doctors and researchers decide on the effectiveness of certain treatments. It's also necessary for the hospital to keep its certification to treat cancer.

On the other hand, losing your identity within a group can lead to bad decisions, including betrayal of the group. In the early years of the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold captured Ft. Ticonderoga and played a key role in several important victories. He was severely wounded at the battles of Saratoga and, had he died of those injuries, he would have gone down in history as a great American hero. But he was passed over for promotions, investigated for corruption and acquitted, and was told he owed Congress money for his invasion of Quebec because he could not document all of his expenses. His military advice was ignored and he offered to surrender West Point to the British. When that plot failed, Arnold went over to the British and his name became a synonym for traitor ever since.      

God calls not only individuals but groups to serve him as well. He called the nation of Israel and blessed them so that they in turn may bless all the nations. In the same way, God's calls his church and blesses it in order that it might be a blessing to the world by bringing it to Christ. And that means he called this church as well. Which means everything we said about an individual's call is true about the call of a local congregation.

God is our motivator. He calls us as a group to an identity. That identity in Christ gives us purpose. And that purpose leads to action in the form of ministry. Unfortunately, churches can also get lost. And, according to the Rev. Tom Weitzel, to whom I am indebted for the chief points of this sermon, when a church is lost in any way, it is because it has lost its sense of call.

Any organization, if it's been around a while, begins to drift from its original purpose, its reason to exist. And its prime directive then becomes the perpetuation of its own existence. Along the way, it may forget what need led to its creation. We've seen that happen with companies doing brand extension, putting their name on whole lines of products that have little or nothing to do with the core business. Many movie studios make more money from selling the merchandising rights to the movie than from the movie itself (which explains why some movies seem like 2 hour commercials for toys.) We saw that happen when banks forgot their business fundamentals and began to act like casinos, taking and making bets on credit, even against their own clients. We've seen that happen to churches that have drifted so far from their original call and purpose that they seem to be in some other business altogether.

Like a person who has lost his identity and sense of purpose, a church may seek a motivator among things other than God, such as an obsession with success or a worship style or its institutional history or the latest cultural or church fad or a particular stand on a political or theological issue. A lot of mega-churches have as their motivator a celebrity preacher. If he or she retires or gets caught in a scandal, the church, its sense of purpose, and its ministry suffer. If its call from God has been lost, a church can't fix things by merely multiplying or tweaking its ministries. It needs to recover God's call.

It was God's call that motivated the prophets. It made them God's spokesmen, it gave them purpose and it defined and fueled their ministry. And what they did was issue God's call to his people--a call to return to the Lord.

All calls are first to faithfulness. We are called not merely to have faith in God but to be faithful to him. In a marriage, or any relationship, trust is a two-way street. It makes no sense to expect God to be faithful on his end and yet not strive to be faithful in return. If someone you were married to or were friends with or had business with, insisted that you keep up your part of the relationship while failing to do the same, you would be outraged at the injustice. Faithfulness is vital to returning to God and hearing his call.

Pastor Weitzel lists 10 elements of faithfulness. I'll touch on each briefly.

Number 1: Put God first. That should be a no-brainer but like most obvious things, we cease to pay attention to them and forget about them after a while. And it doesn't help that a lot of people think religion's primary purpose is to make them feel good about themselves. That's why everyone talks so much about spirituality. It's a word that most people have such a vague grasp of that it can be made to mean whatever they want. Put the word into Google and you get things like "…an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being…,"You are everything, yet you are nothing…," and "…that which relates to or affects the human spirit." The last is closest to the dictionary definition except that it narrows it down to the "human" spirit. Modern spirituality is all about "me." But we are created in God's image. God is the original Spirit. We're trying to draw the Mona Lisa from a very bad copy rather than going to the real thing. So we need to state the obvious: put God first.

Number 2: Seek and do God's will. That's both easy and hard. We know the broad outlines of God's will: love him, love one another as he loves us, go and make disciples and teach them all that he said. Which does cut off some avenues, like hating others, running off disciples and teaching them stuff he never said. Again, obvious things that get overlooked. What's difficult sometimes is knowing God's specific will in whatever time and place he has put us. For that we need to practice discernment. At this time that goes beyond the scope of my message though we shall return to it in the future.

Number 3: Pray daily. Again to maintain a relationship you have to communicate. It's vital for keeping a marriage healthy. Would you really want to be in one of those marriages where you barely speak? It is essential to a healthy relationship with God as well. Talk to him daily. You might be surprised at what comes up and how good you'll feel after sharing your deepest fears and hopes with the one who loves you more than anyone can.

Number 4: Worship weekly. Worship comes from the same root as the word "worth." In worship, we tell God how much he means to us. We do it with others the same reason we watch sports with friends or "Game of Thrones" with others. Because we love sharing what we enjoy with others. We also do it because God is Love and we are most like him when we are doing things together out of love with those we love.  

Number 5: Study and know God's Word. A few years ago, a study showed that most religious people knew woefully little about their own faiths. If you love cars, or cooking, I know you spend a lot of time looking up and reading about them. I bet you know all about your favorite shows or singers or teams. If we know more about them than about God and his acts and teachings as described in his word, what does that say about our real priorities? And how shall we answer the foolish and erroneous things said about God's word, if we don't know what it actually says?

Number 6: Love and serve others. When Jesus told a parable about the last judgment, his criterion was: what you do to others you do to him. Do we truly look for Jesus, however obscured by sin and misfortune, in others and do we really serve them as we would if they were Christ undisguised?

Number 7: Tithe thankfully. It's not like we are doling out a piddling allowance to a kid who's done nothing to deserve it. We are returning a small portion of the gifts God's given us for him to use in building up his kingdom. And we ought to do it with gratitude. Gratitude is an part of happiness.

Number 8: Share the Gospel. If you found a good doctor, who really helped your pain or diagnosed a persistent problem or cured an illness, you'd tell everybody. If you knew a reliable and honest mechanic, you'd pass the word on. If you discover a great singer or a really funny comedian, you'd want everyone to give him a listen. Why not Jesus? 

Number 9: Participate at church. When someone invites you to a party, you ask what you can bring. When you arrive, you ask if there's anything you can do. If the host or hostess looks like they're trying to do everything, you pitch in. This is your church. We can always use help. And like any activity, you get more out of it when you put something into it.

Number 10: Repent unfaithfulness. Repent, as we are learning in our Bible study on Mark, basically means "change your mind" or "turn around." God doesn't want people continually wailing but people who, when they realize they're on the wrong track, reorient themselves, change direction and get back on the right path.

If you've been neglecting God, if you've forgotten his call, forgotten who and whose you are, if you lost your sense of purpose and momentum, change the way you think and act and return to the Lord. Think of it as a second honeymoon with the person without whom love would not be possible.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The New Jerusalem

When Europeans discovered the Americas, they called them the New World. And we see that echoed by the fact that one region was called New England and we have lots of states and cities with the word New in their title (New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, etc) to distinguish them from their Old World namesakes. But the addition of the word New also betokened a hope in those who left the original that this place would not be more of the same but something better.

Jews end the Passover Seder with the toast "Next year in Jerusalem." It symbolizes the hope held out by Jews of the Diaspora, Jews scattered all over the world, that they would one day return to their homeland. At our Passover Seder, we modified this to "Next year in the New Jerusalem." And the question from our sermon suggestion box, which I happen to know was prompted by what we said at the end of our Seder, asks "What do you mean by the New Jerusalem?"

The reason we said what we did is because of the Christian hope that one day we will see what has been promised in Revelation 21: "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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with humans. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new!'"

To fully appreciate this passage and the import of the new Jerusalem, we have to look at each element of this passage. And before that, we have to understand the purpose and method of the Book of Revelation.

The last book in the Bible is a difficult one for us to interpret today. So why was it included in Scripture? Why was it written in the first place?

The early Christians knew persecution first from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme court, which forbade them from proclaiming Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah. Ironically, this crackdown on Christians pushed the church out of the Holy Land and into the Roman Empire. Paul and Barnabas, sent as a mission team by the church in Antioch, at first preached to Diaspora Jews in their synagogues. Occasionally they would stir things up to the extent that Roman officials stepped in and threw Paul and his associates in jail for disturbing the peace. But Rome saw these incidents as a dispute within Judaism, which was a legal religion. It didn't persecute Christians per se.

Then a fire broke out in Rome in the summer of 64 AD. After 6 days, it was put out but by then 10 of the city's 14 districts were nothing but ashes. The Emperor Nero rushed back to the city when the fire broke out and directed firefighting efforts. He let thousands of people who were made homeless by the inferno camp in his imperial gardens. Yet some blamed him for starting the fire. People suspected he did it to rebuild Rome to reflect his glory. Nero did what any politician would. He found a scapegoat. In this case, he chose to blame the Christians, who were by then distinct enough to tell apart from Jews, and whose rites and beliefs were seen as weird. Christians' love feasts were rumored to be orgies and they drank blood and ate flesh and they refused to worship the Roman gods, which meant they were atheists! So Nero had Christians torn apart by dogs or burned alive or crucified. Peter and Paul were martyred during this first wave of persecution. After Nero's death, persecution of the church died down for a while.

Then in 81 AD, Domitian became emperor. He didn't want to wait until he was dead to be declared divine. He demanded to be called "Lord and God." This posed a problem for faithful Jews and Christians, of course. In his later years, due to plots against him, he became very harsh. Early Christian historian Eusebius says that this is when he began to persecute Christians in earnest. And this is when the Book of Revelation was written. Domitian executed those who said anything against the empire and so Revelation's real meaning had to be disguised. That's why a lot of language and images from Old Testament prophesy are used. That's why certain figures are represented by fanciful animals and monsters. That's why there is a numerical code to disguise the name of the enemy. That's why there is so much talk about Babylon, the capital of the ancient enemy of God's people, who burned  Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 BC. It was code for Rome, the new enemy who burned them in 70 AD. John, the author, was trying to get his message out to Christians facing suffering and death without it being suppressed.

And the message was one of hope. Revelation does not say "take up weapons and fight the persecutors of God's people." Rather it says, "hold on, stay faithful, God wins in the end." Christians are never depicted as warriors but witnesses and martyrs. God fights his own battles. The vision that John is communicating is one of comfort to those who have seen the apparent triumph of evil over good. The book is saying, "Yes, things will get bad. But in the end, God will restore everything."

That's why, toward the end of the book, we get the picture of the new Jerusalem. God recreates the heavens and the earth as good once more, but there is one thing lacking: the presence of God. Genesis gives us a wonderful picture of God walking in his garden in the cool of the day. There is no sense of a great distance between him and human beings. But the result of mankind's sin has been estrangement from God. There was this gap between God's realm and the kingdoms of this world. People longed for a bridge between the two. And that's what the Temple in Jerusalem became for the Jews: the meeting place between God and man, heaven and earth. It was where, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest made sacrifices for the sins of the people, then entered the Holy of Holies, and sprinkled the sacrificial blood on the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God's presence. An image of God was prohibited but he was often envisioned as seated above the wings of the cherubim on the ark's lid. The ark was seen as his throne, or at least, the footstool of his throne, and thus the Temple, Mount Zion on which it stood, and the city of Jerusalem itself, all came to represent the presence of God on earth. So John sees a new Jerusalem that represents God's everlasting presence on his new redeemed world.

What's more, the city is described as a bride adorned for her husband. One Old Testament metaphor for God's love for his people is that of the husband for his bride. God is the faithful husband, who forgives his bride out of his great love. Jesus appropriates the image in the Gospels, speaking of himself as the bridegroom. Paul uses marriage to represent the relationship of Christ and his church. And the Book of Revelation leads up to the wedding of the Lamb, making the apocalyptic battles no more than a prelude to it, as the prince only fights with the dragon in Cinderella in order to get to and rescue his beloved. In fact, a lot of the imagery in Revelation has been appropriated by those who write fantasy: besides an evil dragon, we have a prince on a white horse who wields a sword, fights an army, frees his people, marries his beloved bride and they live happily ever after in a beautiful bejeweled city.          

The classic happy ending is a wedding, because, ironically, weddings are beginnings. A new family is formed. Husband and wife become one. The bride becomes a woman, and prospectively, a mother. Life continues. Small wonder Jesus' favorite image of the Kingdom of God was the wedding supper, the biggest event in the life of a village, a celebration that lasted a whole week or maybe two, with feasting, drinking, singing and merrymaking. And of course, after the wedding, faithful love is rewarded, becomes deeper, more intimate, more ecstatic.  
We are to become one with God and with other Christians. This was at the center of the prayer Jesus made for his disciples on the night he was betrayed. As it says in John 17:20,21: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me." A big part of our witness to the world is our unity and love for one another. People certainly notice when we squabble over nonessential things. They notice when we schism.  And it discounts in their eyes the idea that we represent God. Because taking your ball and going home when you don't get your own way, and excluding people who disagree with you, are not divine acts; they are very human and very common. That's what goes on in Congress and in denominations and in other human groups. What's rare is when people disagree a lot on certain things and yet continue to work together for a greater good they do agree on.

Today we like to describe ourselves by adding modifiers to what should be our core identity. People say they are conservative Christians, or progressive Christians, or pro-life Christians, or pro-choice Christians, or gay Christians or biblical Christians. The problem is that the word that comes first in grammatical construction often comes first in their way of thinking as well. If your position on something comes before the word Christian when you identify yourself, it's likely it comes before your commitment to Christ. It might be better if we identified ourselves as simply Christians, and, only if pressed, admit that we happen to be conservative, or happen to be to be  pro-choice, or happen to be vegan, or happen to be evangelical, or happen to be Baptist/Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopalian/Lutheran. We are Christians first and foremost. Maybe if we stop putting our carts before the horse we might actually get to where we're supposed to be going.

Our primary allegiance should be to Jesus Christ, just as citizens of any kingdom owe their primary allegiance to their king. If we choose anything, however noble, over Jesus, we aren't really Christians. We haven't really given up our rights, or picked up our crosses, the symbols of self-sacrifice, and we aren't following him. We won't make model citizens of the new Jerusalem, which means "City of Peace." Those kinds of division can be found in the current Jerusalem. Those kinds of division exist in every country and kingdom of this world. And they always have. They're old. They're getting really old. Like the death and mourning and crying and pain they cause. And as Revelation says, our God is all about making things new.

We actually have people here who have truly made things new--mothers. They bring into the world new people. And not one of them wants to bring in something bad. No mother looks at her child and says, "I want this child to bring pain and suffering and rage and evil and dissension and arrogance." Every mother sees the promise of good things in her child. That's what she hopes for.

But we've made God's paradise into hell of earth. We're even raising the temperature. Why doesn't God abandon us? Because of his love. He wants us to be born anew, born from above, born into his Spirit. He wants us to become his children, who will obey his words and follow his example, the example of the first-born of his creation, Jesus Christ. And he wants us to be a family, which we are since science tells us we share DNA from the same common mother and from the same common father. But he wants us to be a spiritual family as well, his sons and daughters, living together in peace, loving and forgiving and seeing our differences not as liabilities but as gifts from him to help us do all the different tasks that make up his work in the world. It starts with seeing the world not simply as it is but as it could be, a city on a hill, a shining example, where, as Psalm 85 says, "Kindness and truth meet together, righteousness and peace kiss each other."  That is our hope. That is the good news Jesus brings. That is what he wants to see us working on when he comes again. And so we echo the Book of Revelation: "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.' And let everyone who hears say, 'Come.'…Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"