Sunday, April 28, 2013

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings
Robert J. Elder
First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Revelation 21:1-6
Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2013

I’ve spent a lot of time the last several days thinking on the events that took place at, during, and after the Boston Marathon, as I am sure many of us have: A vicious attack characterized by senseless, indifferent slaughter and injury to innocent people by people who were strangers to them. Why must the world be this way?
But we ought not stop with the events in Boston.
People: Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – are despoiled, beaten, or killed in places ranging from Mexico to Syria to North Korea to East Africa. One beating does nothing to atone for another, and yet the beatings go on. Police beatings, gang beatings, racially or religiously motivated violence have all become part of the daily headlines. Why must the world be this way?
Owners of small businesses and shops go out of business in many cities around the world, their stores burned out, looted, closed forever. Innocent people living in desolate neighborhoods, folks who didn’t riot and steal, as well as those who did, find they have even fewer places to go and get the necessities of daily life. Innocent people running in the Boston Marathon come away with shrapnel wounds. Why must the world be this way?
For decades now, economists have reported that the gap between rich and poor in America has been growing at an alarming rate, that violence from Los Angeles to Michigan to Miami is a symptom of a despair that accompanies a sense of lost future, of hopelessness. Why must the world be this way?
In countries, some of whose names we can hardly pronounce, in some countries which didn’t even exist on world maps a decade or two ago, whole communities are torn apart by hatred: ethnic, tribal, religious. Sunni Muslims kill Shiite Muslims, South American rebel forces kill teenage army draftees. Why must the world be this way?
One German philosopher looked out on his nineteenth century world and saw the economic dislocation of common people that was brought on by the industrial revolution. He realized that the power to make economic decisions rested in the hands of small groups of people, that their control of financial institutions and even governments made substantial betterment of the lives of working people a virtual impossibility. He longed for a world in which economies were in the hands of the common people rather than a few powerful individuals. He asked “Why must the world be this way?” and answered by writing books and tracts that predicted a coming new world order in which all means of production would be held in community for all, rather than by a powerful few. His name was Karl Marx. Even though he seems to have asked the same sort of questions we find ourselves asking well over a hundred years later, his proposed solutions have so far proved to be a mixed blessing philosophically, socially, and economically to say the least. The twenty-first century communist world, founded on various versions of Marxist theory, has fallen to pieces, and is dying from the weight of the failure of its attempted solutions. Human beings are apparently incapable of bringing in a new, just world order under our own power.
One twentieth-century singer-song writer spent much of his life speaking out for peace. He wrote one song in which he asked us to “imagine” a world without countries, weapons, war. He also implored in one of his songs, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.” He saw the self-defeating madness of the endless stockpiling of weaponry by the nations of the world and asked, “Why must the world be this way?” His name was John Lennon. He is long-since dead of course, another victim of senseless violence. And though the world may seem to us to be a bit less tense internationally, within the borders of the former superpowers as well as the second and third-rate powers, ethnic strife seems always on the verge of creating a world-wide implosion rather than a nuclear explosion.
Even my imaginary 7 year-old friend Clayton found that he was confused last week. His good friend, Jackson, stayed home from school nearly all week. When Clayton asked his mother why, she said that Jackson’s mother was afraid for his safety. Jackson is black. Some boys had been taunting him on the playground a week ago Monday. With all the racial violence on the television, Jackson’s mother thought it would be just as well to keep him home for a few days. Clayton wondered the child’s version of, “Why must the world be this way?”
He’s certainly not the first 7 year-old to wonder this. Nor, sadly, is it likely he will be the last. We all long for a better world. That dream is as old as humanity, and from some perspectives, futile. Once, when the people of Judah had been languishing in brutal exile in Babylon, enslaved and force-marched to a foreign land where they were made the servants of the Babylonians, Isaiah wondered, “Why must the world be this way?” Then he recorded a word from God which said,
            “Do not remember the former things,
                        or consider the things of old.
            I am about to do a new thing...”[1]
We long for the arrival of that new thing just as fully as the Jews longed for rescue from their exile. We are weary of the world as it is. We long for a new world. So when John announced in Revelation, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” it gets our attention. And he throws a “new Jerusalem” into the bargain. In response to our persistent question, “Why must the world be this way?” like the exiled Jews of Isaiah’s day we hear that something new is happening.
The people who first read and heard John’s words were living in a world hostile to their very faith. Many were called on to make the only witness to their faith available in their violent world: martyrdom. In fact, the Greek word “martureo” means “to bear witness.” The cry of those going to their death for their faith, the plea of those facing the same fate must have been something on the order of, “Why must the world be this way?” Something needs to be done.
John’s vision in Revelation assures us that something has been done, is being done, and will be done.[2] All that is accomplished is described as “new.” The thing that is new is also as old as the first covenant God made with people and as new as the mob of children who come weekdays to our preschool: relationship.
Whenever we ask, “Why must the world be this way?” chances are good that what has broken down in one way or another is relationship: the healthy relationship between people of different races, the desired relationship of friendship between Jackson and his playmates on the school play yard, the satisfying relationship between work and vocation or calling. To that persistent question uttered by humanity, “Why must the world be this way?” the Bible responds with stories, declarations, visions, prophecies of God’s desire for a new relationship with people.
What is new is that very thing which God has sought to establish with people since the beginning: relationship. The Old Testament describes it as a dwelling or tabernacle, but anyone who knows anything about life under a single roof knows that to live in the same house means to be in relationship. So what is new is also very old. Since the beginning, since the Alpha of Revelation, God has desired relationship with people, so that we might be in right relationship with each other. And if we ever want to know the end or goal or Omega toward which God is moving the world, we must keep in mind the same word. The beginning and ending of God’s purpose for us and for the world is just this vision: “See, the home of God is among mortals.”
God wants to be at home among us. The vision of John brings to mind the very things that happen in healthy homes. That is where tears are wiped away, where mourning and crying and pain are alleviated by the love that lives there. As we talked about this passage at a Bible study I once led, we kept falling into the temptation to speak of this vision as if it existed entirely in the future. But one person in the group reminded us that this is God’s declaration for today. God’s desire is to be at home with us today, not just in some distant future. If we fail to treat each other better than we do, it’s not because the new Jerusalem exists off in some distant future, but because even though new Jerusalem has already been subdivided and built, we choose to live in old town, to continue as slaves to sin rather than as people freed by the resurrection of Christ to live a life that is entirely new.
When John wrote that “the sea was no more,” he was writing from his imprisonment on the island of Patmos, separated from his fellow believers by a seemingly endless tract of ocean. Very likely, he would have preferred to be with them as they faced their ordeal and their persecution. But there was a great sea between them. No wonder part of his vision of heaven included the eradication of that barrier to human relationships. The beginning and ending of the life of a believer rests in relationship: relationship with God, and relationship with each other in Christ. It is the Alpha and the Omega, that which put in motion the very cosmos itself, and which is the goal or end toward which God is moving the world and its history.
This vision of beginnings and endings is priceless because of the assurance it contains, that no matter what, no matter how desperate our exile, how brutal our encounters on the streets of the city, how unjust our experiences with each other, that is not the direction in which God’s purpose is moving. Though our view of the hopefulness which God builds into his purpose for creation may be as limited as the Jews in exile, the Christian martyrs of the first century, and the beaten and suffering victims of modern violence, God’s work is even now providing a new world. It is a world in which God lives with us, eradicates death, suffering, even tears.
God does not bring on the end of the world. God is the end. And glorifying God is our chief end. Receive Christ, know the God who love you, and offer God your praise. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 43:18-19a.
[2] “Revelation 21:1-8”, by Rudolph Raber, in Interpretation, July 1986, p. 296.