A Season of Fresh Starts (Rev. 21:1-7)

New Year’s Day has long been one of my favourite holidays of the year.  Almost as sacred as Easter, more exciting to me than opening up my presents on Christmas, and certainly more jovial than my birthday especially now that I’m over 30, there’s something profound about the clock striking midnight on January 1st.  The other day my colleague and I were talking about how we celebrated New Year’s as children.  Back then it was so exciting that our parents let us stay up well past our bedtime and as we got giddy and started dozing off to sleep, they would nudge us awake with promises of goodies and non-alcoholic champagne which my parents used to call “Kiddy wine.”  As an adult, I stay up past midnight more often than not, so that part is not novel to me, but there’s still something magical and exhilarating in the air as I look back on all I have seen, experienced, met, and accomplished the previous year and make plans and ideas for what is to come.  

When I was originally asked to lead the inaugural sermon of 2022, I was drawn to the beginning of the Bible.  The story of the Garden of Eden found in the book of Genesis.  The origins of humanity, the understanding of where we came from and as such where we are headed.  Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it necessary to start at the back of the Bible instead.  The last book, the penultimate chapter – Revelation 21.  For you see, God is the great author and knew how to write a compelling book.  We have a poetic and serene introduction, the middle bits are filled with paradoxes and parables, with both turmoil and triumph, with sin and salvation.  Then finally our creative God ends with a Happily Ever After scenario.

I don’t know if anyone here today is a big movie buff, but there’s almost always this expectation that a movie ends on a happy note.  Even when villains seem to be winning, even when destruction and doom seem to permeate the set, and even when all seems hopeless, we all hang on to the edge of our seats, tightly gripping our bowl of popcorn, eyes wide at the screen believing that in the end a hero will swoop down and save the day.  There have been a few movies which have tried the opposite – where in the end of the day the villains wins, and likely most of you won’t even know about these movies because they generally fell flat.  People don’t like to watch movies where the bad guy does not meet a fair end.

Speaking of movies, if you’re anything like me you enjoy watching a movie through with no interruptions and get irritated when your friend or relative continues to ask questions or make comments through the film.  Or perhaps you’re the opposite and you are the person who enjoys being the commentator.  Generally people will shush others because they don’t want to miss anything.  Of particular note are those who have already seen the movie who are told not to spoil anything.  People say they want to be left in suspense, they don’t want to know the ending because it will ruin their movie pleasure.  Yet, interestingly enough, a 2011 psychological study actually showed the opposite.  The truth is that the general public actually enjoys a movie MORE when they know what to expect…but don’t try to tell them that.

I believe that God is like a great film director.  He knows that we will enjoy the movie of our life more when we know the ending.  Yes, there are times in our lives when we ask God when something will happen for us or even if it will happen for us.  Sometimes in my 20s I wanted to know how my life would unfold – where would I eventually live, who would I eventually marry (or would I even get married), would I have children, what type of job would I have, would I get ordained?  At that time, I thought that knowing all these answers would take away my anxiety and stress.  Well, God never did give me those answers at the time I thought I needed them, but God has given us all the answer for how good will ultimately triumph in the end of the day.  

Revelation 21 acts as a great SPOILER ALERT and in it God makes eight unique promises to us.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth, there will be no threats, earth will be restored, God will dwell among us, God will wipe away every tear, there won’t be any of the unpleasant realities we face in this world, the old ways will be done away with, and free water will be given for all who thirst.

I found it particularly interesting that while the story of humanity begins in a garden – a serene and peaceful place surrounded by nature, it ends in a city.  Think of the big cities we know in Canada – Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.  They are places of great opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity, and artistic expression.  Yet, they are also places filled with poverty, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing.  Yet, the new city promised to us by God is one where all will find a home, where all will be loved and cherished, and where all will feel welcome.  When I lived in Toronto I sometimes felt alone in a concrete jungle even despite being surrounded by millions of people – yet in the new city God promises there will be no isolation, no quarantines, no lockdowns, because there will be no virus, no threat to our safety, and no harm to our loved ones.  No longer will the world be abolished by consumerism and the destruction of our environment due to corporate greed, rather it will be restored, flowers and plants will grow, trees will bear fruit again, and there will be endless fields for children to play in.  

If you’re like me, you probably grew up with the notion that when we die we go to heaven, yet, the Bible actually says that heaven comes to us.  That heaven is the restoration of this world that we already live on.  That heaven is made possible because we (through Christ) make it possible for others.  The New Heavens have not only been mentioned in Revelation, however, but the Apostle Peter and the Prophet Isaiah also knew about it and mentioned it to the Israelites.

The next great promise is that God will dwell among us.  We saw this very truth revealed to us at Christmastime when Jesus came to us as a helpless infant.  He was born in an ordinary way, and yet the events surrounding his birth were extraordinary.  He was born without pomp, ceremony, or fanfare, His origins were humble, and yet He came as a king to rule in righteousness rather than in riches.  John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have seen His glory.  The glory of the One and Only Son of the Father.”  The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 6:16 that we, as ordinary human beings, are God’s temple, carrying His light and love into the world and as a result that God lives and walks amongst us.  We see Christ’s glory, and in turn we give this same glory away to others.

This passage is not all theoretical future musings though, it also offers us hope for our present reality.  John, the author of Revelation, writes that God will wipe away our tears, and that there won’t be any death, sadness, crying, or pain for those are former things which are done away with.

There is an old cliche that the only two things certain in this world are death and taxes.  It is a glib way of looking at the world, almost a sarcastic pessimistic nod to the fact that life can be harsh and difficult for so many people.  As the pandemic rages on, we see that sad reality continuing to be played out in our midst.  We know that many will continue to be affected and infected by the virus.  We know that loneliness and despair will continue to surface.  We know that issues of racial injustice, systemic oppression, and violence will not go away on their own but will continue to thrive.  We know that hatred and animosity will continue to flourish even amongst those who hold fast to militant views and extreme beliefs on any number of topics.  It is a difficult time for Christians and for society in general to live in.  And while the virus is one very real physical threat, we know that there are many other threats to our well-being and our desire for justice that are rarely discussed.  We think of issues of Indigenous rights,  gun violence, food insecurity, the refugee crisis, and more.  

Imagine a world where there is unity over division, understanding over fear, listening over arguing.  It reminds me of an old song by the band Family Force 5 called “Let It Be Love.”  The lyrics of this song go: I’ve never seen a soul set free
Through an argument
I’ve never seen a hurt get healed
In a protest
But I’ve seen sinners turned to saints
Because of grace
It’s love, love that lights the way

In 2020 we were all introduced to the phrase “a new normal.”  It has definitely not been easy for any of us going into year two of the pandemic to adapt and learn new ways of doing things.  We often crave the old.  We often lament that which we once loved.  We often wish things could return to how they used to be.  Yet, my charge for 2022 is to imagine and believe that while lots of the old ways were good, fruitful, and meaningful, that perhaps God is calling us to something far greater.  In Hebrews 11:15-16, the writer talks about Bible characters who had to leave their home town and mentions “if they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.  Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”

As we now enter 2022, may we seek after this new and heavenly city.  May our new normal be one of grace and compassion where the dominant variant is love.  May our hearts be stirred to support and show mercy to those who find themselves marginalized and afraid.  And even as God dwells among us in human form, may we also be Christ with skin on to those we meet.  

May it be so.  Amen.  

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