“Home Among Mortals”
Our passage from Luke, and the one which follows here from the Revelation to John, are part of what is referred to as apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature looks to the end times, and signs of God coming to renew the world in times of chaos.
Apocalyptic literature tends to proliferate during difficult times. Revelation was written around 100 A.D. after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem.
It’s appropriate we read these passages on the day of President Obama’s oval office address tonight on the chaos in our nation and world.
From Luke’s vision of a new world coming down which we often read in Advent is a call for God’s people to stay awake and watch for the coming of God in the world. Coming in the incarnation at Christmas. Coming when Christ returns. From Revelation we hear of God’s coming in a New Jerusalem.
Much as Genesis helps us understand where we come from, Luke helps us see the ethics of how Christ would have us live and the Revelation to John helps us understand our ultimate destination. From and to God. For God’s home is ultimately with us and we with God.
Reading now from the end of the Bible, Revelation 21. Let us pray, Loving God, may your spirit of expectation and hope allow us to have faith this advent season that you are in control. Amen.
We are in a sermon series that lifts up times, even humorous ones, where we lose something and then realize something bigger is at work. Last week, I mentioned my illustrious career making cough drop-based Christmas ornaments while working for Procter and Gamble. On one business trip for them I was flying back through Nashville. I landed at the airport one evening for an overnight connection, got my things into a cab and went to the hotel. When I got into the cab, there was a big wind. I didn’t think much of it. I got to my hotel, checked in, but soon realized I had lost my plane ticket for the next day. I knew I had it when I was getting into the cab. I must have lost it in the big wind. Back then it was a big deal to lose a plane ticket. This was back before computers would just regenerate new ones. So I got another cab and returned to the airport but by this time the airport was closed. All the restaurants were closed. The lost and found was closed. So I walked around and around and suddenly I saw a man, another cab driver, walking around the airport holding a plane ticket. He asked me, “You didn’t happen to lose your plane ticket did you?” I couldn’t believe it. It was my ticket. I needed a cab, so I got in his cab, we drove to the hotel, and this angel received a big tip.
The swirling wind changed my trip. In Luke, we read that Christ’s apocalyptic visions swirling winds change the world and swirling cosmos reflect it. Sun, moon, stars are all in turmoil as Christ prepares to return. We read such passages now as the liturgical year begins with Advent, and in Advent we work backwards from the end.
The word for wind in Hebrew, ruack, is the same as for breathe. The Hebrew Bible tells us that humans gained life when God breathed it into us. In the great days of change, Luke tells us, people will faint from fear. The word for faint here means to be literally out of breath. The wind of God has been replaced by an ill wind.
That is how many people feel looking at the world today. That is where people were when the Revelation was written. John wrote it near the end of the first century when Christians were being persecuted. Romans were enforcing emperor worship. John’s point was that neither the Roman Emperor and the evil in the world are supreme, God is in control. John wrote to encourage the faithful that good is coming. Believers should stand fast, even in the face of death. John wanted to assure his readers that God controls the future.
So passages like these two this morning are comforting. Yet such apocalyptic literature is highly metaphorical and difficult to make sense of.
Frederick Buechner once said of the ideas of this passage from Luke, “I don’t know any passage in the Gospels that is harder to understand and to know how to respond to then the words of Jesus about the second coming… Jesus talked about signs of sun and moon and stars and (we are not sure) is he speaking literally or symbolically, of some upheaval of the world without or the world within, an upheaval of hearts and minds and spirits of the human race? The seas will go wild he says, and at their rousing nations will be terrified. And then the most extraordinary thing of all, the Son of Man will appear.”
It is interesting that John writes that in the days of God’s coming the sea will be no more. The Sea was feared during Biblical times. In Babylonian mythology, the God of creation lived on land, the God of chaos in the sea. For early Hebrews, God had tamed the waters at the beginning of creation. Bringing order out of chaos. Making human life possible. We affirm this in our communion order.
Yet the waters of chaos remained a threat. The sea is where the great ten horned beast of Revelation 13 lived. Without good navigation at the time the sea seemed vast, intimidating and dangerous. Seas also represented separation from loved ones. John was exiled in the island of Patmos when writing much of Revelation. Sea meant separation from loved ones in some cultures after death as well.
This Sunday straddles the two weeks of the great global climate change summit in Paris. President Obama was there. Our congregation’s Bob Deans is there.
A focus in the Washington Post and New York Times these past few weeks has been on rising sea levels from melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica.
Theologically, chaos is what happens when the seas rise. We have tamed the sea relative to ancient peoples. Yet, unless climate change is dealt with and perhaps the agreement this weekend is a start, rising sea levels, violent storms and creeping coastlines could be a significant challenge for people in our day as well.
In a world that is chaotic, that needs hope: the good news is God is in control. The message of our scriptures is that from the beginning to the end, God is ultimately in control.
Who are we mere mortals that God should care for us? Our scriptures tell of God’s coming for the likes of us. It’s the idea of a New Jerusalem coming down and God dwelling here.
The word for dwelling place here literally means tent. God goes with God’s people wherever they move. This word is also related to the glory of God, which in our tradition often took the form of a cloud over the heads of the people to watch over them.
The vision of the New Jerusalem is one where the dwelling place of God, the glory of God, was able to move with the people. God’s home among mortals.
In Jewish thought, the Talmud expresses that God has promised not to enter the Jerusalem to come until God enters the Jerusalem on earth. That human actions of righteousness and spiritual growth can help close the gap.
We affirm that we do not know the time or place of the return, but we know that we can be part of the good in our world in the meantime. Our goal in watching for God is to be grateful, to do good and in doing so close the gap between Heaven and Earth.
Luke wrote, “The kingdom of God is among and in you.” Christ is in the interior work we do of Advent. That is where the spiritual focus of the season is so valuable.
Ours is a chaotic world. Shootings in San Bernardino this week and in Colorado last week and elsewhere make that clear. The chaos which has been present since those early visions of creation is still part of our world. The question is how do we respond to the chaos? Our adult education program on “Fear” this morning and the past six weeks has been excellent. It underscores thus question: How do we respond? Do we respond with fear? Or do we believe that the incarnation, the second coming, the New Jerusalem, God’s strong presence, is real? Do we believe God is ultimately in control?
Luke tells us that at the time of great anxiety and even calamity in the world, we are called to keep going and raise our heads high. To stand tall and not yield. To live the words of the hymn we will soon sing, “Lift up your heads ye mighty gates, behold the king of glory waits. The king of kings is drawing near. The savior of the world is here.”
For apocalypse is not some future event, in a sense it is a present one. We all live in some situation of chaos.
Soren Kierkegaard defined anxiety as “tomorrow.” We don’t know what will happen. A surgery gone bad. A spot on an x-ray. A partner leaves. A job we thought we had doesn’t materialize. A school test seems impossible. News stories bring bad news after bad news.
The Greek word in the passage for “stand up,” anakupto, was often used in the culture to express a response after great sorrow. After bad news and grieving, it meant to stand up and move forward.
After the changes and challenges of our world, we are not called to duck and run in the face of apocalyptic chaos. We are called to stand tall and look forward.
To look forward on climate change. To look forward on gun violence. To look forward on terrorism. To look forward on economic opportunity. To look forward in the face of personal challenge. Not to give up. But to live believing we are not alone in the fight.
Winds blow. We lose things. We want to take flight. Yet God’s breath is with us. And there are good people in the world. Even angels this time of year. There are opportunities for us to find and return what is lost to someone. To help them find themselves. Perhaps even to find ourselves in the process.
The idea of a New Jerusalem coming is the idea that peace is finally coming to us. The name Jerusalem is a contraction of Yeru-shalem. A city of peace. A new Jerusalem means that God’s peace is coming finally. We need that in our world. We need that in our hearts. We hope for that this advent.
Our second passage ends with a great statement: that the Lord is the Alpha and the Omega. Alpha doesn’t mean first in time here as much as the source of all things. And omega means the end goal. Life begins and ends with God. All creation and redemption from beginning to end are under God’s watch.
We are not separated from God. God is present with us now and coming in glory to renew all things. We do not go it alone.
God watches over us. We always have something to look forward to. The peace of Christ is coming.
A good friend reminds me that when things seem most chaotic we should say this mantra over and over, “God is in control. God is in control. God’s home is among mortals. God is in control.”
May it be so. Amen.