I came across this blog post several months ago and just revisited it this morning as I was preparing to work through Hebrews 11 and 12 for some sermon prep. I just wanted to share it with our community here in LA.
TO EACH IS GIVEN: THE GIFT OF A NEW CITY
Revelation 21: 1-6; Isaiah 65: 17-25
March 14, 2010
Nearly three years ago, it was a blustery spring morning at Virginia Tech University. What started out as any normal weekday morning on the college campus soon took a horrible turn, as the first shots were fired in what would become the worst shooting incident ever to take place on American soil. Thirty-three people dead, a dozen or so injured, and millions around the world crying out in mourning. The press, who descended on the campus like a hornet’s nest, would be camped out all day and night, covering the story 24-7 to satisfy a never-ending news cycle and human consumption of tragedy. They talked with a student whose younger sister died, an English professor who tried to steer the future killer to counseling, a staff person holed up in a dorm room.
And then they interviewed a campus minister during the wee hours of the following morning. He led a Christian fellowship group at the school. He was bald and looked to be in his mid-30’s. The reporter asked the standard entry questions: where were you when it happened, did you know any of the murdered. And then she asked the question that had been on everyone’s mind since the news first broke; the real question everyone wanted answered: what do you do with this as a person of faith? How do you put this horrific event in a spiritual context?
Man. Talk about being put on the spot! I don’t know anything about this campus minister. I can only assume he makes a meager salary, as most campus ministers do, and that he probably ranks pretty low in the university hierarchy. I can only assume that two days before his life was consumed by fairly mundane things like planning out a Thursday night Bible study, or making reservations for the end-of-year lake trip, or counseling a senior on life after graduation. And yet now he has suddenly been thrust onto the national and international stage, in effect speaking for the entire Christian faith, on a dilemma that even the most seasoned theologians have wrestled with for centuries; the greatest Biblical scholars unable to arrive at a definitive conclusion – because there isn’t one.
What do you do with this as a person of faith, Mr. Campus Minister? How do you put this in a spiritual context?
That is the question that keeps us up at night, that leaves us grasping for answers, that troubles us to the day we die. That’s the question that disrupts the even flow of our carefully crafted belief systems. We have no problem putting good things in a spiritual context – it fits like a glove, it feels right. But what do we do with earthquakes and tsunamis and mass shootings? How do we explain it when someone dies before their time, leaving behind a wife and three young kids? What do we do with these things as people of faith? How do we put them in a spiritual context?
It is hard sometimes to find the “location” of our faith – meaning that “center,” that place from which everything else springs forth. It has been said – and rightly so – that the story of the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. Genesis brings us to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve and everything perfect until the first bite of that tempting apple. Revelation leads us to a different place – a city; a renewed Jerusalem that descends down from the heavens to the earth below.
It’s an interesting location for the Bible to conclude, isn’t it? Because cities in general come with a lot of problems. The more people you cram in them, the more issues you’re going to have. Resources can only go so far. Local governments and municipalities can only do so much. What makes the location of the Bible’s climactic conclusion even more curious is that, at the time Revelation was written, the Roman armies had descended on Jerusalem and reduced it to flames – eerily similar to Babylon’s devastation of the same city a mere 500 years before. Why would the Bible’s story finish here? Wouldn’t it make more sense to end where it began – in the garden before the fall? Why a city?
I bring this question up because I’m wondering if this question and the earlier question about finding faith in unimaginable tragedies are intertwined in a very intimate way. There’s a reason for where the culmination of God’s work in the world happens – and how it happens. Thousands of years earlier, the prophet Isaiah painted a scandalous picture in the latter chapters of his book: a wolf and a lamb feeding together; a lion eating straw like an ox. The writer of Revelation dares to announce a time when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. All of this sounds strange to our city ears.
There is something deeply evocative in the images from these two books; something that takes on a life of its own and moves beyond just being “inspiring reading.” They tell us unequivocally: something has changed. Things aren’t the way they used to be. This is a radical shift from the way our world operates, because it’s a commonly accepted fact that wolves and lambs don’t hang out together. Likewise, death and mourning are frequent companions in life. So something has changed! Something is new in this old world of ours, and we have an expression for a changed world. We call it the kingdom of God.
Except it’s different than the kingdom of God we typically think of. Most people hear that phrase and automatically think “heaven” – in fact, we like to use the two interchangeably. We hear someone say “kingdom of God” and we think of the afterlife, the place we go when we leave this earth. We hear someone say “kingdom of God” and we think of a white stone palace in the sky glistening with gold, angels with wings bearing the souls of those who have long left this earth, fluttering about.
But that’s not the kind of “kingdom of God” that Revelation talks about. This is a city that has come down from the heavens. This kingdom of God is earthbound, anchored in good ol’ terra firma. And in Isaiah’s vision, it’s not some mythical creatures living in peaceful harmony, but beasts of the earth on the earth. And every bit of this marks the culmination of God’s great work: an earth ruled not by the oppressive powers of the world but by the outlandish hope of God. When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was speaking about the possibilities that exist when we as God’s people follow Christ and live lives that reflect that following – even and especially when it is the hardest thing to do; even when we just don’t know whether our faith is going to give us any answers or not.
Like when we come face-to-face with those troubling questions the campus minister had to answer at 6am in the morning. On CNN live, nonetheless; the whole country watching. This is not what he expected to be doing just a few days before. This is not a burden he chose to bear. The burden came to him; it came to all of us as the morning sun began to rise over the city of Blacksburg, VA. The reporter asked, ‘What do you do with this as a person of faith? How do you put this horrific event in a spiritual context?’
This is what he said:
This tragedy has brought home to all of us the fact that evil is real and is not some concept. Evil came yesterday to Virginia Tech and sat down with us for a while. But our understanding of faith, and what the Bible tells us, is that evil won’t sit here forever. And that’s what will get us through times like this. That’s what gives us the hope we so desperately need right now.
Evil won’t sit here forever – I love that! It’s the voice of hope when all hope seems lost. It’s the voice of the one on the throne in Revelation as he looks out over the renewed city he had just created, straight from the heavens. It’s the voice of the prophet in the aftermath of Israel’s most turbulent time, as he describes how even the animals will be at peace. This is the hope we have as people of faith: that while the hardships we encounter, the unexplainable things, will certainly take place, they will not rule over us. They won’t sit with us forever.
And you know something? This isn’t “pie-in-the-sky” theology. This isn’t some quick fix that denies the seriousness of a broken world. This empowers us to look beyond the current state of the city to see the kingdom that will soon arrive. This is what Isaiah and the writer of Revelation had in mind when, in the midst of their loss, their suffering, their hopelessness, they put pen to paper and painted pictures of God’s great kingdom. For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the prophet says, ‘the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. The old is gone – all things new.’
And we should never loose sight of the fact that all of this takes place in a city. Places where people gather together, live together, work together, and play together. A place where, by its very design, people depend on each other for fellowship and the necessities of life. If the Biblical story begins in a garden with just two people, it has now come full circle to a beautiful renewed city, bustling with activity.
And what a gift – what a gift this city is! It’s a gift because it reminds us that God is forever with us, even in those dark times when we don’t always feel him there. I can’t help but think back to another tragedy this country endured, when planes were flown into buildings and thousands of lives were lost on a September morning. I remember the questions that emulated from that; good questions, serious questions: Where was God? Where was God when those planes hit the Twin Towers, when thousands of people died? And I remember hearing someone answer very sincerely and compassionately that God was, in fact, in those planes; God was in those towers. It wasn’t a flippant answer; it was an answer of deep faith. It was a simple acknowledgment that God is with us wherever we go, even and especially in the unimaginable places. As a good friend of mine once expressed in a moment of spiritual clarity, “Thanks be to God that God’s presence with us does not depend on whether we always feel it or not.”
The new city is also a gift because it give us a real and living hope in the midst of hopelessness. It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, almost forty years ago in the height of the civil rights struggle, who wrote this in his book The Trumpet of Conscience: If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. King recognized that it is a human need to grasp hold of something beyond us. Something outlandish and unordinary and real, no matter how out-of-reach it may seem. This is what drove God’s people to the city they loved; and this is what drove God to make that city new again.
Which leads us to the final gift of the city – an eternal reminder that God is always, always doing a new thing our midst. The God we worship every Sunday and follow every day is not a stagnant God; not a God that is into maintaining the status quo. Our God is a God who builds a world from nothing, frees a people from bondage, parts the water, fashions a new land. Our God defeats Goliaths, sets saturated alters aflame, speaks in still silence, travels with us to foreign lands. Our God is born in mangers, makes more wine for the wedding, turns over temple tables, rolls away gravestones. Our God never ceases to move in and among us in ways we cannot possibly imagine, including the gift of a new city that will be our home forever.
The city is where we belong – it is God’s gift to us. So let’s get busy bringing that city to fruition, shall we? Thanks be to God. AMEN.