Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27
John 16:23-33

And the city hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine upon it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the lamp thereof is the Lamb.

Sheldon Cooper, a character on the television show “The Big Bang Theory” has a list of ‘mortal enemies.’ We hear of the list several times, but in particular in reference to a character named Wil Wheaton. Wil plays a fictionalized representation of himself on the show, an actor who has starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a character named Wesley Crusher. When he was young, Sheldon went out of his way to attend a Star Trek convention just to get Wil Wheaton’s autograph, but Wil did not show up. We eventually learn that the mortal enemies list includes sixty one names, but it changes as people are removed or added. Sheldon even uses the threat of inclusion to get his way on occasion.

On a later episode, Wil Wheaton invites the guys to a party at his house. Sheldon, of course, refuses to go and is angry with his friends when they decide to attend. That is until Sheldon learns that another favorite actor is going to be at the party. When they arrive, Wil Wheaton makes a conciliatory gesture and gives Sheldon his last original mint-in-package Wesley Crusher action figure signed, “To Sheldon, sorry this took so long. Your friend, Wil Wheaton.” At that moment Wil Wheaton was taken off the list.

But a few moments later the other actor, Brent Spiner, takes the action figure, rips it open and starts to play with it. “I haven’t seen one of these in years.” Sheldon, of course, is mortified, and Brent Spiner is added to his list. Wil says, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t take up a whole lot of your time.”

Sheldon’s mortal enemies list is liquid, changing with his mood and the circumstances of the relationship. That’s typically human. We make our lists, we change our minds. We forgive and forget and remember again. We like people when they are nice to us and we do not like them when they have done something against us. Sheldon might be extreme with his list of ‘mortal enemies’ but don’t we all have a few people that we’d rather avoid? Don’t we all have former co-workers or family members or neighbors that we try to ignore because they’ve done something to hurt us? Even when they find a way to make it up to us, the relationship tends to be on shaky ground because we are afraid that they’ll hurt us again. We might forgive and try to love, but even the smallest thing can get them put back on our ‘list.’

Thankfully God is not like that. He knows that we are imperfect and that we will fail. He knows that despite the wonderful things He has done and will do for us, we will still fall into old habits and hurt him by hurting others. If we had to rely on a liquid relationship with God for entrance into heaven, we would be in trouble because we are constantly failing to live up to the expectations of our God. What would happen if we died when we were on God’s mortal enemies list? We would always be afraid that we’d die at the wrong moment, or that we’d not make it to heaven because of that one last sin we didn’t have time to correct.

So, when God puts our name in His book, it stays there. And His book is not negative, it is positive. It is a Book of Life, and in it is written the names of those whose relationship with the Father has been restored by the Son. It is not a literal book, like we see in the cartoons with St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Our names are written in God’s book when the cross is made on our forehead at our baptism. He knows us by that sign and we are welcome because of it. It can’t be washed away because we fail to live up to His expectations.

Don’t be fooled. God is not happy when we sin. Our failure hurts others and He is not glorified by our bad behavior. He writes our name in His book not only so that we’ll be welcomed through the gates of heaven, but so that we’ll live as if heaven is right where we dwell on this earth. We are called to faithful living so that the world will see Him and believe. We are sent to be like Christ in this world, to do God’s work while we can and to make His kingdom visible to the world.

Heaven on earth surely does not appear as it does in John’s vision. When we lived in England we saw many different kinds of castles. Our first visit was to a castle called Castle Rising. It is located in Norfolk, near the Wash, a water feature off the North Sea. I didn’t know what to expect when we visited this castle; my vision of castles comes from Disney and other movies. I was expecting turrets and whitewashed walls with lots of beautiful windows. What I saw as I walked over the earth works protecting the castle was a large stone box. The walls were thick, the windows tiny. There were no soaring cone-shaped towers or delicate flags flying overhead.

As we listen to the description of the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, I remember that moment when I saw Castle Rising. In the verses we do not read in this passage we learn that Jerusalem is 12,000 furlongs long, wide and high with walls 144 cubits thick. 12,000 furlongs is about 1400 miles and 144 cubits is about 250 feet. A city that size would cover a large portion of the United States and would reach well into the heavens, beyond even the International Space Station and many of our communication satellites. It is a great big box, although the stone is not the kind of rock used to build castles.

Beyond the scope of its size, the description of the city’s beauty is beyond our comprehension, too. What is gold that is transparent? Is the gate really a pearl? Are the foundations really made of precious gems? We have to understand that John was using human language to describe the indescribable, and while it might be fun to visualize what He saw, we are reminded that our idea of what this might look like is probably far from the reality. It is heaven, and though we try to make heaven into something that we understand and can imagine, it will be far more.

I think what’s important in this text is that God is the center of it all. It has no need of the sun or the moon, for He is the light and the Lamb is the lamp. It has no need of a Temple because He is the Temple. Everything that was used from the beginning of time to represent God has been done away with because He will be present with His creation once again. Even the heavenly lights are useless because the True Light will brighten our eternity. sun and moon and stars are just created objects anyway, as we see in the Creation story. Light existed in the beginning, but the stars, moon and sun were created on the fourth day. That Light is the Light that has always existed and will light the city forever.

We need not concern ourselves with the details of this holy city of the New Jerusalem because it is not written to be a literal understanding of Heaven. It was written to people who were being persecuted to remind them of God’s Kingdom. The numbers, the jewels, the gold streets are symbolic of the Kingdom which God has created on earth and which God will perfect in that Day. They saw their history, the promises of God and the practice of their faith in those words.

The twelves represent the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles. The jewels are reminders of the priestly garments worn by those who ministered to God. The pearls remind us of the suffering of Christ, as a pearl is only formed as an oyster tries to relieve itself of the pain of a grain of sand caught in its shell. This New Jerusalem will be a place where all people of faith, no matter the nation, will live in the presence of God for eternity. Our hope doesn’t rest in the value of the streets or foundations, but in the promise that we will be welcomed inside.

I have to admit that there are times when I read about the stories of the apostles and I’m a bit jealous. How did they know so easily that it was God calling them to do what they did? In today’s first lesson from Acts, Paul sees a vision in a dream of a man begging for him to go to Macedonia. Paul is certain this is a message from God, so he leaves Asia where he was doing the work of preaching and teaching the new Christians with a few companions. The journey takes him to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth and eventually back to Ephesus. Did he ever really meet the man in his vision? We don’t know, although some have suggested that Luke might have been the man, since he joined Paul during that journey since Luke seems to join Paul around Acts 16:10.

In this week’s story from the journey Paul spends time in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman city, a retirement spot for Roman legionnaires, with few Jews and Jewish believers. It was usually easy for the apostles to find the believers when they traveled to a new city because they went to the synagogue. But, the Jewish community at Philippi was not large enough; they did not even have the ten men which were required. On the Sabbath, Paul went searching by the river expecting to find believers. The Jews that lived in communities like Philippi often met by the river to pray and worship.

Was Paul constantly watching for verification that he was doing what God wanted him to do? Was he searching for the man in his vision? Was he trying to discern each step of the journey? He seemed so confident that they were going where God was leading. How could he be so sure? I often doubt the voices I hear and I do constantly watch for proof. “Is this really you, God?” I ask over and over again, so unsure that I’m doing what God wants me to do.

If Paul was unsure, it doesn't show. He didn’t meet the man during this stop; instead Paul met a group of women who were praying. We don’t know much about these women. Were they of Jewish heritage or were they proselyte? Where were the men of their community? When he arrived at the place of prayer Paul met Lydia, a woman of wealth because she sold purple cloth as her business. Luke tells us that she was a worshipper of God, which likely means she had faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

She listened to what Paul had to say and she believed. She was baptized and so was her whole household. We don’t know what happened with the other women. Did they believe? Were they baptized? We only hear the story of Lydia. I think this is interesting, especially since we spend so much time trying to build our numbers. We boast when we have a large number of people join our congregations. We triumph over a large number of baptisms. We are excited when we can claim double digit growth in our communities. But are we willing to risk the dangers that Paul faced when he followed that vision to a strange land for just one believer?

Maybe that’s why we don’t hear God’s voice as clearly as they did in those early days. We are afraid to take the risk, especially if the payout isn’t going to be worthwhile. And they did take risks. Paul was in Philippi when he was arrested for healing a servant girl of a demon. Would we be willing to spend time in prison if it meant the salvation of just one soul?

We do sin all the time, but our worst sin is that we don’t take the risk. We don’t follow the voice. We don’t go out into the world sharing the Gospel message with those who need to be forgiven and healed. We live as well as we can, obey the best we can and hope that it is enough. We trust that God is faithful, and know by faith that our names are written in the Book of Life and that He won’t erase it. But is that enough? Is it enough to live quietly, hidden from the dangers of faithful living? Perhaps the Book of Revelation doesn’t make sense to our generation because we aren’t willing to take a risk, so we do not see the message of hope that is in the vision and imagery.

Hope for tomorrow is certainly enough to give us the peace that Jesus promised, but we still live in this world. We do not live in paradise, or in the New Jerusalem. We live in a world filled with evil, shame, deceit—sin. Jesus never promised that faithful living in this world will be easy. We will suffer persecution, we will face illness. We will be separated from those we love through death of our physical bodies and our relationships. Bitterness, anger, hatred, fear, pain, confusion, uncertainty, doubt and apathy can destroy our lives. But in Christ we can be healed of all the dis-ease we suffer, whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual. The hope of faith is past, present and future.

The Psalm for this week is a song of praise for the world as God means it to be. “Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy; For thou wilt judge the peoples with equity, And govern the nations upon earth.” This is the heaven for which we hope, knowing that our own names are written in the Book of Life. It is not by our works or by our righteousness that we will be remembered, but by our faith in Jesus Christ.

The Psalm includes a word that is used more than seventy times in the psalms and a few times in a poetic portion of the book of Habakkuk. That word is “Selah.” It is not easy to identify the meaning of this word, though many would suggest it is simply a liturgical word in the midst of the psalm to direct the music—as in a rest or a stop in modern musical composition.

However, there are those who think this word actually suggests something much deeper than just a pause in the music, that it is also instructional to the singer and listeners. The word “Selah” is thought to mean something like “stop and listen” indicating that the words deserve some extra attention. Others take this meaning even further, suggesting that it is related to the Hebrew word that means “to measure.” With this understanding the listener and singer are given the command to do more than just listen, but to also consider or “measure” the words. In this way, the verse to which it refers should be heard and understood and applied to our lives. Listening is more than hearing; it is stopping to really listen to understand what is happening.

In this passage, the word “Selah” is used twice. The first is following a benediction. “God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us.” Stop and listen; measure these words and those that which comes after, “That thy way may be known upon earth, Thy salvation among nations.” God blesses us to be a blessing and the purpose of that blessing is so that the world knows His salvation. His blessings to us are not for our own good, but for the good of the world.

The second time comes with a directive to the people, that they—meaning all nations—be glad and sing for joy, for God’s mercy and judgment is given without favoritism. The blessings are not meant for one people, but for all people. God’s grace extends far beyond our borders, beyond our walls, beyond our opinions and biases. Selah. Stop and listen. Understand that God has created and redeemed the whole world and one day the whole world will sing His praise.

This is the will and purpose of God: He calls us to take the risk, to go out into the world and find those opportunities that He has prepared for us to share His Gospel. We don't need proof, just faith. God knows when and how it will happen. Thanks to the mark of Christ we have nothing to fear; our names are written in indelible ink in God’s Book of Life. We aren’t called to worry and doubt, but to believe. We don’t need proof, we just need faith. We are called to take one step at a time, sharing with one person at a time.

We don’t need to wait for the Heavenly Jerusalem to come because God’s Light already shines on us. We dwell in His glory now and will dwell with Him forever. We can believe in the indescribable as it has been written by John in Revelation because we know the end of the story. We already have a place in this incredible city. That hope is our foundation and it is even more beautiful than the jewels John uses to describe it. So let us dwell in this world as if the New Jerusalem has already come to us and share the Gospel so that others might see their names written in God’s wonderful Book of Life.

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