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Sunday, December 28, 2014

With Us Until the End (Revelation 21.1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - December 28, 2014
Text: Revelation 21:1-6

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH)
Song of Praise: "I'll Fly Away"
Offering Hymn: "Great is thy Faithfulness" Song of Sending: "Soon and Very Soon"
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose. 

Today we come to the end of a series on God’s presence with us, embodied in the person of Jesus and the name, Emmanuel. Over the weeks we have seen God’s present manifested in the Garden, in the moving Tabernacle, in the fixed Temple, in the Exile, in the Holy Spirit, and in the person of Jesus. We have seen God’s faithfulness in “dwelling with us” as a covenantal God – a God who keeps His promise throughout all of history. We’ve also seen the role of God’s Word and our obedience in experiencing God’s presence. And we’ve heard the angel’s invitation to the shepherds and to all the world to “come and see” what God has done in Christ.

So today, we jump to the end, to these magnificent verses at the end of the Bible. It is the end, but it is also a new beginning – there is a new heaven and a new earth.  God is still with us and this particular language calls to mind the covenant of old and the whole scope of God’s story. I want to walk through these verses with you and be reminded of what God has done, is doing, and will complete.

Covenant Promise (v. 3)

“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them…” (v. 3)

You’d think you were reading something from Genesis, because God said those same words to Abraham, later to his children and grand-children, and then later to King David; even later, God said as much to the world through Jesus and the New Covenant: “I am with you; I will be your God and you will be my people.”

That’s the core of God’s covenant pledge to humanity and it has never been conditional on our goodness or faithfulness, but has been anchored in God’s goodness and faithfulness. And that is Good News!

Tangible God (v. 4a)

I love the verse that comes next! You have probably heard it spoken at funerals. And it is comforting; but what I love most about it is that God is no longer invisible, un-touchable deity. Indeed, in Christ, God truly came near for a time. Now God is with us for good. And the imagery is so near and tangible:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” (v. 4a)

What a tender and intimate thing. In a book where God is victorious warrior and mighty Deity, it is especially meaningful to be reminded of God as the compassionate Father Jesus spoke of so often. And in a world where we do still weep tears and suffer loss, this picture of comfort is especially meaningful and a reminder that God’s comfort and help were also a part of His covenant presence, captured often in words like, “Do not fear; do not be afraid.” That picture of God’s comforting presence leads right into the next part, which is where God’s justice and peace are finally complete.

All Things New (v. 4b)

“…and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (v. 4)

And not only is God present and tangible; God is re-creating everything. The first things – or what we thought were the first things… sin, sickness, sorrow, and death – they have passed away. Death has died! Like “D-Day” on the beaches of Normandy, Jesus signaled the beginning of the end; now, in the scene in Revelation, the long night is over and with the speaker shifting to the one who sits on the throne, God declares:

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (v. 5)

And yet, this is not a shiny, new disconnected reality, but one related to what we have known. I surely can’t explain all the ins and outs of that – I don’t understand it. But I do know that Jesus modeled that in his own death and resurrection. His body and the sin he took upon himself died and God raised him to this new life as a glimpse of what would one day be for us. And Jesus was different, but his friends recognized him. He still bore the scars of his crucifixion. We will recognize “all things new” but God’s justice, healing, and rightness will be brought to bear in a way that is like creation all over again – a new “making.”

Day is Done (vv. 5b-6a)

“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. (vv. 5b-6a)

The only break between “I am making all things new” and “it is done” is a pause to tell John to write this down, these words that are “faithful and true.” Yet even here in a vision of the end, the covenant is in view, with the parties of God and creation, the pledge of God’s faithfulness, the witness of John (and all of us reading the words), and the blessings that follow.

Then, with words echoing the “it is finished” from the cross, we hear a strong reminder that God has been with us from beginning to end. Not only has God been there, God is Himself the beginning and end, the A to Z, creator of time and maker of history. And for such a One to declare, “It is done,” is significant indeed.

And as a brief excursion since I raised the topic, the difference between “It is finished” and “It is done” is the nature of what each describes. I take Jesus’ words on the cross to be describing his act of obedience sacrifice, which was finished with his death. Indeed far more was in view, and I’ve noted that it was the beginning of the end, but I think he was specifically describing the ordeal and it’s completion. “It is done” has the whole scope of redeeming fallen creation in view… the making new of all things. And finally, with that redemption and re-creation accomplished, and from the perspective of the one fully present from beginning to end, it makes sense to say, “It is done.”

From the Tree to the Stream (v. 6b)

“I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.” (v. 6b)

In the last part of these verses, we hear some of the blessings of God’s presence in the new creation. And it calls to mind at least two reference points. One is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; now in the new creation – understood even as a new Garden – there is a Spring of Life. And then I am reminded of Jesus’ own teaching, particularly in John 4 and 7, where he offers those who thirst “water of life” and also claims to BE the “water of life.” Though much of Revelation gives us images to try to understand what is mystery to us, it seems entirely likely that Jesus himself is the reference point in this description of the new creation. He who once said, “Come to me, all who are thirsty” is now the eternal source of life, given freely and graciously.

One Year Ends, a New One Begins

As a take-away exercise, I’d like to suggest the following. This series and today’s text have reminded us of God’s faithful presence and provision – past, present, and future. And we’ve paused along the way this past month to ask questions like, “Where have you experienced God?” and “How can you be a part of what God is doing in and around you?”

As we conclude one year and are about to start a new one, I’d challenge you to do what many of us often do at such a transition: pause to remember the year past and pause to consider the year ahead. But let me frame that exercise in terms of the Emmanuel promise we’ve been studying.

As you think back on 2014, with all its highs and lows, pause to consider where God showed up. If scripture is right, God was and is present with us in highs and lows. Unfortunately we are often tuned out, but I believe that in remembering and looking back sometimes we will see God in ways we did not at the time. And as you remember, consider how you experienced some of the aspects of God’s presence that we’ve studied: God’s faithfulness, God’s comfort, opportunities for spiritual obedience that were taken or not, God’s gracious forgiveness even when we didn’t listen or follow, and where God might be inviting you to obey and follow moving forward.

As you think ahead to 2015, with the past year in view and God’s promises of presence in mind and heart, consider where God might be leading you; consider what it means to listen and follow in the various areas of life and action that you know are coming and those you don’t. Take some time to ask again, “God, what are you doing in and around me and how can I be a part?”

And may you come to know God’s blessing and presence in the coming year. Amen!

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