The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Sermon: “And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.”
This text from this morning’s lesson from the end of the Revelation to John reminds us of Jesus’ temptations. There the Spirit, according to Matthew, drops Jesus off into the hands of Satan who takes him to a high mountain and shows him all the “kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” and says they’re all his if he will just fall down and worship him. Jesus doesn’t fall for it, and moves into his ministry which leads to his death and eventual resurrection.
This was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and now we’re near the end. On Thursday of this 6th week in the Easter Season, we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, the day Jesus returns to his family of origin and assumes his rightful place at God’s right hand. But what Jesus did between the time of temptation and the ascension changed everything for all time. Between these two points, Jesus has revealed what we humans do and how God chooses to respond. God’s response is forgiveness so powerful it can change and soften our hearts.
I want to tell you a story about darkness. Leah is in the Peace Corp in Mozambique. She was on vacation between semesters at the rural school where she teaches. She and her housemate were hitch hiking from the Mozambican coast as is the norm there. An ambulance stopped to pick them up, their third ride heading home.
Ambulances in Mozambique are pickup trucks with a thin sheet of plastic lining the bed. Leah assumed the ambulance was returning home after a run but discovered they were actually heading toward the hospital. A little boy and his worried father were in the back. The little boy had been hit by a car and was badly hurt. He was taking fluid from an IV and it was leaking. The nurse in the cab of the vehicle paid no attention. At every little town the driver stopped to buy peanuts and a soda.
Instead of taking the child to the hospital as quickly as he could, the driver seemed more interested in making a few extra bucks by picking up extra passengers. The boy was from a very rural area and could not even speak Portuguese, the national language, so he didn’t count as much as other humans. Eventually the IV dripped out and the little boy slumped into sleep or unconsciousness. Neither the driver nor the nurse seemed to care. When it was time for Leah and her friend to exit the “ambulance” for the next leg of their journey, the driver asked them for fare money even though they had indicated from the beginning that they weren’t intending to pay a fare. When Leah expressed anger for how the injured boy had been treated and refused to pay, the driver said “Then give your money to the father and his little boy and I will take it from them at the end of this ambulance ride.” Leah and her friend walked away in profound disgust and sorrow.
This sad, dark experience showed Leah what we humans do to each other. She had witnessed the crucifixion and it had deeply disturbed her. It’s a problem that’s not unique to Mozambique but permeates our American society and our own hearts as well. Yet, until we feel the human problem, we aren’t open to God’s radical response in Jesus.
This dark way of hardness and disregard for humans and creation is the much vaunted way that Satan envisions for the world, and Jesus refuses it. It’s a vision very different from that of the “holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” A vision of fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the new city we mustn’t forget as we see the tragedies of “this present age.” The Book of Revelation, written in the midst of such disregard for human life, was written to give us courage, to help us hang on and not give up.
In John’s vision, Satan plays no part whatsoever in this high mountain experience. There’s no lie, no deception, no manipulation and no test hidden in the image. It comes from God and therefore is pure and full of truth. To boost our flagging spirits, let’s spend a little time seeing through John the Seer’s eyes.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The temple was a place where animals and birds and grain were sacrificed to God. At one time humans had been sacrificed there, too, but the Jews had gotten beyond that. Humans made such sacrifices because they thought the gods, or God was angry and vindictive like they were, so they believed that if they didn’t sacrifice, bad things would happen to them and God would get them. Actually this whole business had nothing to do with God. Instead it was our terrible human way of trying to keep the peace between us after we’d rejected God as our leader. We siphon our negative energy away from ourselves and focus it on some poor soul or group we think we can do without, and that’s how we “keep the peace.” That’s the back story to the little boy in the pickup truck ambulance.
But now we see the New Jerusalem and there’s no temple in the city. It’s not needed, never was for that matter, because the center of the community is the Light of the glory of God and the Lamb.
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” This isn’t just beautiful rhetoric. The light of the glory of God is so radiant in the city that we don’t need sun or moon. There’s no shadow, no darkness, nothing hidden and nothing that can hurt or destroy. And the vision shows us the source of the light is the Lamb! The Forgiving Victim is the Lamb from which light emanates. The Lamb sacrificed to our violence glows with the energy of love and forgiveness. That energy is the very essence of God’s glory!
“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” The image doesn’t depict nations being destroyed and kings wiped out. Rather it pictures the nations and their rulers being drawn into this light. There’s no end time Armageddon War. The light has subverted the darkness and suffused it from within. Even kings find themselves cooperating with it and relinquishing their power to its glory. The nations will walk in a new light.
This is an image of hope and instructs us to continue to bring gentleness, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion into our everyday lives. Wherever we see these values at work, whether in government, in business, family relations, church, or world events, join forces with them. Support those cultural expressions that encourage openness, and stand with those institutions that promote the creation of art and music and events that add beauty, love and cooperation into our world. This is the coming light.
“Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” Here there’s no division between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” Her gates will never be shut. The injured little boy on the way to the hospital is just as important as the driver and the nurse.
“But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” What will not be allowed in this new kingdom, in this New Jerusalem coming down from heaven? We’ve said it’s open to all, so it can’t exclude people. It’s gates are never closed. So, what’s unclean and to be excluded? Well, all desires and motivations driven from a sense of rivalry, envy, jealousy and greed that destroys peace, even the hidden stuff that we disguise from ourselves. This includes all ambition that’s over-against the good of all and therefore at odds with God’s will.
“But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood,” Well, I had a shower before church this morning, and I’m pretty sure I’m not an abomination, but I’m not so sure about the falsehood. But then again, I’m not that sure of the “abomination” part either when I consider what’s been done in my name and through the use of my taxes. What’s going to become of me?
Maybe those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life get in by grace and grace alone. I sure hope so. Jesus called living in this kind of grateful awareness the “Kingdom of God”, or the “Kingdom of Heaven”. John the Seer called it the New Jerusalem. We’re not there yet, but its coming. Can you see it?!
May 5, 2013 Sermon by
Rev. Tom and Rev. Laura Truby