Drink Deep - youll need it!
A sermon on Revelation 21: 1-6 by Nathan Nettleton, 13 May 2001
In our worship we drink in the vision of heaven and earth made one so that our yearning might be fuelled; strengthening us against despair and empowering us to strive for the renewal of the world.
One of the complaints people sometimes make about Christian worship is that it is utopian and out of touch with the real world; that it is fantasy land stuff, a pretence that somehow the world is different from what we know it to be from our everyday experience. In the real world, things are a mess. People get ripped off and abused. Workers make running shoes in sweatshops for a pay they cant feed their families on. Families seeking refuge from violence and oppression are locked up like criminals by so-called enlightened nations like ours. Children are sold into prostitution. Ordinary people despair of being able to make a difference and try to build their own little fortified suburban oases to protect themselves from the horror of it all. Thats the real world.
But in worship, we paint a picture of a world where God is in control and holds the whole creation in loving hands. We pray and sing as though we were gathered around the throne of heaven and every creature was united in praise of one God. We wax lyrical about the reconciliation of heaven and earth, while outside our doors, the yawning chasm this side of reconciliation is a plague in the lives of most families, people groups, and nations. So what are we doing? The charge is not without basis and deserves an answer.
Tonights reading from the Revelation to John is one of the all-time classic articulations of this allegedly out-of-touch utopian vision. John describes a vision of heaven and earth revamped and reconstructed. The contrast between the two is gone. A new holy city comes down from heaven to replace the old decayed one. The arrival of this city is depicted like a bride coming down the aisle. This is the marriage of heaven and earth. Heaven and earth become one flesh. No longer are they two, but one. The spiritual and material worlds are no longer separated and at war with one another - the reconciliation is complete. There will be no more death or pain or grief and every tear will be wiped away. And Christ speaks out about this vision saying, It is done! I am the whole story, from the beginning to the end. Or in other worlds, there is nothing in the story of the world that is not contained within the frame of Christs mission.
Set that vision alongside the struggles most ordinary people will continue to face when they wake up tomorrow morning, and you can understand why some people say weve got our head in the clouds. Perhaps even more so if you remember what I said a few weeks back, that the best place to hear and makes sense of the book of Revelation is in worship. It is written from, of, and for the worshipping community. So are we just kidding ourselves? Is tonights gathering just a bit of escapist fantasy that ignores the realities of life? Or is there something going on that those criticising from outside are not comprehending?
One of the things that it is always important to remember when looking at the book of Revelation is that it was written from inside something akin to an isolated detention centre. It was written by and for people whose experience of suffering and persecution was right in your face, not that of the detached social observer. When they spoke of death and pain and grief and tears becoming obsolete, they knew exactly what death and pain and grief and tears they were talking about. They are not expressing a vague generalised vision of utopia, but a real passionate and even desperate hunger for liberation and a new life. With that in mind, it becomes apparent that it is not an escape from reality, but rather a protest against the present realities and an assertion that change is not only possible, but on the horizon. We are all familiar with the sort of whingeing protest that rails against the present circumstances but offers no vision of what ought to be. The Revelation is almost the opposite: it trumpets the vision of what might be because the ugliness of what presently is is so in-your-face that it needs no further comment.
I dont know how many of you saw the Leunig cartoon in yesterdays Age. It was all about yearning, and it defined yearning as a well tended hope which has ripened slowly into a sweet, sensuous prayer. Our gatherings for worship might then be described as the communal nurturing of that hope and praying of that sweet, sensuous prayer. And this is not the passive act of a people who are to timid or compliant to tackle the problems. Rather it is the necessary life-blood of a people who know that if they do battle with the beast without continuing to nourish the vision, they will eventually succumb to bitterness and despair. How many of those who marched in protest against the system in their youth are now, in mid-life, simply resigned to its dominance and protecting their slice of its cynical fruits?
In the last line of the reading, we heard the risen Christ saying, To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Even in that, you can hear that this vision is not about a denial of reality, but a yearning for a new reality. It is not pretending that there is no thirst now, but it is pointing to the ultimate thirst-quencher. When we gather here in worship, and proclaim these visions of a new heaven and a new earth, reconciled to one another; we are drinking from the spring to sustain us as we continue to do battle with the beast who presently tears spirit from flesh. We gather to drink deeply from the spring so that in the struggle we might not run dry and succumb to despair and disillusionment. We drink deeply so our hope might continue to hold firm and keep us vigilant. We drink deeply so that we might have the strength to keep on creating pockets of resistance; places and people and communities who are dancing to the new tune - the wedding music that heralds the marriage of heaven and earth. We lean into the vision for which we yearn, so that we might nurture the passion and courage to go on striving in our working, our living, and our praying to bring it into reality, starting with ourselves, but one day encompassing the whole earth.
So lets drink deeply. Well need it! Lets drink deeply of the vision of the new creation as we continue to pray it into existence, so that might go out from here to live it into existence. Ill get out of the way now, so that we might go on drinking it in.