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      This sermon was given by the Rev. Lauren Peters at Swift Presbyterian Church on April 24. She was ordained April 3 as a teaching elder (minister) in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

      The Place Where God Is
      Revelation 21:1–6
      April 24, 2016

      Today’s reading comes from the book of Revelation, 21:1–6. Listen now for the Word of God:

      1Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” 
      for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
      and there was no longer any sea.

      2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem,
      coming down out of heaven from God,
      prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 

      3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
      “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.
      They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

      4He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
      There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain,
      for the old order of things has passed away.”

      5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
      Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

      6He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
      To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”

      This is the Word of the Lord.

      Thanks be to God.

      ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓

      HEAVEN.

      It is a place that we can only imagine.

      When I do a Google search, it’s amazing how repetitive the pictures are. There are clouds against a blue sky, with a light shining forward. Some pictures have a big gate in it.

      Some pictures have big staircases going up it. Maybe some rainbows, or a city in the distance.

      We can only imagine it because heaven is a place where only the saints who have gone before us know.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      But there is an eerie feeling to these pictures.

      Despite how beautiful the blue sky is or how fluffy the clouds are, I feel like these pictures have an emptiness to them. There is a void.

      The light shining through the hole in the sky is not of comfort to me.

      But for someone who deals with anxiety on a regular basis, the emptiness, the unknown, the mystery, leaves me feeling like “sure … I can stand up here at the pulpit all day and preach to everyone that there are better things for us after death.”

      But this image of a blank sky and a light is scary to me.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      My days are filled with conversations with my husband, going out with my friends, and interacting with congregation members here at Swift and college students through the campus ministry.

      While I enjoy a good afternoon of downtime, it usually involves reading a book in my hammock or watching Netflix in my bed — still interacting(ish) with a world outside myself.

      What do we do with this image of heaven? This image of emptiness?

      Our life full of milestones, regrets, accomplishments and failure — this blank sky is it?

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      I do wonder how this image became so common. Perhaps it’s because God is above our understanding and therefore we cannot depict God. So we’ll just leave this light here in God’s place.

      We just know that heaven is up in the clouds somewhere.

      Even though we know the universe is much more expansive now, we still hold onto the image that heaven is the same distance from the earth as the clouds — only a few miles away.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      In Revelation 21, John has a vision.

      There’s plenty of debate around whether Revelation is a book of prophecy, or a historical document used by persecuted Christians to speak to each other in code, or just some guy going crazy … it’s a mess to look through.

      But John’s vision in Chapter 21 brings about an image. An image of our destiny that provides the comfort that these other images of blank sky are missing for me.

      John explains that he sees a new heaven and a new earth.

      The earth we know now is gone. The heaven we know now is gone. And there is no longer any sea, which seems pretty terrifying.

      Going back to how I like the comforts of my home and my daily routine: The thought of everything I have known and also believed in to be gone….

      Well, here we go with that apocalyptic stuff that you hear in Revelation. The old earth gone — probably burned up in a fiery pit!

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      But we read on in Revelation 21:

      The Holy City comes down from heaven.

      And a voice says, “God’s dwelling place will be among the people. God will dwell with them.”

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      This makes the description of our final resting place very different from the pictures of the clouds that we are used to.

      Instead of us ascending to heaven, John paints a picture of heaven descending to earth.

      This vision keeps us from being lost in the vast unknown of heaven, and instead paints a portrait of a God so concerned with creation that God descends to dwell among us.

      To walk beside us; to be in relation with us.

      Heaven is not just a place where only I am in relationship with God.

      Heaven is a place where God is among us.

      A body.

      A community in which we are strung together by this Savior we know as Christ.

      According to John’s vision, heaven is a place where God is. With us.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      Heaven has been used as a place we can imagine to escape the hardships and trials of the human life that we live.

      Maybe this is an explanation for the portraits of blank sky.

      It’s a sign of peace and freedom from the busy lifestyles we live. It’s an escape.

      Heaven is a place where we can go to worship God and be reconnected with our loved ones that have gone before us.

      And it’s recently being described as a place where we can hear endless concerts from people like Prince and David Bowie.

      Sometimes it turns into hopes of endless buffets of our favorite food, or a place full of balls for our deceased dog.

      It’s a place where we can just feel joy.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      Here on earth we experience things like stress, disappointment, anger, hurt, loneliness, doubt, fear.

      ● We’re stressed that we can’t meet a deadline given by our boss or our teacher.

      ​ We’re disappointed that we caught our child lying to us — again.

      ​ We’re angered at the people who fail us over and over again and don’t even seem to care.

      ​ We’re hurt when verbal attacks are made at us in order that the person who made those attacks feel better than us.

      ​ We’re lonely after another day of no phone calls or text messages.

      ​ We doubt when we have been burned too many times, and putting up walls has become necessary.

      ​ We fear when our well-being is no longer a concern of other people.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      What do all these experiences have in common?

      We experience these things — stress, hurt, fear — because of other people. We have a desire to be in relationship with other people every day, but they are the same people who cause us pain. 

      People will always fail us.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      When John describes his image of the new heaven and the new earth, he talks about the Holy City, the new Jerusalem coming down. He describes heaven meeting earth as a city.

      A city is a place where people live together with dependence on one another.

      ​ We depend on the mailman to get us our communication.

      ​ We depend on the electrician to come fix our washing machine when it breaks.

      ​ We depend on one another to follow the road rules to keep us safe.

      In the new heaven and new earth, God is taking this incredible idea of humans depending on each other and eliminating all the flaws that come with it.

      There will no longer be tears, or pain, or death because God is making all things new.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      God is speaking everything into healing.

      God is speaking everyone into a relationship that was intended for creation in the first place. One where our relationships with each other are a form of worshipping God.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      The sea is no more.

      The sea, since the story of creation in the Bible, has been a symbol of chaos. It’s also a symbol of what keeps humans apart from one another physically — from having a relationship with one another.

      It’s easy to keep people who live on the other side of the sea over there. Keep your languages and cultures over there.

      The sea physically separates us. And the metaphorical sea of chaos separates us. The sea of hurt, anxiety, disappointment.

      But the sea is no longer in the new heaven and the new earth.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      So this heaven is not just filled with the things you like.

      It’s filled with your loved ones that have passed on … and maybe about 100 billion others who have come before us.

      You could be walking next to God with that lady who cut your bangs too short. Or that teacher that always gave you a hard time. Or that guy on the internet who always says stupid things that get you riled up. Or the friend that stabbed you in the back. Or that relative you decided to cut all ties with in the old world.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      You’ve got to realize now … heaven isn’t about you.

       It’s about God. 

      And John is saying that heaven is the place where God is with the people.

      God is dwelling with creation.

      This shows how passionately God desires the healing of all creation.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      I spend a lot of time on Facebook and the Internet, trying to keep up with all that’s going on in the world. And it’s a place that seems bleak often.

      Early yesterday morning a man pulled out a gun on an officer in Athens [Georgia] at a gas station where my brother was a few hours earlier. I watched the news clip of the guy being chased right outside the restaurant I worked at in high school.

      There’s another missing person on the news, and a rape, and a suicide.
      There are arguments over whether or not to boycott Target, or keep the face of confederate soldiers on Stone Mountain in Georgia, or who is horrible for supporting what politician.

      There are ugly, ugly things being said.

      People are “unfriending” other people on the Internet daily over this stuff.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      I have a friend from seminary who has probably been caught up in the same deep chaos that the rest of us have lately.

      She wrote a status that made me take a pause as I was scrolling through the lines and lines of hate toward one another:

      A reminder to myself.

      Quote: “We’re all just walking each other home.”

      Be kind to one another, y’all.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      What we are experiencing now is going to be the old earth. Look around you.

      These people are God’s people, too. They are God’s creation. They are walking through the chaos with you.

      To me, the fights, the struggle, the desire for power or to be “right” just seem arbitrary when you put it like this.

      We’re all just walking each other home.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      This vision painted by John in the book of Revelation is meant to give us hope.
      It’s meant as a message that this life here is not the end and that the end is nowhere near what our finite minds can fathom.

      ♦ ♦ ♦

      But now we’re back at our afterlife being the unknown — which was said before to be terrifying.

      We won’t know for sure until we are among the saints. But John says that we will be among all God’s people, God’s creation.

      There isn’t just an empty sky waiting for us. But billions of souls to be in community with.

      And most important, we know that the beginning and the end — the Alpha and the Omega — is God.

      The end — heaven — is the place where God is.

      Amen.

       

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                   —————
      23208 Swift Church Road
      Foley, AL 36535
      Phone: (251) 943-8367
      email: swiftpc@gulftel.com