Monday, June 06, 2016

All Things New

All Things New
Revelation 21:1-6[1]
It doesn’t take much life experience for us to encounter the phrase, “that’s just the way it is.” Most of us probably heard it first as young children. It was a lesson that we don’t always get our way because “that’s just the way it is.” It’s a lesson that gets reinforced in a variety of ways throughout our lives. There are some things we simply have no control over. If we try to force our own wishes onto those aspects of life, we find ourselves beating our heads against the proverbial wall. So we reach the conclusion that the wise approach is to accept that there’s no point in fighting or resisting, because “that’s just the way it is.”
There can be some wisdom in that approach. There truly are some aspects of our lives over which we have no control, and trying to force them to fit our expectations only winds up being an exercise in futility. And if we keep trying to make these aspects of life conform to our wishes, we learn the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! But the problem with this kind of outlook is that if we’re not careful, we can go through our whole lives with a kind of resignation that can lead us to give up altogether. “That’s just the way it is” can become a counsel of despair and hopelessness if we let it dominate our outlook on life.[2]
I think the Christians to whom the Book of Revelation was originally addressed very likely had plenty of opportunities to believe in “that’s just the way it is.” Many of them were slaves who had no chance of a better life. All of them lived in a world where the Roman Empire had the first word, the last word, and all the words in between! Anyone who marched to a different tune could find themselves facing a great deal of opposition, if not outright ostracism. Anyone who actively resisted found themselves brutally crushed under the heels of the Roman legions. There were a lot of reasons for those First-Century believers to think “that’s just the way it is.”
As I’ve been discussing the lessons from Revelation during the season of Easter, I hope it has become apparent that one of the reasons the book was written was to create hope for those who felt hopeless. It was written to help those who could see only more of the same oppression and humiliation at the hands of the “powers that be.”[3] As I’ve said before, at the heart of the book is the message that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s rule is the true reality in this world. One of the most important ways Revelation kindles hope is by focusing on God as the Creator of all things. The idea is that the God who is powerful enough to create all the heavens and the earth is powerful enough to change “the way it is.” We can trust the God who created all things in the beginning to make all things new in the end.
And so in our lesson for today, the vision of Revelation begins to come full circle, so to speak. John sees the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth” fulfilled (Rev. 21:1). And in this vision of God’s new creation, there’s no more room for “that’s just the way it is.” In fact, the promise of this passage is that God himself comes to dwell with all his peoples in order to see to it personally that all things are set right.[4] And in this passage, the Scripture describes that process by saying, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). In other words, God himself comes among the human family to set aside once and for all “the way it is.”[5]
One striking feature of the book of Revelation is that while there are all kinds of voices that speak, God speaks directly only twice. The first time God speaks, he says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8). We’ve already seen that this is a kind of promise that just as God’s rule had the first word at creation, so will his rule have the last word in the end.[6] In our lesson for today, God speaks directly again, saying “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).[7] What may not be readily apparent is that the Greek word translated “all things” was used to refer to the entire cosmos. For that reason, I like the translation of the New Jerusalem Bible: “Look, I am making the whole of creation new.” The idea is that God is fulfilling the promise implied in his first word in Revelation: now he is renewing all creation according to his gracious rule.[8] And in case there’s any doubt about whether he is willing or able to actually make good on that, he adds, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Most of us have had our share of reminders that our world works according to “the way it is.” Some of us have had more than our share. One of the most important reasons for us to hear the message of Revelation is because it does not leave us stuck in a life of “that’s just the way it is.” Revelation is not naïve about the fact that we face certain realities in this world, realities that can be oppressive and humiliating and painful. And there are times when those realities can leave us feeling defeated. But Revelation will not leave us there because it insists that there is more to what God is doing in this world and in our lives. God is working to fulfill promises that will change everything. Promises like “I will wipe away every tear” (cf. Isa. 25:8), and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least” (cf. Jer. 31:34), and “all will be made alive in Christ,” (1 Cor. 15:22), and “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Our God is working at nothing less than making all things new!

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/24/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93, where he says, “without hope faith crumbles, and reason becomes cynical and unreasonable.” cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26, where he discusses at length “The Sin of Despair.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 38; he defines “the powers that be” as “the unjust structures in political and economic life which despoil life and disseminate death.”   Cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39, where he calls them “the Domination System.”
[4] Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 798: “Revelation can use the singular for God’s people collectively (Rev. 18:4), but they come from many peoples (5:9; 7:9); the context pictures the redemption of many nations (21:24, 26; 22:2; cf. Isa 25:6; 56:7; Ps 47:8). “Peoples” is synonymous with “humankind” in 21:3a ….”
[5] This should not be assumed to imply a destruction of the present creation. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 265: “the new creation presupposes the old one; it is the new creation of all things. ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (21:5) means that nothing passes away or is lost, but that everything is brought back again in new form.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 220: “the one who does not quench a smoking wick or break a bruised reed (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20) does not junk the cosmos and start anew—he renews the old and brings it to fulfillment. … God does not make “all new things,” but “all things new” (21:5). Cf. further Koester, Revelation, 795: “Revelation refers to the final defeat and judgment of the wicked by fire (Rev. 17:16; 19:20; 20:9-10, 14), but not to a final end of the world. … The book focuses on the destruction of earth’s destroyers (11:18), not on the destruction of the earth itself.” He continues by pointing out (ibid., 803) that “Interpreters often ask whether the new creation is a renewal of the first one … or a replacement of it … . But these categories are inadequate. On the one hand, there is a clear discontinuity between the first heaven and earth that pass away and the new heaven and earth that appear. The new is not a natural outgrowth of the old; it comes from God’s act of new creation. On the other hand, there is also continuity, in that people who live in the present creation have a future in the new creation.”
[6] Cf. G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, 266, where he says that if the “end” in Revelation seems less than final it is because, “The end is not an event, but a person.” Cf. also Boring, Revelation, 215: “Shining through the varied pictures of ‘what it will be like’ is the conviction that John shares with Paul that at the end of the historical road God will be ‘all in all’ (… 1 Cor. 15:28). … God himself is the eschatological reality who embraces all things.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 807: “The book reveals what ‘the end’ is by revealing who God is. … The flow of the visions discloses the character of God, who makes all things new (21:5).” Cf. further Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27: “God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.”
[7] Cf. Koester, Revelation, 806: “Finally, God speaks in what is often considered the rhetorical climax of the book (21:5; … ). Although John understands his entire text to be a revelation from with [sic] God (1:1), God rarely speaks directly. … God clearly spoke in the introduction, where he said, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’ (1:8). Now he speaks again in similar words so that his speech frames the book.”
[8] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 192: “God had never abdicated his kingship, nor had he been dethroned despite the pretensions of earthly claims to sovereignty. Yet usurpers had falsely operated in this world as though they were its rightful lords. The eschatological events now beginning only disclose what had always been the case: God alone is the true sovereign of the world.”

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