I realize it may seem a bit unusual to preach from Revelation on Mother’s Day, but just stick with me and it will all make sense. I hope!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;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.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he 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 as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
So we come now to the conclusion of our mini-series on Revelation. (You can see the other sermons on this website.) And if that doesn’t satisfy your appetite, or more likely, put you to sleep, then two books I highly recommend on the topic are The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing and Revelations by Elaine Pagels. The “s” at the end of that title is significant because the last book of our Bible is “Revelation”, singular. Dr. Pagels compares John’s vision with other texts written in very similar circumstances. What is striking when we read Revelation together with these other texts is how almost “normal” John’s fantastic vision appears!
As a body of literature these texts give witness to the endurance of hope. Pagels writes, “In times of distress, driven beyond ordinary endurance, we may find ourselves asking how—or whether—we can survive.”[i] The revelation of John answers that question not just for those who suffered under the oppression of Rome at the end of the first century, but for countless people of faith in every century since. It is not the vision of the beasts of the apocalypse that grips us, but the vision of hope beyond hopes, of a new heaven and a new earth where death and suffering will be no more.
On this Mother’s Day I am struck by a such a story of hope told not by Elaine Pagels the Princeton professor of ancient Christian history, but Elaine Pagels the mother of a dying child. She tells that story in an earlier book, Beyond Belief, the story of the relationship between the gospel of John (which of course is in our New Testament) and the gospel of Thomas (which is not). This very scholarly book about the origins of Christian faith begins with a very personal story of Dr. Pagels rediscovery of her own faith.
It was early on a February Sunday many years ago that she found herself drawn to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. She did not intend to go there that morning, she was on her morning run, dressed as you can imagine for a runner in a t-shirt, sweats and running shoes. She thought the church would be a place where she could warm up on that cold February morning and catch her breath. Despite her fitness attire, she entered anyway. It was her first time back to church after a long absence. She says she was startled by her response to the service that she found there in progress. The soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation. The priest (a woman–something she never saw in her days growing up in the church) dressed in bright gold and white vestments, her clear, resident voice proclaiming the prayers of the people. And a voice said to Dr. Pagels: here is a family that knows how to face death.
She had gone for a run early that morning while her husband and her 2-and-a-half year-old son, Mark, slept because it had been a long sleepless night for her and she needed to clear her mind. Two days before, doctors informed her and her husband that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disorder that invariably led to death. “How long?”, they asked. “We don’t know”, they said, “a few months, perhaps a few years”.
She writes: “Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, and to acknowledge common needs and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I heard and felt the day before. I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there–and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement–my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.”[ii]
Dr. Pagels goes on from that very personal experience of a profound crisis to discuss the origins of Christians faith. Or more precisely, of the faith community. For part of her thesis is that community and faith emerged together in the first three centuries inseparable in a time of crisis. And it was precisely the creative ability, or we might say the spirit-led ability, of that early Christian community to relate to the gospel story and to Jesus in such a way that it became part of their own story, that it gave meaning and guidance to their own lives that sustained, nurtured, and enlarged their faith. Receiving baptism and gathering every week or even every day to share the Lord’s supper, those who participate weave the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection into their own lives.
So again, Pagels writes: “This, then, is what I dimly recognized as I stood in the doorway of the Church of the Heavenly Rest. The drama being played out there ‘spoke to my condition,’ as it has to millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while—paradoxically–nurturing hope. Four years later, when our son, then 6 years old, suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter, along with words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that seemed impassable.”[iii]
This is precisely the function and purpose of Revelation. It is the drama that speaks not so much to my condition or yours but to the world’s condition. Simultaneously acknowledging the reality of evil and the fear, the grief and the death it creates while also giving us hope. That the impassable will be bridged by God.
Another Mother’s Day story, this from the movie Forrest Gump, also a story about overcoming the crisis of death but a story that fills you with wonder, delight and hope. The main character, played by Tom Hanks, is what we used to call a ‘simpleton’. A person with very limited cognitive abilities. An IQ of 75. About that of your average preacher! One would think that such a person is doomed in life, lacking the necessary intelligence it takes in order to make it in this world. What hope was there for him? Rather than talk about it, let’s watch a short clip that catches the essence of the movie.
Over and over again the movie tells this story of Forrest Gump who finds himself in the national spotlight one way or another, and towards the end of the story he narrates that he went to the White House, ‘yet again!’, to meet the President, yet again!, like that’s really a dumb thing to have to do. And what strikes me in the movie is the role that his mother plays in it, portrayed by Sally Fields.
It’s not a big role in terms of the movie, but it’s a huge role in terms of Forrest Gump’s life. With those little pearls of wisdom from his mother guiding his life, “Life is like a box of chocolates;” “Stupid is as stupid does,” he manages to make it through. But it wasn’t just what she told him, it was the way she believed in him. How she insisted on the best for him, and how in the face of overwhelming odds against him she gave him what he needed to beat those odds. To rise up above them and to do the impossible.
So the Dalai Lama comes to town on Friday to give his address on “The Way to Peace” and what does he talk about? Mothers. Specifically, his own mother and the compassion he learned from her. Of course that is not all he talked about but it was striking how much time he devoted to something so basic, so fundamental to the human experience. World peace, he told us, begins with the “maximum affection” given by mothers to their children that they will develop a natural disposition of “warmheartedness.”
And that is my image of God. The mother who is the one who believes in us, who inspires us to do our best. Who is filled with compassion for her children, all her children. Who challenges us to beat the odds against us and enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible. And that’s precisely what Revelation does too.
It acknowledges that the world is stacked against us in so many ways. There are beasts, terrible beasts in this world that would destroy us, depicted in mythical form in Revelation but which appear in very real form in this world, everything from that single man who kidnapped three young women for his personal pleasure to the garment factory owners who put profit over the safety of their largely female workforce, killing over 1100 in the collapse of the poorly built factory.
And yet, John dares to claim, these beasts as horrendous as they are, are no match for the slain lamb, the symbol in Revelation for the self-giving love of Christ. It is through this love and nothing else, that God is victorious. A the Dalai Lama told us, prayer and spiritual discipline are important but action, deeds of compassion and love, is even more important.
As many of you many know, Revelation almost did not make it into our Bible. It was left out of some of the earliest collections of the scriptures and some of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation wanted to exclude it from their editions of the Bible. But it has been kept not because the church fathers and others thought that it predicted the future, but rather because they understood it was written for their time. And that’s why they kept it–for its vision of how things should be under God in stark contrast to how they were under Caesar is what gave them hope.
When John wrote, there was no temple. It was gone, destroyed by the Romans. Jerusalem lay in ruins. And think, then, how powerful this vision would have been to those people for whom that memory was so vivid and so recent of this “new Jerusalem” descending from God.
And what is especially remarkable in this vision is that this paradise is not achieved when we ascend to be united with God in heaven, but rather when God descends to be united on earth with us. That is paradise.
Note, too, that God’s dwelling place is neither the mountain nor the temple, but rather the city. And this is a challenging vision for us. For all the nature lovers that find God out in the wilderness, the forest and mountains, etc, and for the keepers of religious institutions who want to put God in buildings, and erect these wonderful, glorious places as holy sites to God. And it’s not that God cannot be found in the mountains, cannot be found in temples, but rather that the home of God is with the people.
Thus, in the city, not the temple nor nature, is God’s dwelling place. And if God’s home is to be here with us, then that can only mean that we are part of God’s family. That all who follow this way that we have called “Lamb Power”, the way of the slain lamb, are our brothers and sisters, children of God, our mother and father.
This is not just a trite saying, to say that we are all part of God’s family. It’s not something simplistic, even if it may be simple. Because the social divisions in both ancient Palestine and the Roman Empire were incredibly deep and strong. And when the early Christian community rejected those time-honored distinctions, separations, and divisions between slave and free, between male and female, between aristocrat and peasant, between black and white, between citizens and foreigners, it was seen as a challenge to the very structure that held the fabric of society together.
And I will dare say that it is still such today. The church was and is in effect creating a new world order, based not on birth or wealth or education or economic status or marital status or tradition or language or any of those other traditional standards by which we structure our world. It is rather built on the ethic of love.
Again the message of the Dalai Lama was that there are no differences that divide us which are greater than the humanity which unites us. When we can see one another with eyes of compassion, as seen by a loving mother or father, then we do not see Christian or Buddhist, Hindu or Jew, black or white, gay or straight, immigrant or native, rich or poor—we see only a brother or sister of the one human family.
And that love is the love of Christ. It is the love of Lamb Power. It is the love that we find with God dwelling in our midst. And it is that love that found, or dare we even say, that saved Dr. Pagels. Not her knowledge from her work achieving her PhD. Not all of that studying of the ancient writing. Not all of her teachings and writing. But the love of God.
She said it was Christmas Eve, many years later after that first visit to the Church of Heavenly Rest, she went to the midnight service with her second child, Sarah. She had first carried Sarah as an infant to the church. And there, she says, her infant daughter would raise her head to listen intently to the singing cascading down from the choir loft. Sarah joined the choir at the age of 8, because, she said, “the music helped my heart.” That’s why we love it when the children sing for us, because it helps our hearts, doesn’t it?
And now they came together at the age of 16, on this Christmas Eve, to a full church where the only seats they could find were on the stone steps behind the lectern. Dr. Pagels said that she had always loved this service as a child and had come to love it again as an adult after the birth of her three children. But after her son’s death, it was difficult. This year, however, she said, this year she found herself “wholeheartedly singing the carols and listening to the stories of the child born in Bethlehem, angels breaking through darkness to announce the miraculous birth–stories that most New Testament scholars, knowing that we have little or no historical information about Jesus’ birth, regard as a mixture of legend and midrash, …. “
“On that night,” writes Pagels, “my own associations with those stories seem to be embraced with the joy and solemnity of the festival, laced, as it is, with the intimations of Jesus’ impending death as well as the promise of his continuing radiant present. Attending to the sounds and the silence, the candlelight and darkness, I felt the celebration take us in and break over us like the sea. When it receded, it left me no longer clinging to the particular moments in the past but born upon waves of love and gratitude that moved me toward Sarah, toward the whole community gathered there at home, or everywhere, the dead and the living.”[iv]
This is John’s vision of the new Jerusalem. The promise of Jesus’ continuing radiant presence and God’s everlasting parental love. It is a vision of the whole community, the dead and the living, at home with God. It is a vision that beckons us, that calls to us, that urges us to sing with angels, and to join in the story to make it our story, our family, our hope.
Because it is our God who dwells here, with us. Thanks be to God.
[i] Elaine Pagels, Revelations: visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation. Viking: New York, 2012. p. 73.
[ii] _______ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Random House: New York, 2003. pp. 4f.
[iii] ibid. pp. 26f.
[iv] ibid. p. 144.