Topic: Biblical Verse: Revelation 21:1–21:7
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
A few weeks ago (as an excellent birthday gift), my wife took me out to Colorado for a snowboarding trip. It had been a few years since I’d been out on my board, so I thought I’d take it easy the first afternoon that we got up to the mountains. The ski area at which we stayed had a high-speed gondola system to take you up from the base of the slope, so I gladly rode it to the summit to skip riding – and dismounting from – the regular ski lift. Once I got off the gondola and strapped on my board and gloves, I skated over to an easier mid-level run and took off. I figured just a few laid-back runs coming down the slopes would help to dust off my rusty skills and prepare me for the rest of the week in the mountains. It turns out that I failed to consider readjusting my boots after several years’ disuse, and that I’d stopped wearing wrist guards under my gloves for a reason. So as I’m going down the hill, picking up speed and getting into my turns while adjusting my gloves and feeling like my footing is off, I’m abruptly reminded of one of the first lessons I learned when I started to snowboard: how to fall. While that fall wasn’t any big deal, when I pushed myself up off the snow I felt a little defeated – fifteen years after I started boarding, I made a rookie mistake and ended up on my backside. When people ask me what it’s like to learn to snowboard, I share something that I’d heard a while ago: skiing can be easy to pick up and start doing, but it gets progressively harder to progress your skills as go. Snowboarding, on the other hand, it hard to get at first, but it’s easier to improve over time. When you start out, you’ve just got to realize that you’ve going to be falling – a lot. With all that falling, it makes sense that people would give up and try something else. But as I got back up on that first afternoon of getting reacquainted my gear and the sport, I could look ahead to the days ahead knowing that they’d be better. And they were! I enjoyed the blessing of a fantastic vacation and easygoing time with my wife – and more than a few sore muscles after coming down the mountain each day.
How much of your life is spent flying along, only to do something – or not do something – that trips you up? It can feel like you get thrown to the ground, sometimes so hard that it feels like the wind’s been knocked out of your lungs. But like good Protestants with that fabled “work ethic,” most of the time you get back up to try again. You hope to get better, to do – or not do – whatever it is the right way. You can work harder, work smarter, work faster, and you might even succeed. But what happens when you don’t? You might keep on working and working to improve, but you’ll never reach the point of perfection. Even if you’re not striving for perfection, if complacency – doing just enough to get by – is good enough for you, what’s the point? Either way, there will be times when you fall short, when you fail.
Experiencing failure, the inability to overcome a challenge, to rise above, to ascend to a higher level, can leave you feeling disappointed and defeated. Despite your best efforts, what you can do might never be enough. That’s a fundamental problem of the world in which we live – we’re never able to reach up to achieve perfection. You can see it on the global stage, where war and conflict rage as they have for century after century as people fight with one another for resources, recognition, and revenge. Hunger continues both around the world and here in our country as adults and children suffer under poverty and neglect. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how many new initiatives we’ve tried, the problem remains.
We live in a corrupted world. The age-old troubles abide – they dwell with us. We see the same problems again and again. We experience grief, feel hurt and pain, and know death. People face these reminders of a broken world day after day. All of these are seemingly woven into the order of reality, all across our planet. That’s the effect of sin, our personal sin and the curse of sin that fell on creation when Adam and Eve reached up to ascend and be like God. So when does it get better? When will these problems ever end? Take a look at our text from Revelation today and see their end.
As John glimpses in his vision of the Lord’s ultimate overthrow of sin and Satan at the end of time, the new Jerusalem, representing the new Creation, descends from above. God comes down to dwell with His people. He comes down to dwell with us. We’ve seen it before: the Son of God took on our flesh to be one of us, knowing the grief, hurt, and pain that we know, even taking on death for us – and then won victory over them all for us on the cross. In the new Creation that God will bring into being, we will know a world that has been freed from the corruption of sin as our Lord puts an end to the problem of sin and its consequences once and for all.
God coming down to bring salvation is a perspective unique to Christianity. Every other religion asserts that you need to ascend, to work harder or do better to your standing before God or the universe, or even to become like God yourself. If you were to follow a certain set of rules for living, practices, ethics, etc., perfectly, you could make things right. All the weight is on your shoulders. The Christian faith, however, recognizes that our world is corrupted, and that you and I are corrupted right along with it. It is God who reaches down to take care of the fundamental problems that plague a fallen Creation. In Christianity alone does God condescend: literally, coming down to your level to be with you and to take the weight on His shoulders, even taking that weight to the cross. The faith to which the Scriptures speak is centered in God’s faithfulness, in His action, His coming down to lift us up.
In this passage from Revelation, we see God bringing a new beginning. He frees Creation from the corruption of sin, to which it has been captive since humanity’s Fall in the Garden of Eden. When God comes down and brings the new, the old passes away. As it did at the beginning, His Word makes it happen. God is the beginning and end of all, as all comes from His giving. In that day when Jesus returns as the victorious King and renews the heavens and the earth, you and I and all of Creation that looks to him in faith and hope will have a new beginning, a new Eden – a new garden where we get to be with God.
God, the source of life, delivers real hope for us. As John heard, God will wipe away the tears that fall from our eyes in the wake of grief, hurt, pain, and death – because God will also wipe away the causes of those tears. John saw that “the sea was no more.” In the ancient Near East, the sea was the embodiment of chaos and disorder, where storms could suddenly break out with great waves, where dark depths were home to mysterious and deadly monsters. At the end, God will bring an end to chaos and disorder: “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” The world that we now know, the world so deeply enslaved to the corruption that pervades it, will be set free, and you and I along with it. That is the hope that we speak out in this Easter season, because it’s the hope that’s here for you today.
God isn’t just going to make everything else new. He makes you new in each new day as His kingdom comes, even now. The victory of that Last Day to which John bore witness is yours in part today through Jesus as the Spirit works faith in your heart and mind and soul. God has called you to be His people, part of His new creation through water and the word, part of His Creation freed from sin and Satan’s power. As Christians, we live in the now-and-not-yet that looks back to Easter and ahead to the day when the former things have passed away. Guard against complacency in your life and faith as someone who follows the living Christ, never taking God’s coming down to save you as an excuse for selfish or undisciplined living. The gift of His word is here for you, word that is trustworthy and true. Engage with it in your daily life and do not neglect it. Likewise, look up and see the Lord’s table, where God again condescends to be with you as His people in Holy Communion, to give you hope and strength for living in a world that waits for the freedom that He will deliver. If you hunger and thirst for life with God in this present reality that suffers under the corruption of sin, come and take the gift that He would give to you freely.
In this Easter season, we are celebrating the hope that God gives. We are looking ahead. We are looking up. As God’s people in the Church, we are not giving up in defeat; for even when we fall, we know that we have a God Who comes down. We join in the song of Psalm 148, praising the living Lord Who has established all things, Who sustains all things, and Who will make all things new. We have hope in the victory that waits ahead in the new Jerusalem, the new Creation, where there won’t need to be a sanctuary or a temple, because God and the Lamb are the temple and they will be there among us.
You can’t really take your snowboard out and practice on the slopes here in Virginia like you could in Colorado – at least, you shouldn’t. Even so, every one of us still has a kind of hill to face every day in life at work, in relationships, and in the life of faith that we live. In all of those, we fall down from time to time, no matter how hard we try. Today, though, we can look up with John to see what waits ahead for God’s people. Thanks be to our Lord, Father, Son, and Spirit, who comes down and gives us a new beginning, who comes down and gives us new life, who comes down gives us new hope.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!