All things new

Good morning, Friends! Welcome again to this special time of worship.

Ministry and Counsel had this idea that we all might enjoy being outdoors for a change. You remember, we did this, back during the pandemic. We couldn’t worship indoors, so we met outside. And instead of being afraid, which everybody was back at that time, we all felt the peace of God during our worship. Being outdoors was so peaceful.

We felt a greater connection, between ourselves and nature, between ourselves and God’s world. We heard the sounds of our neighbors. Sometimes we stopped and prayed, as a fire truck or an ambulance went tearing by. When we sang, instead of keeping the music to ourselves, the sound of our singing went out to the whole neighborhood. It was a beautiful time, in spite of everything. And I hope we feel it again today.

For the last six months we’ve been celebrating our history. It’s been amazing, and we all learned a lot.

One of the things about worshiping outdoors like this, is we get a glimpse of what it might have felt like, when our meeting first got started. I mean, suppose we were starting a new Quaker meeting, this morning, today?

This seems like a nice spot. It’s up on a hill, so when it rains, we won’t get flooded out. Don’t build your church down by the creek, at the bottom of the hill. It’s quiet, away from the noise of the city. Maybe let’s start a new church, right here!

We might not put up the same buildings. We might choose to have everything all on one level, or put in an elevator. We might want to have a gym, or a playground. But it’s a nice place to build a church. I kind of like this spot! Do you?

Up on a hill like this, it’s like we’re a lighthouse to the whole area. We’re not hidden away. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could spread a little more light from our meeting? Wouldn’t it be nice if people looked here, and saw the light of Christ, shining from this hilltop?

What if, instead of an old building, people saw new hope, new faith, new love here? What if we aren’t really an old, old church, but a new one?

That’s what today’s Scripture reading asks. A lot of the Bible talks about the good old days, when God did a lot of things.

The Bible always says, “Look back to the promises God made to your ancestors. Look back to the time of Jesus. Look back to Paul and the adventures of the apostles.”

But today’s reading is different. It talks about the future. It’s a vision. Not about what God did in the past, but about what God’s about to do. Our reading today is from the end of the book of Revelation, the revealing of God’s vision for us all.

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, 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, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with you.

God will dwell with you, and you shall be God’s people, and God will be with you.

God will wipe away every tear from your eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And the one who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

This is just a short part of the amazing vision of the book of Revelation. It goes on, in wild detail. It talks about a new city, the city of God, coming down from heaven.

In the vision, the new city was so big, we can’t even imagine it. An angel measured the city, and it was fifteen hundred miles across. The walls were two hundred feet high.

The city was built on a foundation of gem stones, and the city itself was pure gold. Each of the twelve gates of the city was a giant pearl.

It goes on and on, and says that there was no church there. No temple. Because God was its temple, and the people were the church.

There was no sun and no moon, because the city didn’t need them. God’s glory was shining, day and night. The gates were always wide open, but nothing dirty or unclean was ever brought in.

And a river came pouring out of the city. The river flowed out into the whole world. There were beautiful trees along the river banks, that grow delicious fruit in every season. Even the leaves on the trees were special – the leaves of the trees were for the healing of all the nations.

That’s a beautiful picture. But what does it mean? Why should we care?

In spite of all our celebration this year, these are very tough times. We’ve lost so many dear friends. Many people suffer from inflation and loss of income.

The world keeps going crazy. It feels like a dangerous time. People seem more interested in division, than in coming together. Many people feel that our best days are in the past.

But it’s time to look ahead, not behind us. We need to look at what we want to do. We need to look to our future.

Part of my job as pastor is to remind us of what our faith is. I want to see us live lives of faith, rather than anxiety. I want us to be thankful, and not scared. God doesn’t wants us to live that way!

The words we read from Revelation today weren’t written during the best of times. They were written during times of persecution and hardship. They were written during times which make what we’re living through right now seem pretty good.

The writer of Revelation had a vision. “Look around you,” he said. “Look at the earth the way you know it. Look at everything you know of heaven. I see a new heaven and a new earth instead. Everything you know is going to be changed. Everything you see is going to be different. The earth itself will be renewed. Heaven itself will be brand-new.”

And coming down from heaven, the writer of Revelation saw “a new Jerusalem, as beautiful as a bride on her wedding day.” Not the kind of flawed human society that we’re used to. Not the broken streets and the overflowing prisons. Not the bickering politicians and the violence that makes you sick and scared every day.

The new Jerusalem is a vision of what human society could be like. “The dwelling place of God is among human beings. God will live with us, and we will be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more. The grief and crying and pain will all be over.”

The old version of everything, the writer says, will pass away. The earth we know, and the way we destroy it. Even the idea of heaven that we think we know will be replaced by a new heaven, a better heaven, a healthier heaven.

That’s quite an idea! What if the way we understand heaven is flawed? What if heaven isn’t about rewards and punishments? What if it’s not about eternal rest and relaxation? What if heaven means being more alive, not less alive? What if heaven gives us more and better work to do? What if it means a full flowering, a completion of our humanity?

And society itself will be transformed. The first version will pass away. God says. “Behold, I am making all things new!”

That’s not a small vision. That’s not a vision for small hearts or small minds. It’s a breath-taking vision. If we take it seriously, it’s a vision that knocks us over.

A skeptical reader, or a skeptical listener, would say to the writer of Revelation, “You know, for all these changes to take place, it would require a miracle!”

And the writer of Revelation would answer back, without missing a beat, “That’s right! It would take a miracle. It would take lots of miracles!”

The writer who saw these things in Revelation was not stupid. Vision is not the same thing as illusion. Illusion is about unreality. Vision is about a new reality.

And for the earth, heaven, and human society to be totally renewed, it will take a lot of miracles. There is no point in pretending otherwise.

The kind of miracles it will take will seem like creation out of chaos. They will seem like deliverance from slavery. They’ll seem like return from exile. They’ll seem like a rainbow over a broken world. Does any of that sound familiar? It should!

The miracles God does will seem like healing. They’ll seem like food for the hungry. They’ll seem like forgiveness and reconciliation. They’ll seem like casting out the spirits that bind us. They’ll seem like resurrection.

Why think small? If our world and our society and our vision of heaven are going to be transformed, it’s going to take every miracle in God’s entire tool kit. Don’t kid yourself – if you’re going to stick around to see what God wants to do, you’re going to see miracles. Mighty demonstrations of God’s power.

Some of those miracles take place in our hearts. Some of those miracles take place in our minds. Some of the things God wants to do require our cooperation. Jesus said, “You will do all the things that I do, and many more. . .” (John 14:12)

Instead of looking backward, at our past, we need to be looking forward, to our future. We’ve done some great things here. We’ve had some great saints among us, who have done amazing things.

But looking backward and only seeing the good things makes us discouraged in the present. We think we’ll never measure up to the golden years. We forget that the people who came before us had their problems, too. Maybe their problems were just as big as ours.

God wants us to do things even greater than the incredible achievements of the past. God wants our years to be the new golden years. God invites us to set the new standard in our own time, not measure ourselves by what other people achieved back n their day.

God sets before us this vision of a new earth, a new society, even – and this is such a daring spiritual and intellectual leap – a new vision of heaven itself. Don’t look backward. Look forward. Don’t think small. Think great! Don’t be afraid. Be faithful. Be filled with faith.

I had a conversation with a fellow pastor this week. He was really discouraged. He said, “The people in my church always say they want things to change. But every time I ask them what they want, they say, ‘Make things just like they used to be back in 1963.’ Or 1950. Or even earlier.”

God is holding up this great new vision to us. Is what we’re doing part of the old world? Are we trying to step backward into the old pattern?

Are we living in our past? Or are we living toward our future? Are we trying to live in our grandparents’ world, our parents’ world, or the world of our childhood? Or are we looking to our future? Are we living toward a vision of something new?

I’m not saying that everything old is bad. A lot of old ways are worth preserving. A lot of what we have saved from the past is worth saving.

But are we living in the past, or are living toward the future? Are we looking to the vision, or are we wallowing in our reminiscences?

Do we always choose the same, comfortable, safe seat in the back row, where we can sit back and observe? Or is it time for us to move up, to take the seats nearer the front? It is time for us to try learning to be leaders in our own time, instead of followers?

Ask yourself that question. “Is what we’re doing part of the old world, or the new?”

Ask it here in worship. Ask it in meeting for business. Ask it in your own life. Ask it in the life of our community. Are our “glory days” all done, or does God want to try something new, in our own time? Is what we’re doing, part of God’s mighty vision? Ask that question, again and again.

The next question I want us to get in the habit of asking is, “Is what we’re doing based on fear, or faith?”

So many of the decisions we make, are based on fear. Fear of what might happen, some time in the future. Fear of past failures. Fear about insufficient resources. Fear that God won’t provide. Fear of the unknown.

I remember a friend of mine, one of the great saints in the last meeting I served. Evelyn was a Quaker missionary, and she lived through challenges and experiences that would make your hair curl. She always laughed about them. Evelyn was a registered nurse, and she was utterly realistic about physical illness and about what people’s chances were. Yet she would always pray for miracles.

She was treasurer of the meeting for many years, and I remember sitting with her as we looked together at much worse deficits than what we’re wrestling with now. When everyone else on the Finance committee would be agonizing, Evelyn would smile softly, and then ask, “Where is your faith?”

One of her favorite Bible readings was from Psalm 37:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and you will be secure.

Take delight in the Lord, and the Lord will give you the desire of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in the Lord, and the Lord will act.
The Lord will vindicate you, shining like the light.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently;
Do not fret when all goes well for those who do sinful things.

The Lord knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever;

They are not put to shame in evil times, and they will have plenty in times of want.

Our steps are made firm by the Lord when the Lord delights in our ways;

Though we stumble, we shall not fall, for the Lord holds us by the hand.

I have been young, and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging for bread;

They are always giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.

That’s the kind of faith I’m talking about. Faith like a rock to stand on, instead of fear like a stone in our heart. Faith which knows that God will be here for us. Faith that trusts, even when everybody else is afraid.

“Is what we’re doing based on fear, or faith?” Ask that question, any time you’re thinking about holding back.

Do we speak up with our faith, or are we silent, because of your fear? Do we reach out in faith, or do we stay safe on the sidelines, back in the pack, because we’re afraid? Do we try, and fail, and try again, or do we never try at all?

Do we try new things, do we try living toward the vision, or are we afraid of what God is trying to do?

Live in faith, not in fear. That’s the challenge. And we need to challenge each other, again and again, as we look toward what God wants to do here in our world.

Remember that God wants to do something new. New heavens, new earth. New human society. God’s got great plans, not small ones. God’s not looking towards the past, but towards the future.

And it’s already happening. In today’s scripture, God says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” It’s already started. God’s New Year has already begun. God is already hard at work.

We need to look ahead. We need to live in the new world. We don’t need to be afraid. We need to work with God, who is already making all things new.

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