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 as their God; 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. ~ Rev. 21:1-6
In Advent, we are reminded of what it is to live according to God’s time. I love God’s time, and I also fear it. According to God’s time, endings are also beginnings. The cone that fell lifeless to the forest floor reappears as a living and fragrant young pine. The triumph of Christ returning to judge and heal the world gives way to the flutter of angel wings outside a Nazorean girl’s bedroom window. God’s creation, called into being from the formless void, passes away, and behold: a new heaven and a new earth, all in God’s time. According to God, endings are beginnings.
In one sense, the Revelation to John is a book about endings. It reflects John’s attempt, as a pastor, to help his community to heal. The devastating loss of the Temple, the complete destruction of Jerusalem, the countless loved ones consumed by the relentless military might of Rome… all these losses and endings shocked Christian communities, broke Christian hearts. But each ending contained the seeds of a new beginning. Each moment of destruction was an opportunity for God to make a new creation.
We are intimately familiar with the landscape of endings and losses. Each person who settles in a pew or a chair on Sunday morning, no matter where your church, no matter what your statistics on attendance or growth… each one of us is an expert on change. We may have experienced the change that comes with dwindling attendance, as the community around the church changes, and people relocate, and the makeup of the congregation is altered. We may have experienced the change that occurs when a congregation begins to grow, or to attract a new demographic, and what was cozy and known becomes a little foreign, a little alien. We may have experienced change in familiar ways of worship along with changes in pastoral leadership. We may have experienced the loss of identity associated with a congregation finding a new vision for its communal life. None of these things is bad in and of itself… but each change reminds us of how elusive stability is, what an unlikely situation permanence is. Nothing is permanent. Every pastor is an interim. How do we find our bearings when it feels as if we are standing on the deck of a ship as it pitches and rolls?
We find our bearings, as did those early grieving Christians, in Jesus Christ. In our passage the voice of God thunders from the throne that is heaven: “The home of God is among mortals.” In Jesus Christ, in his advent, in his coming into our midst, God makes a home with us, a home that is utterly permanent. The Word became flesh and continues to dwell among us. God is not going anywhere that we are not. We cannot go anywhere that God is not, including, the Apostle’s creed reminds us, the very depths of hell.
In Jesus, God makes a home with us, a permanent dwelling. I’ve lived in my home for about 15 years. It’s a nice old house in My Town, built in 1905. I think it could use a paint job next spring. What I’d really like to do is remodel my kitchen. At the time I moved into the house I had lived in 10 different places over the course of about 15 years, and I had pretty much had it with moving. I am finished moving, I announced to anyone who would listen. I leave this house, when I leave it, feet first, in a box. That was my attitude. I was longing for permanence, and this home, I felt, was it, the place I would stay. When we call a place “home,” whether it is where we lay our bodies down to sleep at night or where we stand to sing songs of praise in the morning, it is our intention, most of the time, to make it our home forever, or at least the foreseeable future. That is what we mean when we call a place “home,” when we make it our dwelling.
In Jesus, God’s home is with us, God’s dwelling place. Those words, “home,” “dwelling,” they are meant to remind us that it is God intention to be with us, in our midst… because, remember, this promise is to a community, not to individuals. God will be with us, not just me. It turns out, though, if we peek behind the English translation and look at the original language, we find that that word that is translated “home” or “dwelling” sounds startlingly impermanent. The word, rather than evoking something like my house—something of wood or brick or concrete—actually means something more like a tent or a tabernacle, movable dwelling. The King James Version has it exactly right in this case: Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. God doesn’t come among us intending to take up residence in a Temple or even the most beautiful or functional church building, something nailed down to the ground that can only be moved by being destroyed. That’s not what God does. God pitches a tent with us and among us. The tent of God is among mortals. The Word became flesh and pitched a tent in our midst.
We love and worship and pray to a God whose commitment to us and love for us is so fervent, he is willing to rough it with us, just in case we do what we always seem to do: make changes, pull up stakes, make a move. Tomorrow we might decide that we don’t really need this church building any more, we’d be just fine nesting in with our neighbors. That’s fine. God will be there, with us. Tomorrow we might decide our church was meant to serve the homeless and so we want to convert our sanctuary into a dormitory and worship out in the tool shed. That’s fine. God’s tent is movable; God will be there. Tomorrow we might realize we need a huge and fabulous new structure to make room for the thousand people who flock to our worship services each weekend. That’s fine. God is tabernacled with us. God is Ruth to our Naomi: wherever we go, God will go.
In Advent, we are reminded what it is to live according to God’s time. According to God’s time, endings are also beginnings. The cone that fell lifeless to the forest floor reappears as a living and fragrant young pine. The triumph of Christ returning to judge and heal the world gives way to the flutter of angel wings outside a Nazorean girl’s bedroom window. The relentless march of the darkness yields to a burst of light as the Son of God returns, and look: a new heaven and a new earth. And through it all, God is with us. Immanuel. God is with us. Wiping away every tear. God is with us. And thanks be to God. Amen.