I’m sure you noticed that I had a sermon series going in Advent. I’m sure you picked up on the thread I used to tie together peace, joy and hope. Remember that we missed out on love because of the snow. It’s always a bad thing to miss out on love. But I would have said the same thing about love that I said about peace, joy and hope. Which was…
Which was that all of these, and love, are ultimately gifts from God. We can work for peace. And we should. We can open ourselves to joy. And we should. We can seek to become more loving people. And we should. We canfind hope even in dark times. But in the end, all of these come to us as God’s gifts to us, byproducts, we might say, of our faith in Jesus the Christ. All four remind us that Jesus is a gift from God. That’s what we celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Nothing in the Bible ever says, God’s people deserved a savior, so God sent Jesus. Nowhere in the Bible do we read that Jesus came when he did because that was when people were so faithful they were perfectly ready.
It is true that many people at that time were looking for a savior. But mostly they were hoping for someone who would lead an armed rebellion against the Romans, so that they could have their independence. To them, Jesus was nothing but a wandering teacher who caused trouble. According to some of the higher up folks he caused so much trouble he needed to be stopped. So they stopped him. Or so they thought.
But God has a different point of view. And a different plan. God’s plan was not for Jesus to overthrow the Romans, but to overthrow the burden of sin and guilt. God’s plan is for people to come to a new relationship, with God, with others, with all creation, through Jesus the Christ. God understands that who is in control on the human level matters only so much. God is concerned with our ultimate allegiance. God is more concerned about who rules in our hearts, minds, and spirits, than who sits in the seats of human power.
We come to this Sunday with all that in mind. We come with the experience of worship and devotion during Advent and on Christmas itself. We come, hopefully, with all the warm feelings of the season still with us. We come perhaps with some regret that Christmas comes but once a year. So what are we supposed to do today?
Today is an odd Sunday. On the church calendar we are squarely in the middle of the Christmas season, the twelve days between Christmas day and Epiphany, on January
6th. But it feels like Christmas is over, doesn’t it? It feels like Christmas was five days ago and now we’ve moved on, waiting for tomorrow when we can look forward to six college football bowl games. And it’s New Year’s Eve.
We are still using calm and bright, the special worship series we’ve had going through Advent and Christmas. And the suggested scripture reading is from the book of Revelation. Maybe it will give us a clue as to what we might consider the Sunday after Christmas.
At the very least it gives us a chance to do a little biblical house cleaning. What I mean is that in popular culture stories and passages from the Bible have sifted their way into what we think and what we say. The problem is, sometimes we either don’t know the origin or the context of what we’re citing, or it’s just wrong. For example, take the phrase, “She saw the handwriting on the wall,” meaning she saw what was coming. How many people do you think know that it’s a biblical reference? It comes from a story in the book of Daniel, where the king of Babylon sees mysterious writing on a wall. Or how about “God helps those who help themselves”? Know where to find that in the Bible? That’s a trick question. It’s not in the Bible.
So today’s passage from Revelation tells us something about the pearly gates and the golden street – there’s just one – in heaven. And what it says is, are you sitting down, they’re not in heaven. The description of the gates of pearl and all the jewels and the golden street is not a description of heaven. You don’t believe me, do you? Listen to Revelation 21, verse two, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Then skip to verse ten, “And in the spirit he [an angel] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” That’s when we get the pearly gates and street of gold and all the rest – in the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven. There’s no description of heaven in the book of Revelation.
See, that’s way you bothered to come to worship the Sunday after Christmas. So you can startle your friends and neighbors with the news that we don’t know whether or not heaven has pearly gates. It was worth putting aside the Christmas presents just for that, wasn’t it?
But I skipped some verses in Revelation 21, and they are part of today’s reading. And they are beautiful. Verses three and four say, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God himself will be with them; and 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.”
Now there’s a passage for the Sunday after Christmas. It is meant to remind us that Advent and Christmas are just the beginning. They are appropriately the beginning of the church year, reminding us that the new thing God is doing in Jesus begins in a very humble way, in a stable in Bethlehem. But today it’s not a bad thing to be reminded that it is just the beginning. The book of Revelation is about the end of things as we know them. And what it says is, just as God was in the beginning, just as God was there in the stable in Bethlehem, God will be around at the end.
And just as God had intentions for good in the beginning and in the arrival of the baby Jesus, God has good things for the end. In the end, eventually, some time, when the new Jerusalem arrives – get used to it – God will be there with us, to comfort us and love us just as God has always done.
So this Sunday says to us, it’s ok that Christmas day has passed. It’s ok if we enter the new secular calendar year not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s ok if we can’t watch all six games tomorrow. Because whatever happens, whatever goes our way or doesn’t go our way, God is going to be there. God is not giving up on us, individually or collectively. Even if/when the end comes, God will be there.
But that doesn’t mean we crawl into a corner and hide until God shows up. In fact it means the opposite. It means we have work to do. For starters, there are a lot of people who need to know that the pearly gates are in new Jerusalem, not heaven. Ok, maybe they don’t need to know that right off the bat. Maybe what they need to know is that God is with them, and they just may not be aware of it, and that through Jesus amazing relationships, with God, with other people, and with everything, are available to them. We call that sharing the good news.
And there are a lot of ways to share the good news. We can say to people, would you like to come to worship with me? Our usual preacher is not much, but the music’s always really good. We can keep the Christmas spirit of generosity and caring throughout the year. We can continue to be willing to receive God’s gifts of peace, love, joy and hope.
And we can keep in mind the work of Jesus. Howard Thurman, a theologian and civil rights leader, expresses it beautifully, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.” Amen.